My husband made the mistake of telling me to calm down last week. After an hour of my asking the girls to help clean up, the younger one was lying on her back on the floor, and the older one sitting casually on the sofa. Breakfast was on the table and the rug, their beds were unmade, clothes were hanging out of drawers; they had to leave in two minutes. I let them know I was not pleased seeing everyone sitting around. I said something like that.
But I said it louder and with different words. Angrier words. When my husband, desperate to get the kids out of the apartment on time, said, “Calm down,” I lost it. (I’m not making a case for more screaming or rage. You know how I feel about that.) I heard “Calm down,” and it’s not okay to expect people be responsible for their mess, their stuff, their responsibilities in a family. Calm down because you’re asking too much. Calm down because you should think about everyone else’s feelings first. Calm down if you want people to listen to you.
All those are true, some of the time; asking for what we want is complicated. Sometimes asking runs into demanding; and demanding is desperate. When we are desperate, as parents or people, the line between reason and rage is hard to see.
“Talk to them,” my husband said. His experience of the world is that talking works. Talking gets a response. Talking validates. My experience is that although I may talk for an hour, no one does anything until I get angry. By no one here, I mean my three kids. That’s not always true, but it feels, some days, it’s more true than not.
Don’t do what I do because it’s right or healthy or that it works well. I am not sharing because I have a great idea. I’m sharing how frustrating “calm down” can be. I’m sharing because that line moves; it has been difficult to know in the moment on which side I stand.
Being heard is a struggle. We are told to be nice, first. But nice and calm doesn’t always get results. Women aren’t supposed to get riled up in public, or at work, or with their children, or in front of their children.
When we are out of line, it doesn’t go unnoticed. In my own experience, anger can be unreasonable and an overreaction. Sometimes, anger appears unreasonable in the moment because it is the anger of a ten thousand moments of staying calm.
Here is the trickiest part. What phrase do I repeat most often in my home? “Calm down.” Calm down, the neighbors don’t appreciate the noise. Calm down, we’ll find your book. Calm down, you don’t need to cry over this. Calm down because you’re too loud, too anxious, too emotional.
I thought about this and my own reaction.
“Don’t let anyone tell you to calm down when you’re trying to get what you want,” I said to my girls standing in the doorway, about to leave for school. “‘Calm down’ is not valid when you are upset over something you need and no one is listening.”
I was angry on top of angry for being told to calm down in front of my daughters; so I doled out wisdom to them while passively-aggressively jabbing my husband. Again, don’t do as I do.
My husband apologized. Of course he did; he meant nothing by it.
So why did I feel diminished?
Many of us question our thoughts, our purpose, ourselves daily. I go through the day trying to do the right thing. And when I trip up, when I snap at a customer service rep on the phone, when I am late to pick up my kids, when I say no more than yes, I don’t let it go. I am in a race to make up for mistakes past, present, and future. Calm down is proof I’m not doing it right.
Calm down begins an argument you can’t win. Calm down invites defensiveness that requires a more emphatic, more insistent This is not an overreaction. It is maddening.
I wonder if my kids experience Calm down the way I do. Although I suspect they don’t actually listen to me, I am guessing they absorb the implied criticism of Calm down.
It’s no wonder they they cry harder, they fight with more intensity and stamp their feet when I say it. They are pleading: Just listen to me, and in the absence of alternatives, the only way to make a point is to say it louder. I know that frustration. It is human nature to push back, to be acknowledged. It is human to need encouragement more than criticism.
I will not eliminate this phrase from my parenting tools. I will overreact when I’m tired and worried and feel defeated. When I am on the verge, and when the kids are climbing the walls or hysterical about missing leggings or a broken Iron Man arm, I will try perspective checks. I’ll remind them their words are important, but don’t always need to be shouted. I’ll ask myself on which side of the line I need to be to be heard. And when my children have something important to say, I hope they’ll know to scream in the face of Calm down.