On Being "Nice"

Two summers ago, I met a man who interested me. He was the first man who had interested me since I had left Caleb. We flirted all summer, but I had no idea what was going on–whether anything was going to happen between us or not. Finally, towards the end of the summer, we were laying in the grass while a dry lightning storm flashed in the sky above us. He had wanted to “watch the storm.” 

I thought to myself, “Are we watching this storm as friends? What is happening here?” Finally, he reached over and drew me close. He kissed me. It was very romantic. I said, “Did you order that storm just for me?”

He pulled back and looked into my eyes for a long time. He put his hand on the side of my face. His eyes were smiling. I felt a little sick; I had seen that look before. 

“What?” I asked.

“You are so sweet,” he said.

I looked back at him for a long time, then said, “I am not sweet.” 

Tell me I’m kind. Tell me I’m smart. Tell me I’m funny. Tell me I’m sexy. Tell me anything, but don’t dare tell me I’m sweet.

—-

There was a similar night with Caleb. We were making out on the couch in my apartment. I adored Caleb, and I am an earnest cuddler. There is little I appreciate more than being held. I climbed into his lap. He teased me, said I was like a kitten. (Or maybe it was another boyfriend who said I was like a kitten. Maybe that metaphor has been drawn more than once.) I laid my head on Caleb’s chest. He pulled back and looked away from me. When he looked back at me, he had that same look in his eyes that the man in the grass would have later. It was already a look I had seen before from other men. He sunk his head on to my shoulder. He said, “Kelly, you are so sweet.” 

Then he said, “All of my other girlfriends were bitches.”

But all I heard was, “Kelly, you are so sweet.” All I heard was that I was different from those other girls. All I heard was that I was special.

I now know that “All of my other girlfriends were….” kinds of statements are “grab your purse and run” kinds of statements, but I did not know that yet then.

—-

I have been chatting lately with a woman who Caleb dated before me. They weren’t serious, but I had heard about her from him. She was, of course, one of those “bitches.” I had known her outside of his relationship with her, but we hadn’t been friends. Still, I took what he said about her with a grain of salt. I could tell that he felt rejected by her. 

Now, when I chat with her, I think that, not only have I joined the club of “bitches,” but I have eclipsed all other “bitches” in Caleb’s life. I, of course, am the “craziest bitch” of all. I am the one whose eyes he looked into and said, “You are a fucking cunt.”

I am the one who let his voice become my own. I am the one who told myself, “I am a fucking cunt.”

Talking to Caleb’s ex helps. She told me that she had a moment with Caleb where she realized he wanted to marry someone virginal and pure. She told me that, when she read my story, she thought back to her own relationship with him and realized that, although he didn’t abuse her, he was exactly that kind of guy

She is not the first of his exes to tell me this. 

I appreciate the validation, but there is something more in my exchanges with this woman. Our stories are similar in other ways. Smart girls who grew up in Idaho. Smart women in a writing landscape dominated by men. Smart women who have been hurt by smart men. Smart women who want something different for our futures.

I am grateful for my new connection with her, and that gratitude is outside of our connection to Caleb. She makes me feel understood. She knows what it’s like to be a smart woman in a world that doesn’t see smart women.

She also told me that there was a moment early in my relationship with Caleb where she realized he had put me into that role of the “virginal and pure” woman. I responded that I thought she was right, that I could even identify when it happened. It was when I told him I was no longer going to have sex with him if we weren’t in a committed relationship.

It was magic. All of a sudden he wanted to marry me.

I wish he had walked out the door instead, but I got what I wanted at the time. I was the “nice” girl, and I was being rewarded for that by getting the “committed” guy.

If that’s the reward for being “nice,” then I don’t want to be “nice.” 

I’d have rather been his whore.

—-
In the same summer that I kissed the man in the grass, I worked with an older man. To say this man is sexist is an understatement. My boss, who knew me well, was convinced this sexist old man and I were going to butt heads, but my boss underestimated how “nice” I could be.

This sexist, old man and me (the younger, feminist) got along great. Superbly, in fact. We had no fly zone topics, and everything else was fine. He gave me lots of sexist advice, but he was sincere. He cared about my well-being. And if I’m being perfectly honest, then I’m just going to admit that I grew up in Salmon, Idaho. If I couldn’t get along with sexist old men, then I would be living a very solitary life when I go back to visit. 

I can carry my own with the sexist old men of the world. 

They think I’m the “cute” feminist. They tease me about it. Maybe they think this because I’m “nice.” Maybe they think this because I shave my armpits. Maybe they think this because I’m mostly heterosexual. Maybe they think this because I’m white and middle-class. For whatever reason, they can deal with my feminism. It’s probably because I can suck up a lot in my efforts to be pleasant. I’m making my feminism palatable to them, and in the process, I’m failing as a feminist.

