By Alisa J. Holleron
Parenting resources are everywhere. Bookstores have overflowing parenting sections, childrearing experts dispense opinions on many subjects and the Web is teeming with websites about children. Sometimes, however, the best learning about parenting comes from the most unlikely of people and places. One example is my coworker Barbara. Though not an expert or author, Barbara has been one of my best parenting teachers.
Since Barbara is not an expert, you might guess that she is a great mothering role model. Actually, that’s not it. I never see her in the mothering role. Does she give great mothering advice? I don’t know. I would never ask her for any. How then, can Barbara be a parenting teacher? How is it that I thank her daily for the lessons she has taught me about mothering my 13 and 18-year-old sons?
She taught me by being my Bengali tea boy. Bengali tea boy? The story goes like this. Centuries ago, a Buddhist teacher named Atisha left India to teach in Tibet . Atisha believed that the greatest personal growth came through dealing with difficult people. Having heard that the people in Tibet were exceptionally easy going, Atisha took his difficult and irritating Bengali tea boy with him to insure that he would have someone to stimulate his spiritual growth. As it turns out, bringing his tea boy proved unnecessary- there was no shortage of irritating people in Tibet . The Bengali tea boy, however, became the symbol for an irritating person who stimulates your personal growth.
My Bengali tea boy, Barbara, is a big woman whose tight pants and low-cut shirts stretch snugly across her 250 plus pound body. The top of her lacy bra always peeks out above the plunging neckline of her top. When she sits at the crowded office lunch table, she rests her considerable breasts on the table. She pulls her arms tightly against them, creating two basketball size freckled mounds divided by cleavage a foot long and five inches deep.
I love Barbara because she is refreshing. She says exactly what’s on her mind, not giving a hoot about what others think. She struts around, wiggling her large butt. I applaud the way she acts sexy in a culture where Twiggy size skinnies are the role models for sexy women. She is an inspiration to me.
On the other hand, I hate Barbara. She is rude, abrasive and insulting. She is loud and aggressive. She’s an oversized toddler, storming around the office, yelling and screaming to get what she wants. Her view of things is always right. Even though she self-righteously demands apologies if she feels she’s been wronged, she will never apologize. Barbara has close friends, bitter enemies, and nothing in between. When she turns on you, she shows no mercy.
She turned on me. Until the day that happened, we enjoyed a warm and friendly association. I never figured out what I did to upset her, but clearly I did something. She set out to discredit me and prove my incompetence to the rest of the office. She gathered information behind my back about mistakes I had made, or weaknesses in my work, determined to convince my boss that I couldn’t do my job.
I was hurt and devastated. Coming to work became almost unbearable. I was quite unprepared for battle and in the beginning of the “war with Barbara” I had no battle plan. I moaned and bitched to anyone who would listen. I complained to my sons, who began to greet me after work each day with: “What’s new with Barbara?” They offered suggestions about how to handle her, but most of them involved the use of more testosterone than I have. I talked incessantly about her to my friends. After a while, I detected an unmistakable glazing over of the eyes when I brought her name up. I could see that my sons and friends were getting bored with the stories, and frankly, I was getting bored with hearing myself tell them.
One day at lunch, Barbara made some negative comments about a project I had been working on. I was sensitive about this project, and she knew it. I reacted defensively, loudly justifying what I had done. When I finished with my tirade, she shook her head and gave me the patronizing smile a parent would give a foolish child who just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “My, my, angry, aren’t we?” she said with the calm of a saint. “Don’t you think you need to get a grip? ” I looked foolish and out of control to my co-workers. She dropped the line, I took the bait, and she reeled me in.
I was furious with myself for falling into her trap. I told my boys that I needed a plan. I paced around the house sputtering and complaining, feeling trapped, not knowing what to do, but knowing I needed to do something different.
