What is it, Exactly, About the F Word?

It is my pleasure today to offer you a guest post by Wolf Pascoe of Just Add Father.

I’ve only known Wolf, a father, physician, and writer, for a few months, but he swiftly earned himself a spot in my Google Reader with his insightful, beautifully written posts on the problems and prospects of parenting.  While Wolf first drew me in with his exquisite essays about raising his son, Nick, I was delighted to find that he and I also share a fondness for Cormac McCarthy, Yeats, and meaningful stories, all of which he writes about with resonant wisdom and wit.

I am very grateful to Wolf for sharing one of his pieces with us today.

What is it, exactly, about the F word?

by Wolf Pascoe

Courtesy of Warner Home Video

Who wants to hear about the lucky, or the rich?
The rest must step up. They have to say
I’m going blind, or
I’m about to go blind, or
nothing’s working right, or
the child is sick, or
here and there I’m patched together,
more or less.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, from “The Voices”

Lately, a lot lately, I’ve been feeling like that voice in the Rilke poem. God bless Rilke. Have you read the “Archaic Torso of Apollo?” You should. It’s an upwardly mobile poem, and right for a land of upwardly mobile metaphor. But thank God Rilke gets down, too.

My son Nick got down the other day and dropped the F bomb. As in, “F— you, dada.”

I left the room. “I’m sorry, Nick, I can’t do business with you now,” I said.

Because what I really wanted to do was punch a hole in that fat mouth of his.

What is it about the F word?

Nick led a sheltered life until he hit the primary yard at his school, where the first through sixth grades all mix. You can’t last long there without learning a new language. Language is power. Who wouldn’t want to bring it home and test it out?

It isn’t great what he’s doing with it now. He’s sensitive and gets overwhelmed and has nowhere to go with it, nowhere to go with the big feelings. And the F bomb is a release from that, it’s become a drug, a defense from feelings.

If you can’t get sad, get angry.

Maybe this isn’t true for your kid, but it’s true for Nick. And I’m glad, actually, that he’s doing this at age nine, when there’s still time to work with it, the overwhelm. Whereas when he’s fifteen and gets overwhelmed maybe he learns to smoke a joint to chill, and who listens to dad and mom at that point anyway?

So I set limits. I tell him my feelings are hurt and I need to take care of myself now and I can’t be around him, but maybe I can get back to doing whatever we were doing later.

And I wonder, how do you teach a nine-year-old to reduce stress?

YOURSELF, AS YOU ARE

“What’s your side of it?” a friend said, when I told her the story.

“My side?”

“It sounds like you lose your sense of self when Nick swears at you.”

I sit with this. I roll the phrase lose your sense of self around with my tongue. It tastes pretty good, like moldy cheese. I swallow it. Down it goes, hollowing out a core as thick as a tennis ball. The hollow gives me the same feeling as the first, awful drop of a roller coaster. It burns a hole in my stomach.

I decide my friend is right. I’m full of holes. This is where Rilke comes in: I’m sort of patched together. Them holes. All them holes.

The thing is, it never goes away completely, this feeling low, this feeling there’s nobody in your corner. Because there are built-in holes in the structure of personality. Because nobody got enough valuing. Nobody got enough blessing. That’s what we’re talking–blessing. Blessing yourself as you are.

God, I wish it didn’t sound like I had something to sell.

And here comes Nick, my son, my flesh, not my actual flesh, but as close to actual as I’m going to get. Nick, whom I watch sleeping, his heart and breath, up rising and down falling, the systole and diastole of the universe. That Nick. Fires off a round and tears me a new hole. Rends the garment where it’s patched together.

And instead of getting sad, I get angry.

I make a list of things to do. Things underneath anger and that have nothing to do with Nick. Things like meditate and breathe and be in nature and sit in solitude and feel the sadness and cry and talk it over with someone and write it all down.

And pray. I always forget that.

Because God should really be interested in people being who they are.

Please feel free to leave a comment for Wolf here.  Tell us about how your kids tear holes in your fabric and how you put yourself back together again.

