I was standing at the sink the other day, washing up after dinner. I overheard Leslie tell Edric to go downstairs and put something in the garage. I watched Edric speedwalk across the floor, his back turned to me, and run head-on, chin-first, into the wall.
He staggered backward a step, shook his head as though shaking the injury off, looked back at me and grinned, and then shut his eyes tight and proceeded onward, full-speed, toward the garage.
I stood dumbfounded for a moment, and then burst out laughing. This is, apparently, one of Edric’s favorite games – to see how far he can go with his eyes shut before he falls or bumps into something. He’s the kind of kid for whom any attempt at reasoning, explaining, manipulating, or handing out negative consequences simply won’t change his behavior. If I tell him not to do something, he’ll say “Okay, Daddy,” and then find a way to do it double-speed as soon as I’m not looking. If I try reverse-psychology, he’s onto me in a flash and simply follows my suggestion, even though I intended the opposite behavior from him. He’s a sharp little guy.
I guess I’d better come right out and say it, but two more children will be added to our family making a grand-total of five. And by “grand-total” I mean Grand-Total. Even if Korea didn’t have a law stating that we cannot adopt once the total number of children in our home reaches that number, I don’t think Leslie and I have the sanity to handle another adoption process. The process itself wears me out almost as much as trying to nurture a toddler through six weeks of international jet-lag.
When Edric came home, I resisted blogging about him. In fact, I resisted talking about him as much as I could. There were a few people who I felt I could trust, but then even after sharing my difficulties with them, I felt like I had betrayed myself, or Edric, or some universal social code (the one that says “do not complain about your children no matter how evil they are,” I think). After all, I had told everyone that we were doing this great thing. I had read half a dozen books on infant adoption, and then when Edric became a toddler and still wasn’t home because the Korean adoption system was under construction, I read two or three books on toddler adoption. I thought I knew what to expect.
But then he came home, and it seemed there was nothing cute about him. He refused to sleep, walk, eat food, attempt to talk (either in Korean or English), and mostly put everything into his mouth like an infant. I worried for a time that he had some sort of irreparable developmental delay.
My problem was that I began to see Edric as the problem instead of me. I got angry with him. I got angry at the universe. I had a lot of bad moments that I regret as a parent. My worst moment came one morning when Leslie had left the house with Edric and Caedmon for the morning. I felt angry and confused. This whole adoption thing; all this work; all the time and expenses; all the people supporting us and telling us we were good parents and doing a good thing; all that and I knew, deep down, that I was a failure as a parent to Edric, and so I made the mistake of blaming Edric, or his foster mom, or… someone else but me, because by then I had already had enough with lack of sleep and overwhelming responsibility.
I was holding a glass jar that I intended to fill with water for our three hens. It had snowed recently, so there was a fresh layer on the grass but most of it had melted from the back patio.
I wasn’t aware of my action until after I had done it. All I could feel inside was intense anger. I watched, stunned into bewilderment, as thousands of tiny shards of glass fanned out over the snow of my backyard. They twinkled in the sunlight as they flew through the air, landing on the lawn area where my kids and I liked to play barefoot in the warmer weather.
I had thrown a glass jar down onto the patio. That factual image finally settled in my mind, and my anger quickly changed to a feeling of intense guilt and stupidity. Leighton’s face appeared in the window where he was working on his homework. I wondered whether he had seen me throw the jar or not. Either way, I told him the truth about what happened, that I was sorry for my anger and my actions, that I let my anger get out of control, and consequently I had lost control of my ability to think before acting. I got the rake, and a pair of good shoes, and began trying a mostly futile attempt to scrape the now camouflaged broken glass shards off the top of the snow. They looked like tiny ice crystals in the sun.
Seven months later, I pulled a two-inch piece of broken glass out of the grass near the patio. I’m pretty sure that was the last piece of the jar.
That was a pivoting moment in my life where I recognized that I had a serious anger problem, and I began to work out what area of my life it came from. I needed more than behavior modification. Counting to ten and breathing really didn’t help much in the moment. First, I knew I needed to figure out exactly what part of my life my anger was stemming from. I know enough (probably now outdated) psychology on anger to know that it often arises from hurt, fear, or frustration, and I knew I was daily experiencing all three in my parenting with Edric.
What it came down to was that I had this vision for my life, and I thought that if I could just control my little world as a parent, which meant controlling my children as well, then I could have everything arranged just the way I wanted it. Meanwhile, I think God was showing me a completely different way that he wanted me to think about being a parent. That way didn’t involve me in control of anything. That way, in fact, asked that I give up my plans and my vision for my life. It asked me to recognize in Edric the same need for love and redemption that I have in my life.
About that time, Edric started to make dramatic improvements in his communication skills. This helped him to get what he needed faster and more efficiently, so his behavior began to reign itself in to a much more sociable pattern. He began to respond to our routines as a place of safety for himself, and as he felt safer, his behavior grew much less erratic.
