Nov. 9 2011 01:01 PM

Child abuse is inexcusable, but understandable—and inexcusable!

Aaryn Belfer
Parenting is hard. Sure, it’s rewarding and enriching, and the tikes look super-cute in their Halloween costumes. But that’s cold comfort in the face of backtalk and selective hearing. Like playing chess underwater, or spreading cold Brie on a rice cracker, or watching a marathon of Sister Wives without your mouth agape, parenting can be impossible.

Which is probably why, according to a recent investigative report by the BBC, an American child dies every five hours from abuse or neglect. With an estimated 2,500 children killed in 2009 at the hands of their caretakers, the U.S. has the worst child-abuse record among industrialized nations. These facts are disturbing and inexcusable.

That said, I can sort of understand why folks snap. There’s a finite amount of are-we-there-yets that a reasonable adult can handle. One can only ask a kid to brush her teeth (or wash her hands, or feed the dog, or please, please, please, for God’s sake, go brush your teeth) so many times each morning, as if it’s the very first morning in the history of mornings. One can only take so much Groundhog Day.

Most of us have enough sense to put ourselves on a time-out when things get fiery, but those who don’t are statistically significant. Four psychotic parents, from California to Ohio, have cooked their babies in microwaves in recent years, when all they really had to do was go for a long walk. Or stick their heads in an oven.

Parenting is hard.

I know this isn’t revelatory information. When my father-in-law hears me complain, he makes a Yeah, whatever face and pantomimes a jack-off motion, a gesture more difficult to endure than the lowest parenting moments. If I mention the level of difficulty to my childless friends, their eyes glaze over with a combination of pity for my conundrum and relief that it’s not their conundrum.

The upside is that this widely known cliché can make comrades of strangers at the always-dreadful kiddie birthday party, when adults are forced to awkwardly commiserate.

No matter how many other parents I talk to about the challenges of raising a human, there’s a desperate isolation in certain situations despite their universality.

Last Friday, at the end of a particularly frustrating, argumentative and tear-filled week that included push back against (obscene amounts of ) homework—as well as any syllable I dared to utter—I opted not to flip out on my kid and instead asked her earnestly if she thought I was a good mom.

Yeah. I did that. Smart enough not to hit, dumb enough to keep talking.

Everyone knows children don’t edit. If it’s brutal truth and literal assessment you seek, ask a 6-year old. Otherwise, shut it. And with regard to my specific inquiry, I recommend basking in the false image you have of yourself.

I was certain my daughter could appreciate my many dedicated hours to making her life amazing, much the same way we all appreciated our mothers when we were young, right? After all, I’d broken school rules by putting the frosted cookie I denied her the night before in her lunchbox that day. I’d made her sandwich into the shape of a ghost, complete with raisin eyes, and helped her dress all 17 of her Barbies. I’d crossed out the stupid story problem in her math homework and left a note for the teacher as to why.

Every single day of my life, I have this kid’s back. So, it wasn’t outlandish to think she’d give me the same thumbs up she often gives Dad. Instead, I got a solid Meh, you’re OK sideways thumb.

She might as well have given me two thumbs down for all the resentment it unleashed in me. I sort of wanted to shove her. Of course, it wasn’t this moment alone that made me feel out of control but, rather, a compilation of moments like it. It was rock bottom for me.

A few years back at a different rock bottom, I came as close as I’ve ever come to wanting to smack my kid across the face. I didn’t smack her because I had the tools to stop myself (common sense, a smart partner, a literal exit strategy), but that terrifying impulse was right there on the electrified surface.

This was during the two-year period that Ruby did not sleep. (Incidentally, three years later, my child still does not sleep through the night.) This was the Honda Hybrid Sleep-Over season that I’ve chronicled in this column, a time when Sam and I had taken to cowering in the garage while our daughter wailed desperately for no discernible reason.

I admit: I do rely on hyperbole now and again. But two years with no more than 45 minutes of uninterrupted sleep at any time was my reality. The thought of it alone is enough to make me more bitter than Caffe Calabria espresso. Wanna torture suspected terrorists? Force them to endure the sounds of a child crying. Or debate with a 6-year-old why she must use the potty before leaving the house. Then again, these tactics could turn an innocent person into a violent killer.

Toddler-induced rock bottoms are bad, but grade-schooler-induced rock bottoms are worse (don’t ask me to think about the treacherous teenage rock bottoms). The challenges, now that my kid can vocalize, are more intellectual and as maddening as ever. Knowing when to walk away is a crucial. Parenting is hard. Not everyone should do it.

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