And please – please! You won’t be sorry – head over to Just Add Father to be treated to more of his writing.

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38 responses to “What is it, Exactly, About the F Word?

  1. well it appears I need to add another blog to my reader. Thank you Kriten for introducing me to Wolf, and thank you Wolf for this beautiful insight. As for my own holes, there are many. I’m more of a sieve. What used to make me crazy was when my son used to bite me. I cried every time. That sadness under the anger …

  2. Beautifully written, and true. We see ourselves reflected in our children. When they act in ways that we disapprove we have a tendency to take it incredibly personally, for we made them, we taught them. I have a challenging relationship with my older girl. She is smart, funny, but also headstrong and overly competitive. Sometimes she can be so hurtful and offensive. I have also learned to just walk away from her (or send her away) when things reach a point when I am angry at her and myself. No sensible discourse can happen at that point.

  3. Pingback: What is it, exactly, about the F word? — Just Add Father

  4. Pamela — Bite! Oh, God. I could tell you about hit and kick. But bite! Actually, now that I think of it, there were a couple of those I’ve blotted out.

    Melissa — Biological or adopted (Nick is adopted), it doesn’t seem to matter in this respect. I know a mom, incredibly patient with her two young boys, a saint really, who once pushed one out the back door and locked it. Took her five minutes to calm down and let him back in.

  5. I just got back from an extended trip – rafting down an Alaskan river – with a few folks I’d never met. The F-word was a regular part of conversation. I don’t tend to talk like that…ever. And I felt my skin begin to melt an fall off me in sheets as I contemplated 2 weeks with my ears burning an bones becoming brittle.

    Be Yourself. It was my husband’s birthday. It is my family’s tradition to read “On the Day You Were Born” for each person’s birthday. It’s a very corny tradition, and I tend to get overly sentimental and weep. It was tempting to hide, to forget. But my children were watching, and I think when I am most fragile I find strength in vulnerability if I can remember.

    So I read the story, and cried all the way through it. My daughter snapped a few photos. The love between myself an my husband is raw and tender. I think of that word differently now: a gateway.

    The trip was fantastic, by the way, and I think there was no small part played by my raw, non- F-bomb dropping holey self.

    • “Strength in vulnerability.” Yes. So important, especially for men, whose tears are so often locked up, like diamonds.

    • Welcome back, Rebecca! I look forward to hearing about your trip.

      I’m treading on Wolf’s territory for a moment to second your endorsement of On the Day You Were Born which you so generously sent me when Baby Sister was born. It has quickly become one of our family’s favorite “Night Night” books and I even manage to get through it sometimes without crying. Such a marvelous book.

      Thank you for introducing it to me and my kids. xo

  6. First, let me say this is gorgeous.

    Let me say that again – gorgeous.

    And then let me tell you how insightful you are that you can see “underneath” your anger, and that there is patching to do, but also you see underneath Nick’s defensive and offensive and self-identifying and exploratory new power-expression, the F-word. You can see that this is part of a new environment, part of growing up, part of a healthy acknowledgment of emotion even if the specifics of the emotion(s) are not yet in a framework to be articulated and – more often than not – anger is the emotional language that men turn to. Yes, a generalization, but from my own vantage point (including raising two sons), I see how the switch seems to flip in such a short span of time and frighteningly to a more introspective soul – from tears to anger, from softened words and arms to spiteful ones.

    Without understanding of the impact of either the rapid transition or the cultural (and personal) layers of meaning that the resounding F-bomb unleashes when you are on the receiving end. Especially from the systole and diastole of your universe.

    Let me add – one of my sons learned to express his (legitimate) anger early, and I was relieved. It is hard to be the vessel that must carry its echo, but it is healthy acting out, in some circumstances more than others, for the child. My other son held so much in for so long that while it was easier (or I should say he was easier) on me, I worried about where his anger, frustration, fear, and self-doubt were going. The inevitable holes in every child. Without articulating them (even with a smokescreen term like the F bomb), how could I read anything he was feeling? What were his outlets – and we all must have them?