One night, I was upset about something, and this man got upset with me in a way that was so kind and genuine that I couldn’t help but be touched. “Thank you for being nice to me,” I said (this man is not known for being nice).

He grew embarrassed by the compliment. His cheeks flushed. He said, “Kelly, you’re easy to be nice to.”

I guess I should be. I have spent a lifetime trying to be easy to be nice to.

—-
Sometimes it’s worth it to try to be easy to be nice to, and sometimes it’s not. More and more, it’s not worth it. The stronger that I get, the more educated that I get, the more successful that I get, the more independent that I get, the more me that I get, the less interested I am in being “nice.”

This past summer, I did something “nice” for someone who took advantage of me, and it wasn’t a big deal, but I was frustrated with myself for being stupid. I complained via message to the guy who had kissed me in the grass–who I was still ambiguously involved with a year later. He messaged me back, “Typical nice girl move.”

And it was. It was a “typical nice girl move.” But what can I say? I’m doing the best that I can. I’m learning. It takes a long time to change lessons learned over a lifetime.

Also, during this past summer, I realized that the guy from the grass was going to be launching at the boat put-in I worked at on the same day as the man who had broken my heart before I met Caleb. I hadn’t seen that man since we had broken up. Unlike Caleb, that man hadn’t been abusive. He just hadn’t loved me. I had thought that I loved him though, so I was devastated by the break-up. And, then, to top things off, that man turned around and married the woman I had lived with while I was dating him (she had actually been his roommate, and then mine). It was all very confusing for me.

So, here I was, confronted with having to see that ex-boyfriend and my ex-roommate and their two children, while the man I was ambiguously involved with at the time was there to witness it all. I thought, “What karmic hell is this?”

But it wasn’t. 

Instead, it was incredibly validating. Before I saw my ex-boyfriend and ex-roommate, I met their little girl, and I gave her a Smoky the Bear water bottle, and she ran down the boat ramp shouting, “That lady is so nice!”

And I gave the ex-boyfriend a hug. I mean, is that what you do? But that’s what I did. And it was awkward, but we both managed. Then, the ex-roommate hugged me, and she was sincere. And they seemed so happy, and their children were beautiful. And they had a great life, but it was not a life I wanted for myself. 

We talked more as the morning went on. The guy I was ambiguously involved with shot me some side-eye when my ex-boyfriend bragged (as he is wont to do), and I shot ambiguously-involved-with-guy, the “Don’t judge me. We all have our histories,” look. 

And when my ex-boyfriend signed his rafting permit, I said, “It was really nice to see you,” and I meant it. By then, he was relaxed, and he said, “You know, it really was.” I know him well enough to know when he is being sincere, and he was being sincere. We even hugged a non-awkward hug. Before they pushed off on their river trip, my ex-roommate came running back up, and she gave me a huge hug, and I thought, “Gosh, I think I could be friends with these two.”

I then kissed ambiguously-involved-with-guy goodbye when he left, and I knew that things were going to end with him soon, that it was already clear a relationship wouldn’t work between us, but I also knew that he was never going to tell anyone I had been a “bitch,” that we respected and liked each other.

I also knew that my ex-boyfriend who had married my ex-roommate had probably never told anyone I had been a “bitch” because although he hadn’t loved me, he, too, had liked and respected me.

I knew that, in truth, not a one of my exes had probably called me a “bitch” before Caleb.

Because I may not be “sweet,” but I am also not a “bitch.”

And the truth is also that the word “bitch” is sexist bullshit. In fact, Caleb probably doesn’t call me a “bitch” because we were married for long enough for him to hear me say how little I think of that word, and he is very smart, so unfortunately, I likely taught him how to act “nicer” to all of his future “bitches.”

But his brand of “nice” is no longer my problem. I only need to deal with my own brand of “nice.”

This is what I have to offer the world: I’m tired of being “nice” in the eyes of others. Still, I promise to spend every day trying to be authentically kind.  
Photo Credit: Jamie Clifford

For All of the Boys With Angry Fathers

(Or maybe only for my son because each angry father is angry in his own unique way.)


Anger is like a virus. Anger is passed down through family lines. Anger is inherited. But anger is not the problem. 

It is what we choose to do with our anger that is the problem.

My son and I are riding in the car on a dark Sunday night. I have just picked him up in a 7-11 parking lot from his father. I am asking him about his weekend.