That evening, I picked up a book by a Buddhist teacher. There was a chapter about dealing with people who challenge us. She suggests that you think of annoying people as teachers, because they give you the opportunity to learn about yourself. She also suggests refraining from “acting out your anger” and instead suggests just “sitting in your anger.” By learning not to react outwardly, you are forced to stew internally, and watching yourself stew can teach you about yourself. Finally, she recommends trying to find compassion for the person you are angry with.
If that author had been there I would have tackled her. Compassion! For Barbara! And how can you not react to Barbara when she is so INFURIATING! As far as regarding her as a teacher, I was quite certain I didn’t need or want such a teacher. I threw internal tantrums, telling myself that it was clear that this author never dealt with the likes of Barbara. After pouting and fussing and pacing some more, I finally collapsed on my bed like a defeated teenager who had no choice but to admit that maybe her parents had a point. “Alright, alright, I’ll try it!” I said out loud to the invisible author.
Before I went to work the next morning, I forced myself to sit quietly for ten minutes. During that time, I forced myself to repeat: “Thank you Barbara for being my teacher. Thank you Barbara for being my teacher.” It took great effort to utter those distasteful words. I then tried to think about how I could possibly have compassion for her. It didn’t take long to realize Barbara is not a happy person. I knew something about her personal life, and her troubles are many. I realized that she would not behave this way unless she was quite miserable. I added another part to my ritual. I said a prayer: “Please heal Barbara’s broken heart.” I felt my heart soften as I said this prayer.
I explained my new approach to my sons. They looked at me like I was an alien. I had to agree it sounded weird, but wasn’t worth a try? Sure, Mom, whatever.
At work that day, I felt hurt and angry when I walked through the door and Barbara would not say hello to me. I said hello to her through my grinding teeth. Steam came out of my ears when I heard her badmouth me to a co-worker within my earshot. I reminded myself to sit in my anger and not react. It was hard! To help me not react, I repeated: “Thank you Barbara for being my teacher” and “Please heal Barbara’s broken heart.”
I remembered the words of the book, and let myself sit in the anger. I sat at my desk, closed my eyes and really let myself feel the rage that was tearing through me. It was burning like a fire. I felt as though it would destroy me and I wanted to let it explode. I forced myself to sit with it. After what seemed like an eternity, the fire burned off, and my anger subsided. In its place was a feeling of acute anxiety. My stomach felt like it was full of butterflies. I was scared, plain and simple. What was I so scared of?
I realized that underneath all that anger was an ocean of insecurity. I was afraid that Barbara’s attempts to discredit me would work. I was afraid that maybe I really was as incompetent as she was making me out to be. I felt insecure about the mistakes I had made and the way some of my work had been shoddy. I was afraid that I would get fired, and that sent me into a whole cycle of financial worries.
Many times that week, Barbara attempted to get me to blow. The more I didn’t react, the harder she tried. I repeated my mantra hundreds and thousands of times. “Thank you Barbara for being my teacher. Please heal Barbara’s broken heart.” The more I “sat in my anger” the more I realized how downright scared I was.
Because I was seeing my fear, I began to look at the quality of my work. What kind of job was I doing? Was it good or was it bad? Instead of focusing on Barbara, I focused on fixing the mistakes I had made and creating routines so that I wouldn’t make those kinds of mistakes in the future. I became more conscientious and let myself see how there were ways that I had been goofing off. In looking at all this, I also realized that in spite of my mistakes and a little bit of laziness, overall I was doing a pretty respectable job. I vowed to do better, but also forgave myself for my mistakes.
The weeks wore on, and Barbara continued to bait me. I didn’t bite. After a while, when I said “Thank you Barbara for being my teacher” I meant it! I was feeling better about my work because she forced me to look at it. I was feeling less scared because I was doing the best I can. The less scared I became, the less I reacted to Barbara in anger. The less I reacted, the more I could feel the pain that she must be carrying. I kept praying that her broken heart be healed. It all felt like a miracle.