    He saved his anger for 14 and 15 and since… I will say that it is possible to still do something about it at that age, but the hurt remains the same when you are a parent and you become that recipient as you must in some instances. Because we are the safe haven that helps to repair their holes, and to minimize the need for patching at any age.

    And I suppose then we look up and ask our gods, our gods whom we would like to accept us as we are – now, who helps me to apply the salve to my own anger, my hurt, my disillusionment, my fear, my disconnects – so I may patch what rumbles beneath?

    • Interrupting again – goodness, I have a big mouth – to credit BLW with introducing me, and thus all of us here, to Wolf. Thank you, BLW, for the bloggy good deed of bringing all of us together.

      Hmm…Big Little Wolf introduces Wolf. Those wolves really do stick together, don’t they? Pack behavior?

  7. Can I play the devil’s advocate?

    You wrote, “I tell him my feelings are hurt and I need to take care of myself now and I can’t be around him.” I have always struggled with this parenting strategy. I don’t really see how saying, “You hurt my feelings” is setting a limit. It’s not establishing the behavior as inappropriate or disallowed. It’s merely stating a fact, the consequences of which belong to the parent, not the child, and letting the child decide whether or not he cares. If the kid decides that hurting Daddy’s feelings is bad, then we all win because the kid corrects his behavior on his own. But what if he decides that Daddy’s hurt feelings are not his problem?

    Granted my son is two and the harshest words he ever has for me are the occasional, “Mommy, go away.” It doesn’t feel good, but I recognize that he’s testing boundaries and learning how to assert himself. I also tell him that he isn’t allowed to talk to me that way, that I’m the mommy, and I can do what I want. If he does it again the consequence is a punishment (usually a trip to the corner) that makes sure that the burden of his bad behavior is on him, not me.

    Perhaps I’ll change my tune as my son gets older and our interactions are more nuanced. But for the moment I’m pretty convinced that the first time he drops an F-bomb in my lap the punishment will be much more severe than an expression of my own disappointment.

    • Thanks, Gale, for opening this up. It’s a huge conversation, of course.

      You’re right. Letting my son know he’s hurt my feelings isn’t setting a limit. But there is a limit here, and my son is aware of it: my unwillingness to be around him when he’s using hurtful language. The consequence of his insensitivity is that he loses access to me for a time, something he doesn’t like. I want him to know when he’s being hurtful, to see the effect of what he’s done, and to learn how it causes him to lose out. I also want to model an appropriate way to respond to abusive behavior that will work in the world.

      The key word is “punishment.” Is it possible to teach the values and limits we want to teach without it? I say, yes, maybe it is. So to me it’s worth a try. It’s worth many tries. It’s certainly much harder on parents that way. It often requires an excruciating mindfulness.

      I grew up in a punitive house. Punishment taught me two things: to rage and to lie. It taught me to lie not only to others, but also to lie to myself. It never taught me values or compassion. It took me many years to figure those things out for myself.

      • Thanks for your additional context here. Perhaps we are closer together on this topic than first blush let me realize – semantics are key. Taking something from your son (namely, you) would be called a punishment by many people. At this point you’re taking away yourself. Under different circumstances you might take away a toy, or later in life a car. (I recall a post in which you took away his video games because of the behavior they were soliciting.) Call them consequences or call them punishments, the effect is the same, and it is essentially the same approach we take with our son. I suspect I will still take a harder line in boundary setting than you do – specifically around determining that some behaviors simply are not allowed. You say that you grew up in a “punitive house” and I don’t know exactly what that means, but I can’t imagine disciplining my children in any way that would result in the rage and lying that you describe. We don’t yell. We don’t lose our tempers. But we also run a pretty tight ship and it is quite clear to our son (even as a two-year-old) what is acceptable and what isn’t.

        Thanks again for your follow up.

  8. Shucks, BLW.

    Who indeed helps us? I only quoted the start of Rilke’s poem, because the whole of it traveled too far for this essay. But here is more (Bly’s translation):

    They have to sing, if they didn’t sing, everyone would walk past ….
    And God himself comes and stays a long time
    when the world of half-people starts to bore him.

