When kids are the mirror you may not want to see

‘Stop arguing,’ says my eldest, dropping her fork on her plate and folding her arms across her chest.
‘We’re not arguing, darling, we’re just discussing,’ but my husband has gone quiet and refuses to make eye contact.  At least I didn’t think we were arguing.  I hadn’t meant to argue, I was trying to make a light-hearted point about him reorganizing my fridge.  It was light-hearted, wasn’t it?  Well, it started out that way, but then I went on and on about it, continuing the joke, the jibe, pushing just a little further.  The frustration taking over, and turning it into more of a poke than a jibe.  The table is quiet.  The aupair, is awkwardly smiling, pushing her food around.  My eldest is very clear that if it was a joke it stopped being funny a little while ago.  And my husband has that familiar flush he gets when he’s embarrassed.  I’ve shamed him.
So what?  My self-righteousness argues, if he’d bother to ask a question here or there then we wouldn’t be in this mess.  Sure he was trying to help, and I really appreciate that he was trying to help, but he would so make my life easier if he would bother to find out what would actually help, rather than deciding himself what the problem is and then going about solving it.  More often than not, it just creates more problems, more work for me.  So yes, I’m grateful for the effort, but I wish it didn’t have to cost me so much. 
‘You were in bed,’ he said to me.
‘Yes, but I had already organized with our Au Pair, what to put in the small fridge so as not to upset the system I’d spent about 2 hours this afternoon creating.’
‘2 hours, that’s a bit of a stretch.’
‘Did you ask her, how you could help, or what you could do that would help?’
He doesn’t answer, avoids eye contact, and I can see him winding himself up for a rant that has absolutely nothing to do with the point I’m making about asking.
‘Well, next time I just won’t help,’  he says, his jaw hard.
‘Well, now we’re fighting.’ 

The thing about children, is they have a knack for pointing out things you haven’t yet noticed.  But they also ensure you get time before you can respond.  The girls don’t go to bed for another hour and a half, we cannot talk about it now until they are asleep, and at the moment that takes at least half an hour.  So that’s two whole hours to sit and stew and be self-righteous and process and then be curious and self-reflective and … eventually even remorseful. 
‘Are you not talking to me?’ I ask him as I leave the girls room and sit on the floor in the lounge.  He is reclining into the corner of the couch, his iPad open in front of him.
‘I’m reading,’ he says not looking up.
‘Are you angry with me?’ I say to the back of his iPad.
‘Yes,’ says the blue glow behind the screen.
‘I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to embarrass you, it wasn’t my intention to shame you.  I took it too far.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it now, the girls aren’t quite asleep yet.’
‘Okay.’

A little while later, one of the girls are snoring, I contemplate staying in the lounge to do all the things that I need to do, my dutch homework sits there expectantly.  I’m so far behind.  I’m meant to do an hour tonight.  That’s not going to happen, I decide, tired.  I collect my books, my laptop, my drink, and head up the stairs to our bedroom.  He looks about the same as he did in the lounge.  Reclining on the bed now, iPad in front of his face.
‘Are you ready to talk now?’  I ask, keeping my tone light.  I don’t feel anxious this time, which is new.  Usually, I do when we argue.  I feel okay, safe, well safe-ish, I never really feel completely safe.  But this is the closest to safe I’ve felt arguing with him in a long time.  Usually, the first sign of conflict has triggered a massive upsurge in cortisol, which in turn stimulates too many memories of conflict turned dangerous.  Screaming, swearing, threats, and punches being thrown.  But not tonight.  Maybe the antidepressants are helping. 
‘About what?’ he says, his voice deliberately distant, almost cold.  He’s still angry.
‘About the argument.’
‘You’ve apologized, I’m still processing that.  It’s fine.’
‘Have you said everything you need to say?  I may have apologized but you might have more to say.  You don’t seem fine to me.’
‘Well, I’m angry.’
‘Yes, I see that.  But what else, what’s caused the anger?’  Growing up, my husband learned there are only two emotions, joy/pride and anger.  Everything else is rolled up into one neat package called anger.  When he is sad he is angry, when he is embarrassed he is angry, when he is confused he only shows anger.  It’s taken years, 4 of them in therapy, for him to begin to learn to scratch the surface of anger and see what lies beneath.
‘Well, I don’t like the way you spoke to me.  You were disrespectful. You were…’ he continues describing how bad I was, how wrong I was.
‘Yes.  But how did I make you feel when I was being disrespectful.’
‘What?’
‘Well, when I say someone was disrespectful, it’s usually because I didn’t feel heard or valued.  What did it make you feel?  Sad.  Embarrassed.  Ashamed….’  His face lights up.
‘Yeah, that one.’
‘Which one.’
‘You know I don’t like talking about this stuff.’
‘I know.’  It’s like I’m back at work.  It’s hard that he doesn’t know how to do this stuff.  It takes so long to get anywhere. 
‘Shame.’
‘I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to shame you.’  We made it!
‘Okay, thanks’ he picks up his iPad. 
‘We’re not done yet.’  I ignore him rolling his eyes.  ‘I’m frustrated.  I know that you were trying to help, but I don’t understand why you don’t ask for more information.  You didn’t ask Gabriela what you could do to help, you just took the job over and did it the best way you thought.  That’s completely okay if there is no one to ask.  But why didn’t you ask her what she was doing, or whether there was a plan before taking over?’
‘Well, I just won’t do it anymore.’
‘But that’s not helpful either.  I love that you want to help.  I love that you’re trying to help.  I don’t want you to think that I don’t want your help.  It would just be really helpful if you found out what you could do that would be helpful rather than decide that for yourself.  I don’t expect you to know everything, and you are not going to do things the way I would do them, but if you had asked, Gabriela would have been able to tell you what food needed to go into the other fridge without you having to rearrange the veggies that I had organised earlier that day.’  The conversation goes on because I cannot say anything simply or succinctly, but when I get to the end, he tells me that’s ‘fair enough,’ and I think, wow, did we just get somewhere?  And within half an hour?  Years of therapy, and I think we can finally do it – well, today anyway!

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The power and freedom that comes with success

‘Wie kan ik helpen?’ asks the older woman behind the fruit and veg stand. Her long grey hair is plaited over the front of her head, and down into a long braid over her shoulder. It’s the same every week. Her face has the look of someone who has spent her life outside, working too hard. It’s weathered and lined, and a little stern, but it softens into a smile when she tells you which are the best vegetables to buy that week.
‘Mij, bedankt.’ I say, my stomach flipping about, but I am determined to get through this experience using as much dutch as I can muster. I get a smile, earlier than normal, and I feel like I’ve won a prize. As if I’ve somehow crossed over from tourist to tolerated expat.

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