I put Emily in timeout once when she was three years old. I don’t recall the preceding infraction, but I do remember feeling parentally exhausted over a day of challenging behavior - from both of us - culminating in one harrowing moment. We needed space. Timeout was popular back then, I don’t know if it still is. The punishment was not just for her, I took my own timeout as well. It hadn’t been part of our parenting M.O. to that point, but I figured I’d try it out and see if there was any benefit. For either of us.
Turned out, I loved it. Place me in a chair and insist that I cease all activity other than contemplating the highs and lows of my day? Um, yeah... can I get a standing appointment? As for Emily: No. She sat in the toddler sized wooden chair because that is what I asked her to do, but the entire time she watched me with a deep offense that made me pause and realize this was probably the first time our young toddler felt that specific emotion. The expression on her face read: Seriously? This is the best form of conflict resolution you can come up with? I thought you could do better than this. What a disappointment.
Released from her sentence, she moved cautiously for the rest of the evening. Not in fear, but in wisdom. A fully formed human in tune with what threatened her, what could be taken from her. Her trust compromised. Our seemingly benign foray into timeout-as-punishment taught me the kind of strength and persistence our girl possessed. Something stirred in her during those five minutes; awakened. Moving forward, every point of conflict has been resolved inside the absence of extinguishing her personal sovereignty. I still screw up plenty as a parent, but that remains the only time I silenced the most important person in my life. Lesson learned.
(Hopefully it goes without saying: I am only speaking of our experience, and how timeout was not for us.)
Like many of you, I come from a long line of nice women. Historically, the women in my bloodline are strong nurturers, peacekeepers, rule followers. Rufflers of feathers we are not. Stoic and capable, yes; bra-burning, patriarch-resisting, not so much. And as you know, the pain and trauma associated with such compliance can be debilitatingly silent for generations. Then I came along. I’m the last (mostly) nice girl, the halfway generation. The one who walks the line between sweet pleasantry and utter defiance; I am the crossroads. And yes, my parents were not quite sure what to do with me.
Recently, Emily had an encounter with someone who is at least one generation her senior. I mention the age difference because it would have been a detail that automatically equated with authoritative respect for the women before her. The details of the encounter are not important, but it included a relentless pursuit of Emily to fix something in this person’s life, something that was not Emily’s responsibility or even her business. It was passive aggressive, manipulative, and accusatory. A statement was made that grossly crossed a line, and Emily was prepared to call the person on it. She asked my thoughts. Would you like to hear my excellent parental advice?
“Well, you could call them on it, but their feelings will be deeply hurt.”
Can you believe that? What happened to sixteen year old me that disrupted a classroom, asking the teacher if I could speak to so-and-so in the hall, then once in the hall with so-and-so, informed them that it would be advisable to cease bullying the chubby freshman girl about her weight, her afro, her existence. Where was that person? I am the transitional generation. The sometimes defiant but mostly nice girl who, in this moment with my own daughter, failed to square her shoulders and offer strength down the bloodline. Thankfully, given enough time, nature is self-correcting.
“Mom, it’s not okay for them to talk to someone like that and they need to be told so.”
My daughter is beyond the transition. She is a woman I’d call an instrument for justice more than a poster child for nice. Thank God. She’s friendly and warm and fiercely loyal to her chosen few, but her compliance is for the deserving, not something to be dished out unconditionally as her own spine bends and breaks.
It is said that if a woman heals her bloodline trauma, she heals the women before her. I’ve been thinking about this idea lately, as I ponder whether or not we’ve finally broken the nice girl mold and its entrapments. Two decades ago I was not only growing a child, but I was growing the eggs of my potential grandchildren. As of late, I’ve felt disappointed that at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the physiological link to multiple generations. That I existed in my grandmother’s womb. That her life is literally etched into my own. For today, I guess I’m just feeling hopeful. I’m thinking about how right action trumps nice girl every time, and I’m glad to see a generation of young women roll up their proverbial doormat and kick it to the curb. They get it. Despite what we’ve been told, it is possible to be a kind, soft-hearted woman, yet convicted and headstrong. I see it everywhere. Strength and healing abound.