There’s a picture of my sister in our family album that has inspired a family idiom: the purple kitty face. In the photo, my sis is standing in our driveway on a summer day wearing light blue undies and holding a tiny black kitten, scooped from a litter of mates produced by our ginger cat, Selena. In her sweet and quirky four-year-old way, she had convinced herself (and probably me) that the kitty was not black, but purple.
If you look closely at my sister’s expression, you’ll notice that her lips are pursed tightly in a sort of painfully loving grimace. Her teeth are clenched, as are her two little hands that are quickly crushing purple kitty’s spindly rib cage.
If a thought bubble could appear magically above my sister’s head it would say, “You’re so cuuuuuuttteee! I love you to deeeeeaaaaath!” Fortunately, no animals were injured in the filming of that scene. At least not that we knew of, anyway. I imagine that Mom swooped toward her daughter after snapping the pic, rescued the kitten from imminent death and returned her to the cardboard box from whence she came.
There’s a psycho-medical term for this exact situation I’m sure, but nothing quite pins the tail on the donkey like purple kitty. (Though that Looney Tunes scene with Daffy Duck and the Abominable Snow Man comes close, “I will hug him and squeeze him and call him George.”)
The purple kitty is sort of like that feeling of being insanely cold. When you’re so cold that shaking is involuntary. Only when you notice that your teeth are chattering so much your jaw hurts and your thighs are sore from tightening them against the weather do you become aware of the tension and mindfully release it… only to squeeze up again with the next frigid gust. (I’m a lifelong New Englander, I know about these things.)
My children make the purple kitty face all the time. We just got a puppy and she is often the recipient of squeezey loving. But I know it’s not just a behavior reserved for my family. All kids do this. I remember one day my old boss came into work and told us that her beloved family pet, a hamster, was laid to rest in a shoe box that morning – a victim of her daughter’s loving embrace. It happens. And not just with animals.
I remember doing this with my neighbor as a kid. He was such an adorable baby. I remember hugging him a little to tight, sucking my breath in through clenched teeth, body shaking from the effort of physical love, releasing only when the little toe headed cutiepie squeaked rather than exhaled. Honestly, sometimes I notice myself doing it still. What can I say? Babies are cute.
As a parent of small children, I’ve noticed that my purple kitty face, once associated with over-loving, has become one of Holy-Shit-I-Can’t-Take-It-Anymore-You-Are-Driving-Me-Crazy-And-I-Need-You-To-Stop-Screaming-At-Each-Other-Before-My-Eyeballs-Eject-From-My-Skull. I think the more common term for this is frustration, but frustration is not a rich enough word for the exasperation, disheartened-ness, desperateness, and anger that I can feel when my kids are totally obnoxious.
So I admit it. I’ve been known to occasionally squeeze my kids. And not because they’re cute. Thanks to a committed mindfulness practice, I can typically defend them from my clenching grip, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve never sent my kids off to school praying that their teachers wouldn’t roll up their sleeves and find red stripes around their biceps from where I grabbed and squeezed, imagining that my vice grip would somehow convince them to stop screaming, listen to my words, or clean up their blasted Pokemon cards.
It’s summer vacation now, and all this quality time with our unscheduled babies, as delightful as it is, provides us with endless opportunities to feel emotionally overwhelmed by their antics. So there are a couple of things I’ve done that have helped me to stop the squeezing and relax my purple kitty face, and I wanted to share them with you all.
I have three small children ages 4 through 8, and I mother each of them differently, but these five things work consistently for me with all three.
- Meditate. Your reaction to your babies is not about them, it’s about you. When you’re composed, no amount of nagging, screeching or spoiled-rotten-American-kid complaining will offend you.
- A meditation practice takes time to develop, so in the meantime try this: The second you reach for that little arm, breathe into your squeezy hand and let the irritation melt like butter on plain pasta with no red sauce. Think these words: “This will be over soon, and we will be happy again.”
- Another great mindfulness trick is the 10-10-10 rule. Ask yourself, “How will I feel about this in 10 minutes? In 10 days? In 10 years?” Probably not so great. So loosen up the tourniquet and know that this too shall pass.
- Make sure they’ve eaten. Hungry kids are CRAZY. We all know this, but somehow we all forget. Feed them. I always have a bag of apples and a slicer wheel nearby. It’s the perfect emergency food. But even with that, I still forget, too.
- Whisper or speak very softly when you’re explaining or disciplining. They’ll be like, “What? What, Mommy? What?” and they’ll stop screaming long enough to listen. Most of the time, they start modeling my volume and instantly the stress level dissipates – mine and theirs.
- If whispering doesn’t work, try crying. Channel your inner soap opera diva. Most likely, fake tears will not be hard to conjure, but feel free to give yourself over to real ones. There’s nothing wrong with letting your kids see you cry. They should know the effect their behavior has on others. And when you’re teetering on the edge of an emotional volcano, a sobbing mommy meltdown can be a great side effect – they stop flipping out and turn their compassionate focus on you. “I’m so sorry, Mommy. I’m so sorry,” complete with hugs and kisses and sympathy. Then they can stop being lunatics long enough for you to regain composure and control.
- When all else fails, put them in water. My neighbor, an experienced mother of several, taught me this and I am ever-grateful. Draw a bath, toss in a few face cloths and buckets, turn on some Mozart and leave the room – bathroom door open, of course.