When Mothers Bully Back

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Modern Love

Many years ago, I threw a playground ball at the head of a boy who was repeatedly dunking my young son underwater. Before I threw the ball, I shouted at him to stop, but he continued. I was at the other end of the pool, maybe a six-second swim away, but my 5-year-old son was gasping and pleading, and the fastest way to make my point was to throw the ball.

I played college baseball. I have a pretty good arm.

I nailed the older boy in the back of the head and he cried out, spun around furiously to face me. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t expecting to see a middle-aged woman in an unflattering swimming suit, but there I was.

Despite the awkward silence on the pool deck, where family members of both boys sat forward in their lounge chairs, I felt no shame or regret. I felt triumphant. I felt empowered. If I’d had another ball within arm’s reach, I might well have thrown it too, for emphasis.

A year or so later, my son was the victim of teasing at school. It was garden-variety name-calling, nothing extraordinary, just your generic first-grade flirtation with cruelty. But when the teacher informed me of it I went internally ballistic.

My son was a bit gloomy though clearly not traumatized. When I asked him about it, he waved me off, seeming more troubled by my concern than by the incident itself. But of course I was instantly and thoroughly unhinged; a switch flipped and suddenly I was that crazy woman in the pool again. But where was my trusty playground ball? And how was I supposed to protect my son when I was absent from the scene of the crime?

The consensus among family and friends was that I was overreacting. Had I really not anticipated that my child might be picked on every so often? That dunking and name-calling were part of the package? That kids might occasionally be, you know, jerks?

Of course I had anticipated this. What I had not anticipated, what I had in fact been utterly unable to anticipate, was how those things would make me feel.

This was not the first time that the intense emotions of motherhood had taken me by surprise. For the first several years of my son’s life I had been regularly astonished by moments of unbridled joy, moments so unlike anything I had known that each time I experienced one — his hand curling closed around my index finger, his light-up sneakers flashing at the end of the dark driveway, his bat finally connecting with the ball on the wobbly tee — I felt I was starting life over, stepping out of one life and into another as a brand new person.

Now, in the wake of the bullying, I was feeling like a brand-new person again. Unfortunately, that brand-new person was a lunatic.

To be clear: I didn’t want to physically harm my son’s bullies. I just wanted to crush their spirits. I wanted them to feel tiny and powerless and stupid. I wanted them to cry sniveling tears in front of a crowd of jeering, joyful classmates.

Walking my dog late at night, my conniving obscured by the neighborhood shadows, I concocted and dismissed dozens of outlandish plans, each with the approximate sophistication of a fifth-grade Halloween prank. The main problem was that I simply couldn’t figure out the logistics of my vigilantism. If only I could be in a position to publicly humiliate the bullies — if only I had the kind of job that would make that possible.

If I were a barber, I could give them terrible haircuts, setting them up as prime targets for other bullies. If I were a waitress I could shake chili powder over their hamburgers, causing gagging and drooling, possibly even vomiting.

Alas, I was a college professor. Short of mocking the clichéd nature of their bullying — “Four eyes? Seriously? Is that the best you got, punk?” — my prospects for retribution were slim.

I also understood, even in my addled state, that to intervene might cause my son added humiliation. If I openly retaliated, I could be feeding the bullies a buffet of delicious, irresistible material. The target on my son’s back would be seen from space: “Baby. Needs his mom to fight his battles.” The thought enraged me even further. Not only was my maternal protection undesired, it was also now a legitimate liability.

Going down this rabbit hole, and acknowledging the intense satisfaction I got from these little revenge fantasies against 7-year-olds, got me thinking about the parameters of acceptable maternal behavior. Surely I was not the first mother to have had these thoughts, but I couldn’t recall many instances of people discussing this kind of rage openly — not actual mothers, and not fictional mothers, either.

It struck me that as enlightened as we are about some of the gray areas of human nature, other gray areas seem inherently off limits. We are uncomfortable with mothers who are not easily definable, with good mothers who sometimes think bad thoughts and even do bad things.

In the movies, if a mother is going to be bad, then we want her to be really bad — Texas Cheerleader Mom bad, Joan Crawford wire-hanger bad. Otherwise, we prefer fictional mothers to be gently flawed and efficiently redeemable. We want their mistakes to be caused by misunderstandings, their shortcomings the result of a lack of confidence, like bringing store-bought cookies to the potluck and trying to pass them off as home baked.

In fiction, wackiness is valued above all in the flawed mother, because pain caused by the wacky mother is not real pain; it’s amusing, sitcom pain, and as such does not last beyond the episode and leaves no scars on its victims.

I think that essentially the same is true in real life. We are uncomfortable with mothers thinking horrible things, even under horrible circumstances. We don’t want them to be cruel unless the cruelty is directed at someone who clearly deserves it. We are unnerved by maternal ugliness and malice and selfishness that can’t be entirely justified or — even worse — satisfyingly resolved.

We don’t want mothers to throw balls at children’s heads, but we especially don’t want mothers to want to throw a second ball, for punishment, after the threat has passed. My maternal instinct to protect my child in that swimming pool is forgivable; my maternal instinct for vengeance is not. At all.

Except, this: My children — my son and his younger sister — love the story of me in the pool. They want to hear it again and again, relishing even the smallest details.

What sound did the ball make when it hit the boy’s head? (Thwuck.)

How far did it ricochet? (Ten, maybe 12 feet.)

Did the boy ever try to dunk anyone again? (Not on my watch.)

They laugh. They slap me high fives. They say, “You’re crazy!” But they say it like a compliment, like wildly overreacting is a good thing. So maybe it’s just a hypothetical mother that we prefer to see exhibiting sound judgment and proper behavior?

Maybe it’s the idea of the good mother we hold in high regard; but in actuality, in the unflattering swimsuit of our own realities, we — at least as children — are happy to have a mother who loves us so much she will behave like a lunatic on our behalf.

My personal lust for revenge against those first-grade bullies didn’t last long, at least not at that fever pitch. Life and parenthood quickly got more complicated, because that’s what life and parenthood do. As is the case with all of our children, the threats my son faced as a tween and teenage boy were nearly impossible to attribute to any particular individuals, and name-calling became the least of my worries.

Even dunking, now 10 years past, seems almost quaint; the things that dunk our kids now are impervious to balls, no matter how true our aim. In retrospect, it was lovely to have those obvious villains, those specific names to curse, those clear bull’s-eyes. The dangers now are ones that lurk in the shadows: shape-shifters, moving targets. I have no satisfying fantasies of defeating them.

My son is now friends with his old tormentors. At 15, they call each other all sorts of terrible things; they are all bullies and they are all bullied. In no time, they will be men. In a year, they’ll be driving cars.

For now, though, they still need me. I drive them to the movies. I pick them up from school in the rain. We get mochas at the Starbucks drive-through. They’re pretty good kids, all of them, and the fact that I once wanted to make them cry makes me feel a little guilty.

But not that guilty.