  9. This is just…so good. Thank you for sharing it here. I’m so glad to “meet” Wolf.

  10. Hey Wolf, good to see you here. I know all about the primary school yard. Between that and the older siblings of my son’s friends he has received quite an education.
    It has made for some very interesting conversations between us. I have to agree with the others, this post is beautiful. It feels like music to me and i like what I am hearing.

  11. Thanks again, Wolf, for being here and for sharing this piece with us today.

    I swoon over good writing, and this essay – and this line especially: “Nick, whom I watch sleeping, his heart and breath, up rising and down falling, the systole and diastole of the universe” – is swoon-worthy. In fact, the first few times I read your piece, I got so wrapped up in the language, I didn’t pay enough attention to what you were saying. (Imagine me reading Ulysses…sigh.)

    Once I revived myself, I thought about the way that I place such high stakes on my interactions with my kids. Nothing can make me feel better than a delicious moment with them; and, of course, nothing can make me feel worse than a painful one.

    Big Brother is trying out some interesting new behaviors lately, figuring out, I think, how to deal with sadness and frustration. The path I’m trying to walk is to let him know that any feeling is okay, but not every behavior is. As someone who doesn’t talk about emotion easily or openly, I’ve been learning myself while trying to teach a small child a vocabulary for feelings.

    • Kristen,

      Thank you so much for inviting me here. You do me great honor, and the responses have been most gratifying.

      The feeling is always okay, the behavior may not be.

      Is there any greater teacher than this path of parenthood? It takes me to such a place of vulnerability, back to moments in my childhood I’d rather not revisit. I do revisit them, in order (in words Bruce wrote in response to a post I’d written called The Wounded Parent to earn my security when it was not bestowed organically in the beginning.

  12. Lovely to see you here, Wolf (and thanks for hosting, Kristen). As for the F-bomb, I remember a kindergardener telling the director of school, “He called me the f-word.” The head of school asked, “What was it?” “Stupid,” the child informed her.

    As for my own torn fabrics, I have found that while I have learned to field the savage attack from my kids (ten minutes of meditating and telepathically sending love for their pain has proven useful), the place I’m most tattered is when one kid is mean to the other. That’s when anger, grief, pathos, frustration, helplessness and futility all ball up into a moldy cheese I cannot metabolize. And so it sits like a medicine ball staring me down.

    Perhaps the kindred spirit of voices like yours (and Kristen, and Pam, and BL Wolf, and Heather, and Melissa, and Rebecca, and Gale) will be the requisite spoonfuls of sugar to get that medicine to go down and stay down, along with the rest of the patched together, more or less.

    Namaste

    • That’s so funny, Bruce. And here I always thought stupid was the S word.

      As to torn fabrics, having only one child, I can only imagine the pain you describe. Apropos of which, I believe it is a Buddhist tradition that, where you sing your pain, that place is a temple.

  13. Gale — thanks for writing back.

    Not yelling and not losing your temper, yes. Those are essential, and more important than searching out fine distinctions between punishment and consequences. I should clarify that I grew up with yelling and temper, and it made the (consequences or punishment) seem capricious and cruel. I think that’s the scariest thing for a child, to be with a parent and realize nobody’s home.

  14. This was so much to think about, really. Not at all what I was expecting to do on a Wednesday night.

    I think what’s so interesting is that as your son is working to expand his boundaries, learn how to define them and how to define (express) himself to the outside world, you too find yourself with new boundaries and new territory.

    I’m not a parent, so I don’t have any stories or experiences to add to the conversation but to say that the type of patient love you’re expressing in this post will take you far.

    • Hi, Kat. I hope this didn’t derail your evening. I do love the way you’re looking here at both Nick’s and my process. I think when you do have children, if you choose to, they’ll be lucky to have you as a mother.