My son says to me, “I can’t tell if dad has too much temper, or if you just take things more lightly than most people.”

My son says to me, “Dad’s girlfriend is calm. She doesn’t have a short temper. She is a lot like you, mom.”

My son says to me, “Dad yells at me almost every weekend now. The only times he doesn’t yell at me are when other people are around.”

My son says to me, “I don’t think dad’s girlfriend thinks his yelling is okay, but she is afraid to say anything, or he will yell at her too.”

My son says to me, “I think I bring it on myself.”

My son says to me, “I am like my dad. I have a short temper.”


My son says to me, “I know that dad can’t change, but do you think I can change?”

My son blames himself. He is in a shame spiral. He believes that he deserves his father’s rage, yet he does not want to turn into his father. 

My son loves his father desperately.

I know all of these feelings too well.

My son is not the cause of his father’s rage. His father’s rage is no more my son’s fault than his father’s abuse of me was my fault. 

My son spends every other weekend with his father. He is with me the rest of the time, and he is not a “short-tempered” boy. He is a typical nine-year-old. He is very easy to be around–kind-hearted, compassionate, empathetic–and sometimes angry, but that’s okay. When he is angry, we talk about his anger. He may be quick to anger, but he is also quick to calm down when he realizes that he is being heard. 

He thinks that I take things “lightly,” but that is not the case. Like his father, I am quick-tempered. but like my son, I calm down quickly. Unlike my son’s father, I do not struggle with rage.

And my temper rarely manifests against my son because he is a child. I am a grown-up, and my son is a child. My job is not to scare him. My job is to hear him, and to see him, and to love him.

Everyone wants to be heard.

Everyone wants to be seen.

Everyone wants to be loved.

Even angry fathers want to be seen. The difference is that they demand to be seen. They don’t ask for for it.

My son’s grandmother once told me how sweet my ex-husband was as a boy. He would wake up in the morning, she said, and cuddle in her lap for a long time before moving into his day. I remember hearing this story and thinking, What happened to that boy to make him into the man he is today? 

I also remember thinking that, even as an adult, my ex-husband loved to cuddle with me. That so much of that little boy was still present in him. That, when we weren’t fighting, his head was in my lap, arms around my waist. That, when we weren’t fighting, he was never far from me. That, when we weren’t fighting, I thought, “I love you so much that I could crawl into your skin.” That, when we weren’t fighting, I thought, “Never be further than this from me.”

But when we were fighting, I thought, “Please, god, just leave me alone.” 

No one should ever have to be afraid of someone they love.

My son’s father is an angry man who wages war inside of himself with that vulnerable boy who wanted to be wrapped in someone’s arms. My son’s father has let the angry man win the war.

My son does not have to lose that war. My son does not have to become an angry man.

My son asks me, “Where do you think my dad’s temper came from?”

And I don’t know how to answer this question. I have spent so much time trying to identify a singular instance that would have caused his rage. I spent many years of marriage thinking that I was the cause. I have since posited that the cause was his parents (neither of whom are abusive from what I can tell). I have posited that the cause was his culture. I have posited that the cause was his career frustration.

The truth is that we, my son and I, can never know where the anger comes from. It is so tempting to want to pinpoint a cause because maybe then, we could fix it, but there are too many causes. My son’s father’s rage is a rhizome, It grows continuously outward. It sprouts new shoots and roots at intervals. It is impossible to identify the first root.

I am not the root, and my son is not the root.

For the years that I was married to my son’s father, my own anger threatened to consume me whole. Since leaving him, my close friends and family members have reminded me of the person I was before I met him. They have reminded me that I am someone worthy of love, that I am someone who can raise my child in a calm home, that I am someone undeserving of what happened to me.

My son doesn’t have a life before his father. He will never get those reminders. 

So, I give him these reminders instead. I tell him, “You are worthy of love. You can live in a calm home. I know this because you live in one with me. You are undeserving of what is happening to you.”

I say to him, “Do you want me to talk to your father about the yelling?”

And my son says, “No, because then he would just yell at you. I think the only thing I can do is learn to take it.” 

I don’t know what to say then because there is truth to what he says, so I simply say, “I’m sorry, honey.”

He sniffles in the dark backseat.

And when we get home, I hug him in the hallway, and I say, “I want you to know that your father’s anger is not your fault, and you do not deserve it.”  And his little boy’s body eases into my chest, and he lets me hold him for a long time.

And the entire time that I am holding him, I am thinking, Just collapse yourself into my love, and don’t think of anything else. Just think of this: Think of how worthy you are. Think of how loved you are. 

Think of how you are not your father. 
Think of how your father is not your destiny.