One day, I came home from work, and my thirteen year old was snotty. He has always been an unusually sweet child, and I was sure that the endearing adolescent behaviors that his brother displayed would never manifest in him. I told my son to turn off the video game. He rolled his eyes, and in a caustic, nails on a chalkboard tone said: “You can’t make me.”
I felt my anger rising up through me like a thermometer that had just been dipped in boiling water. I was ready to deliver the same raging speech about respect that I had delivered to my older son hundreds of times. Just as the first words were about to explode from my lips, a picture of Barbara appeared in my mind’s eye. I thought of how similar this anger felt to the anger I felt toward her. Is it possible that I could use the same approach?
Instead of letting the words fly, I used my mantra: “Thank you, Max, for being my teacher. Please, heal Max’s broken heart.” But wait a minute, this didn’t sit quite right. He was a well cared for suburban teenager trying to aggravate his mother, not a middle aged woman who had been beaten down by life. This was not going to work.
I let go of trying to feel compassion, and just kept thanking him for being my teacher. I repeated the mantra so that I wouldn’t blow. I walked into my bedroom, sat down on the edge of my bed, and let myself sit in the anger. I couldn’t connect to this kid’s heart, but I did slowly begin to feel the fear underneath the anger. And guess what? It was the same kind of fear I had felt with Barbara. It was the fear of being incompetent. I was scared that I had no clue about how to mother a teenage boy. I was scared that I would fail miserably. I was scared that he was out of control and so was I. I was scared that I would screw him up. I was scared that I had already screwed him up. I sunk into the fear, and my tears began to fall. Before I knew it, I was sobbing.
The crying calmed me down and opened my heart. I suddenly remembered what it was like to be a teenager. I remembered wanting to be an adult, but also being terrified about being one. I remembered the confusing emotions and edginess. I remembered how out of control I sometimes felt. It amazed me that I was feeling for my son.
A strong urge to hug my son came over me, but thank goodness, my rational mind took over. I thought about what to do. I knew that the “respect” tirade was useless. Now that I was connected to his heart, I thought about what he was feeling, and how I could help. I realized that he was feeling edgy and out of control. He needed someone to set limits, without making him feel any edgier. I realized that by yelling and losing control myself, I was only exacerbating his feelings. If I threw a tantrum, we were both off and running into the land of chaos and craziness. I pondered the best way to handle it.
Walking into the living room, I told him calmly and unemotionally that he needed to turn off the video game. He asked what would happen if he didn’t. I told him there would be a consequence that I was sure he wouldn’t like. He said he needed to know the consequence before he could decide whether to turn off the video game. I told him I didn’t know, and that he would have to decide if he was willing to take the chance. I walked out of the room and into the kitchen.
A few minutes later, the sound of cars racing around a track stopped. He came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. He didn’t say a word about the video game incident and neither did I. We chatted a little as he ate his snack, and within minutes it was clear to me that the crisis had be averted.
I remembered back on the hundreds of painful blow-ups that I had with my older son. The screaming and standoffs went on for hours. Like scared children in thick-walled forts, we yelled our self-righteous points of view out of our little windows, but wouldn’t let a word the other was saying in. I insisted that he recognize that he was not respecting me, without realizing how much he was swirling in his own fear and confusion. I was so scared that I was doing it wrong, that I needed him to show respect so that I would know I was doing it right.
I felt sad that I didn’t know then what I was now learning. I thought about Barbara, and realized that she, too, must be swirling in her own whirlpool of confusion and fear. As hard as it was to admit, I could see that I was not unlike Barbara. It saddened me to think about the ways we lash out and battle with others, when the real war is within ourselves. I said my healing prayer not just for Barbara, but also for my sons and for myself.
When Max went into his bedroom to do his homework, I pressed my hands together, and said loudly and passionately to the ceiling and the universe beyond: “THANK YOU BARBARA FOR BEING MY TEACHER!” He peeked out of his room at me, rolled his eyes at the insanity, and went back to work.