(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.