first person

Becoming a Woman Who Yells at Her Children

Photo: Plan Shoot / Imazins/Getty Images/ImaZinS RF

Years ago, when my husband and I lived in another house, we had neighbors with school-aged children. We did not have children, although we were crab-walking our way to the idea. There was a period of time when we would hear, as though she were in the bedroom with us, the children’s mother yelling. We knew this woman as well as you know any friendly neighbor. To hear her berate her defenseless kids at high volume for dawdling or leaving a mess was incredibly discomfiting. The children were, as far as we could tell, happy and loved, but we lay in bed and conferred in hushed whispers about what to “do.” I cringe to remember now that we considered leaving a card, something friendly that also telegraphed to this mother, somehow, that everyone could hear her yelling.

Fortunately, we never found the words to put on the card, and the yelling stopped as quickly as it started. I would often speculate to myself about what it was that brought it on — something at work? What was once euphemistically called the change of life? Today, some similarly clueless neighbor, some concerned citizen, might walk outside my own dwelling and hear my voice raised nastily at someone who is still very small. They might wonder what has brought on this change in my life.

Lauren Groff has a story that starts, “I have somehow become a woman who yells.” This line has been quoted in almost every review of her latest book, and it’s taken on a talismanic aspect for me. I think it’s a perfect line. An element of surprise lives so compactly in the “somehow.” The line feels forgiving, because it is just a little bit goofy-sounding. “Yell” is a funny word; “scream” would be different. I know, just from reading it, that the woman has children.

I avoided reading the story itself because the line speaks to me so clearly alone. I, too, have somehow become a woman who yells. There is perhaps no transition in my life that has shocked me more. The woman I have become needs to read absolution in that line of Groff’s, so I don’t read the lines that follow. As is, the line tells me something about myself that I can live with.

When our neighbor was the woman who yelled, the intimacy of the yelling was what shocked me. Now I know, as a woman who yells, the real intimacy is between the person who yells and the person who is yelled at. The words I scrabble around for to describe it are the wrong words entirely. It’s the opposite of a bonding experience. The opposite of unity. But the violence of yelling is a shared experience just as I imagine physical violence is — a perverse, hideous intimacy.

The first time I really yelled was when my elder daughter was 2 and windmilling inexorably toward 3. The parenting blogs advise that “yelling is the new spanking.” I don’t spank my child — I was tempted to write “of course,” but there’s really nothing of course about it. Many people do spank their children and while I don’t, as a yeller I feel more or less disqualified from passing judgment on those who do. I have heard, and felt, the violence that forces the yell from your throat.

I do not yell often. Or rather, the yelling happens in clusters, like earthquakes, so that one yell portends another yell. I am ashamed when I yell. I am ashamed when I hear my 3-year-old at play with her baby sister cry “Oh my god we’re so late,” in just exactly my panicked voice. I would like to somehow become a woman who does not yell, but the “somehow” is all wrong there. I know it will take work to become that woman. I Google “I yelled at my 3-year-old,” take comfort from other women who yell, and harvest factoids (“every negative interaction is canceled out by five positive interactions,” the blogs assure me). When I do yell, I apologize to her, and I try to explain why I yelled.

I do all this, and I also repeat Groff’s line to myself again and again. I’m a writer, and I know that works of fiction are not instruction manuals. You have only to meet a few literary types to understand that an interest in literature has no automatic correlation with virtue. When I look at what literature has given me, it’s not a guide for life so much as it is a sensibility, and in many cases, not a good one. Literature is full of loners and assholes whose skill allows them, to paraphrase Frank O’Hara, to make the catastrophe of their personalities seem beautiful. (Novels are full of women who yell, but they are often written by men.) What does fiction give us? It is not strong moral character. It is demonstrably not parenting tips — or even a vision of parenting, of mothering, captured on the page. But still I look for something there.

Now I am reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, and he says of his 4-year-old Vanja, “she is already practiced in the ways of the world and can be so cheeky that I completely lose my head and sometimes shout at her or shake her until she starts crying.” In one moment he shakes her and she just laughs: “I had a sudden inspiration,” he writes, “and placed my hand on her chest. Her heart was pounding. Oh, my, how it was pounding.” I see my eldest daughter when I read this. How she laughs when she refuses to put on her shoes. How she flails when I lie down next to her and try to get her to nap. How she looks at me almost helplessly, as though she just cannot get the little engine of her body to stop running.

To write this I sat down and finally read Lauren Groff’s story, which is called “Ghosts and Empties.” I was right; the narrator who yells does have children. And she writes of watching the people in her neighborhood: “I see the mothers I know in glimpses, bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes or the people they once were slumped in the corners.”

I’m relieved the story still makes sense to me. Becoming a mother made me strange to myself. Becoming a woman who yells made me stranger to myself.

This summer my husband and I took our two very young children to Greece to visit their grandfather, who lives there. The 3-year-old didn’t take enough naps and was just absolutely maddening every time she missed one. It wasn’t her fault. It was easier to remember this when we were in a different country, when she had no routine at all, and not at home trying to get her to put on her shoes while the minute hand ticks with deadly calm toward the latest possible minute we can leave for preschool.

One of our last afternoons there, trying to get her to nap, I felt like the old man and the sea, or Captain Ahab, or Odysseus — someone with an immense, futile, bloody project but about which no epic would be written. With all the excitement of the trip she couldn’t make her body be still on the tiny hotel bed unless I lay with her. She wanted songs; I sang them. Eventually I lost it. “You go to sleep this minute,” I yelled at her sotto voce, a horrible strangled cry. Yelling at someone does not help them go to sleep. But then she did sleep. Or maybe she didn’t. I actually don’t remember what happened. What I do remember is that I decided to take her outside, where it was now a perfect Athenian twilight, a little bit gray and purple, and finally cool after a very hot day downtown. My daughter held my hand and talked to me about this and that, and the tension left my body.

We walked until we saw a crowd looking down into a sunken courtyard, an 11th-century church in the center of the historic Plaka neighborhood. We found our place among the gawkers looking down into the courtyard. It was a wedding; the bride and the groom were standing, beautiful and slightly sweaty, in front of the priest, whose drone filled the courtyard over a loudspeaker. It looked like a fashionable wedding — the women had expensive lines in their clothes and bodies. Everyone who passed craned their necks to see the coppery curls of the bride, the husband a nattily attired shadow next to her.

My daughter was fascinated, but she couldn’t see. I picked her up and held her against me. I pointed at the bride and groom, and she pointed at a little girl dressed in white tulle. Latecomers, invited guests, took smoke breaks and selfies before the stately neoclassical homes encircling the church. My big baby, my silvery fish, was finally still, mesmerized by the intonations of the priest and the ceremony and the spectacle, the mingled curiosity and reverence of every passerby. I held her to me and smelled her hair, her warm skin. She put her head against me.

The urge to yell had never been further. We were together. We had always been together. We will always be together. For all the failings of fiction, I feel I have fiction to thank, somehow, for that particular moment — for the disparate currents I perceived within it, for the way I absorbed and retained it as something precious, for the feeling it conjured up. What was the feeling? It was fleeting as childhood, but it was grace.

Lydia Kiesling is the author of The Golden State, out now from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux’s MCD imprint.

Becoming a Woman Who Yells at Her Children