  15. Sorry, Wolf, but I’m still back at the point where Nick said, “F*** you” to his dad. Not okay in my book. Worth getting uneasy over. Let’s not confuse “using the “F word” with insulting a family member by saying “F*** you.” There’s a huge difference in my view. I’d rather hear, “Nick, in this family we don’t say “f*** you” to each other. I don’t say it to you. You don’t say it to me. The reason we don’t say that to each other is that it is too insulting and disrespectful. Believe me, our family will be a better place for all of us because of this. I just thought you should know.” I would consider making this clear and simple to Nick immediately. Later you can always quietly deal with whatever you are experiencing privately or with Nora.

    • Charlie, thanks for dropping in. You make a good point. This has been said to Nick by both of us, and I should have made that clear in the piece. But, it having been said, here Nick drops the bomb again. Now what? This is what I wanted to consider. What does it mean for Nick? Where do I go, inside, at this point? Would there have been a way to set the limit for Nick so forcefully the first time that he never would have violated it again? Maybe. Perhaps I didn’t have the strength to say it right the first time. And if that’s so, why not? All I know to do now is go inside to look for answers.

  16. Love this imagery of the holes, the patchwork, the garment stitched and mended, telling the tales of hurt and joy without bias. I suppose I’m full of those holes and stitches, though I try not to think of it that way. I try to see those intense experiences as sandpaper, sanding off pieces of my potential self — sometimes the most gorgeous and unique ones — until my form is so far removed from its original possibility that you no longer make any comparison.

    My kiddo has yet to use curse words to hurt me, and I thank years of therapy for that. We’ve been sitting together in a counselor’s office since the summer before he started kindergarten, so we have a different language for expressing ourselves. He has learned to identify his emotion and be vulnerable with it. I have learned to hear the clarity of his voice and respect his feelings. Just today he told me that it makes him feel insignificant when I allow his sister to interrupt him and cross his boundaries. He’s 10. Who knew 10 year olds could articulate like that? (Of course, later this evening he drop kicked her from behind. I mean, he *is* 10!)

    I know he’ll have holes (be sanded down) by the real world. I know that teen hormones and curse words and epic battles are on our horizon, but hopefully he’ll listen as carefully to my wounds then as I listen to his now.

  17. As my friend Audrey says, “being a parent is being a perpetual amateur.” You excel in your ability to share a story, and we are all fumbling our way through this lovely journey of parenthood alongside you.

  18. Interesting post Wolf.

    Our older son has not gone down that road yet, but our middle daughter (only 5) throws “I hate you” out with regularity. It is something we are trying to explain to her, but not sure she is getting it. I try to distance myself from the personal feelings and look at our situation as a long-term engagement where daily work will eventually be rewarded.

  19. Slamdunk — Each child seems to be different. I think all the perspectives here are helpful because they come from so many directions.

  20. This is gorgeously written. But more than that, it feels so true, so imperfectly wise. I say imperfectly wise because when it comes down to it, life and parenting are things we will never understand fully. All we can grasp for is imperfect wisdom. Now, I have a few years before there will be nine-year-old running around my home, but my heart aches a bit even now. Because I know that day will come, and the challenges – involving the F-bomb or no – will come with it. And I hope, and trust, and hope some more that I will handle things as gracefully, as humanly, as thoughtfully as Wolf does here. And now? I’m off to visit his blog.

  21. Aiden, thank you. Imperfectly wise, what a lovely phrase. I know I can certainly live up to the adverbial part of it.

  22. This is a very nice posting, wolf. I have not been in that situation yet because my sons are still very young. But I learn something from this posting and have to prepare my self. Even my oldest son is 3.5 yo now but he has learnt so many words from his friends in his school. Some are not really good words. We try to explain to him those words are not good to say.
    The other thing, you are right, as parents, we really need to keep pray everyday to God and ask for wisdom in raising our kids.

    If you don’t mind please visit my blog and I would be more than happier if you are willing to share your thought 🙂

    http://www.mylifeismyrainbow.wordpress.com

  23. Yulia,

    Thanks for writing. I think, when this particular issue comes home for you, you’ll be ready, as much as one can be.

    I love the title of your blog.

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