The other day, with Abigail and Luke snuggled up against me in bed, I read aloud to them from The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight. I’ve saved a lot of books from when I was a child (yes, the entire Sweet Valley High collection—who didn’t want to be Jessica Wakefield with her straight, long blond hair?), and aside from Curious George Goes to the Hospital (where that silly monkey eats a puzzle piece and needs an operation), The Berenstain Bears were my favorite. I’d study each illustration so intently that my mother couldn’t turn the page until I’d taken in every last detail. In particular, I loved to inspect the Bears’ tree house, especially when it was lit up from the inside like a pumpkin.
I read to them from my own childhood book, it’s pages creased, marked thinner with time. Mama Bear explained the concept of fighting to her cubs. “We get angry, even call each other names and say things we don’t mean—and after a while it’s over.”
Like I do with most books I read to them, I asked the beans what they’d learned and if they had any questions. “Sometimes,” Lucas said, “we get mad at each other, and we feel frustrated and angry, and—”
“Yes,” Abigail interrupted, “but it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, right Lucas?”
“But you both know that it’s okay to feel angry, right? We all get angry and feel frustrated sometimes, but that’s never a reason to push or scream or hit.”
“Right, ’cause that’s bad manners,” Lucas said.
“Yes, but Mama? Sometimes we yell at Kini ’cause he doesn’t listen, even when I yell real loud and say, ‘Kiniiiii, come heeeere! Time to get your meatball!”
After explaining the difference between yelling to beckon someone and yelling in anger, it was time to eat. Phil had just returned with dinner. The taters climbed into their chairs, and as always, we took turns around the table, each sharing our favorite part of the day. When it was Luke’s turn, he said his favorite part of the day was, “Snuggling in bed with Mama as she read stories.”
Phil asked Lucas and Abigail to tell him about one. Once they ran through their explanations about fights and anger and love, Phil took a moment, then turned to each of us in an uncharacteristically solemn way.
“I want to tell you that I’m sorry if I yell at you, or if I yell at Mama. I shouldn’t do that. It’s wrong. And I’m going to try super hard to stop yelling because none of you deserve that. And I’m really sorry.” It was unprompted and just about the biggest thing I’ve ever seen him do.
“That’s okay, Papa. I accept your apology, and no more yelling because it’s not nice.”
“That’s right, it’s not. And if I do yell, please tell me. Because I don’t want to yell. Especially not to you or Mama.” He looked at me with tears in his eyes as I wiped away my own.
That is the man I married, a man I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s not as if I’ve heard it all before. In fact, I can’t remember a single time when he’s admitted any real wrongdoing. This was, without a doubt, new territory. Still, I couldn’t help but think, actions speak louder than words, and it’s not just about yelling. Though these particular words were certainly a start.
“I’m going to try very very hard at this, Stephanie.” Huge. Totally huge for him. And as much as he’d deny it, I think it’s in no small part due to what he’s read from readers of this blog. So, thank you, each and every one of you, skeptics and optimists alike.
When things feel less immediate and raw and start to feel lighter, when all of this isn’t top of mind, that’s when it will matter most. I have my fingers crossed hoping this promise doesn’t wear thin with time. I also know the only way to truly keep at it is to commit to it fully. Promises sometimes aren’t enough. Intention isn’t enough. Because it’s never that easy.
An odd analogy perhaps, but It’s why, no matter the week I’ve had, come Friday (or Saturday), I get on the damn scale. Not my home scale but in front of an actual winged-hair person. Accountability. That’s why I’ve been able to shed 24.6 pounds in no time at all. Because I’m forced to face it even when I think I’ve got it all under control. That’s exactly how I feel about couples’ therapy. Eventually, you become a “Lifetime Member,” where you no longer need to attend weekly sessions. You show up for a refresher now and again, just to be sure you’re staying on track. We need the “I just ate a box of truffles in my car” kick-start version: Weight Watchers for our fat relationship challenges.
I know, too damn well, how impossible change can feel. It’s really hard to un-do what you’ve been doing for thirty years. Awareness might be baby steps, but at least the steps are moving in the right direction, and Phil is not alone. I too have, oh, a neat dozen or so things I can improve about my own behavior. In the meanwhile, we’re on the hunt, not just for a home, but for an exceptional (and my requirement: strong) therapist… in Boca.