I studied anger. I searched through the Bible for any and all references to it. I read commentaries and listened to dozens of sermon podcasts. I found secular-psychology books on parenting and anger. I did everything I could to stomp out those flames, fearful that if I kept allowing anger to control me, I might do something more unintentional and dangerous than breaking a glass jar in my backyard.
One thing that really helped was, of all things, mindfulness meditation. I didn’t really get into the Buddhist implications of this, derived from Thich Nhat Hanh’s famous book The Miracle of Mindfulness. I did read his book, and I appreciated his solidarity toward Christianity and its contribution to the practice of meditation. I read somewhere else that being able to put words to your feelings, as mindfulness mediation emphasizes, will help us calm down faster. Whenever I felt worked-up about something, I would take a few minutes out of my day, slow my breathing down, and in my mind I would ask myself this question:
Clint, how are you feeling?
That’s right, I began talking to myself. I supposed going nuts was better than having an anger problem as a parent, and the kind of nuts that ends me up in a park feeding birds and muttering to myself didn’t seem like such a bad end either.
I’m feeling grumpy, I would say back.
Thanks for telling me how you feel, I would respond. What are you grumpy about?
I forgot to bring my coffee with me while dropping the kids off for preschool, and I. Want. My. Coffee, I replied.
First-world problems, eh, Clint?
Don’t be snarky, jerk-face, I also have a headache. And it’s not just that, I also had a rough time getting out the door with the kids this morning. The kids were grumpy, and they put me in a grumpy mood, too.
Feeling any better now that you put words to it?
Yeah, I think so. I sighed deeply here.
Maybe now you can have a conversation with our kids and help them put words to their emotions, too?
Yeah, good idea.
Silly conversations like this, in my head, would often be enough to calm me down and help me gain a new perspective on the situation. I would also, at other times, memorize various Psalms (my favorite is 121, though 23 comes in as a close second), and then recite them in my head while slowing my breathing down.
Then I began to notice that much of my life outside the home was spent in a state of anxiety. Even going to familiar and relatively un-stressful places like the grocery store. After practicing these meditations (or flights of fancy, or daydreams, or prayers, or whatever you want to call them), I became aware of when my breathing would speed up during otherwise normal parts of my day. If someone spoke to me, or tried to strike up a conversation, or even if they asked me a simple question, my breathing would suddenly jump. I would be anxious about responding, and usually I wouldn’t fully think through what I was saying. Sometimes this led to embarrassing responses, or, worse, just plain wrong ones. Now, I’ve been trying to practice slowing my breathing down, sometimes even sighing audibly (but politely) whenever someone asks me a question, so that I can take several seconds to answer.
I know this sounds weird, but my ultimate goal is to get to the point where I spend enough time fully thinking through their question and my answer that I can offer an accurate and honest response, even if there is a very awkward minute or two of silence in-between. I figure someone who needs an honest and sincere answer will forgive me the awkwardness if the answer is, in fact, honest and sincere.
Other than that, I can only say it is by God’s grace that I am overcoming a lot of my anger problem. I prayed and still pray a lot. I can still get grumpy (in fact, I behaved rather rudely to my wife this morning because of a grumpy attitude), but I seem to be able to recognize when I’m in these moods faster, so I’m better able to keep my actions and words in check and/or apologize for any offense toward my wife, my kids, or others I may cause.
That was a very long way from where I intended to go here, but I just want to say that parenting Edric was a huge challenge, but one which I had to go through in order to deal with my anger issues. Now that I’m free of anger’s control over my life, I can clearly look back on my memories and see where I spent just about the whole of my private life in late high school right up until the aforementioned events in this essay feeling angry at just about everything that got in the way of how I thought my life should go. I’m sure I left a thick wake of collateral social damage behind me. At least on a couple of occasions, I know I did. But that’s exactly what sin does: It ruins your life.
The central issue I had to deal with was letting go of my control over my life. I was walking around deliberately closing my eyes and running into walls the way Edric sometimes does for fun. I didn’t want to have to see or deal with anyone else who might be in the way of my plans.
There’s no telling what our next two kids are going to expose of my sins. All I can say is that after having recognized the grace God has given to me in helping me out of my anger cycles, my control issues, and my sins even while I was angrily trying to control my life, I think I’ve calmed down around Edric. I actually like the kid (I love him, too, but in some instances in life it’s more difficult to like someone than to love them). I’m better able to understand when he breaks the rules, or has trouble figuring out that it’s not a good idea to walk around with your eyes closed all the time, or acts just plain ornery (as my dad used to say of my misbehavior as a kid), and that has given me a greater store of patience and understanding. In a way, I guess you could say that Edric has been a kind of redeemer in my life, too.
I think (hope, pray) that it will now be easier to extend that same grace toward all five of my kids from here on out. Now, at least, I won’t give up trying.