A couple of days after I see Ani DiFranco in concert, I pick up my 5-year-old son, Henry, from kindergarten. He’s distraught that he can’t stay at school to play. I apologize. He doesn’t accept. He gets into the car angry with me. He’s been like that recently. He says he hates school. I don’t know if it’s the weather, if he’s growing, just going through a thing or what.
On our way to pick up Magnolia, my 3-year-old daughter, from preschool, “Napoleon” starts to play. The chorus of the DiFranco song is “Everyone is a [expletive] Napoleon.” I am glad the song’s on; it will unburden me of Henry’s moodiness and temporarily drown out the uncertainty I feel about his emotional milieu. I crack the windows and start singing as loudly as I can.
“I like this song,” Henry says, adding, “Mommy?”
“She said a bad word.”
“She did. Sorry about that.” I swiftly change course with a follow-up question, asking him, “Do you want to know who Napoleon is?”
“Yeah,” he says.
I tell him Napoleon was a great warrior but not a great guy. He wanted to be everybody’s boss, so he fought everybody all the time trying to have the whole world his way. He would do anything to get his way. He would even hurt other people.
“Everybody can be Napoleon sometimes,” I say. “Sometimes parents can be Napoleons, wanting things our way and trying to be the boss of our kids. Sometimes even kids can be like Napoleon, I think. You know?”
“No!” he says, defying the suggestion.
Once we pick up Magnolia, survive the purgatory of getting her buckled into the car and are on our way home, Henry asks his sister, “Magnolia, do you know what Napoleon means?”
“No,” she says.
“It means a man who is mean and wants to be the boss of everybody and wants to tell people what to do all the time,” Henry says, slightly breathless as he rushes through remembering all the things. “He is a great warrior. And I can’t remember the rest.”
Henry’s got it almost 100 percent right. It’s not just a man, though. Everybody can be a [expletive] Napoleon. A parent. A kid. Me.
Giving birth doesn’t require all of the kinds of strength and skills. Parenting, in fact, has alarmingly few mandatory prerequisites. In many cases, we pick up skills by trial and error, by observation, by environment and by personal experience. I am still learning to be the kind of strong my kids deserve. Often, I fail. Recently when I asked them what I could do to be a better mom, Henry said, “You could stop tantrumming so much.”
My kids see my behaviors — good or bad — and emulate them. That’s how power works. I work hard, well into adulthood, to try to change unhealthy patterns I’ve learned and to model best behavior for them: to teach them that there are healthier ways to deal with feelings and conflict in our lives than to shut down, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, to tantrum.
At the Ani concert, she didn’t sing “Napoleon.” But several songs into her set, she paused to tell us that a recent mass shooting had been on her mind. She said she had been thinking of a mother. After one of those boys shot and killed all those people in one of those shootings, a victim’s mom reached out to him. She tried to talk with her child’s murderer like he was a human being and not a monster.
I’m paraphrasing here, as I was relying on my smartphone’s Notes app to try to swiftly type up her words, but Ani next said something close to “That’s the only way. The minute we begin to embody the energy of the oppressor, we’ve lost our case. We have to be that woman, that mother, that spirit.”
A few weeks after Henry and Magnolia learn who Napoleon is, I’m tucking them into bed. Kindergarten is going okay. Henry is less angry than he was a few weeks earlier, though still angry enough. Magnolia is wrapping her legs around my torso, burying her face into my neck. She’s parroting her brother, saying how much she hates school. It’s not true. She loves her preschool. Soon enough, though, I’m sure there will be something for her to hate, too. Soon enough, it’ll probably be me. I don’t know exactly what we will come up against. This is part of the surrender of parenting. It’s an intoxicating risk, a commitment thrilling in its extravagance: We will love our kids, knowing there will be something. We will love them, no matter what. If we’re lucky and don’t muck it up too much, they might even love us back.
“I love you the most,” I tell Henry and Magnolia.
“No matter what, Mommy?” Henry asks.
“No matter what.”
“Even when I am a bad boy? Even when I am mean?”
“You are a good boy,” I say. “You are my best boy. I love you, no matter what.”
I kiss and hug them and pull the covers up to their chins. Magnolia starts fake gagging and, unable to restrain her laughter, tells me I’m choking her.
“You’re a good girl, Mommy,” Henry says.
“You’re a Napoleon, Mommy.”
“It’s true,” I say. “Sometimes I am.”
“Sometimes everybody is a Napoleon. Right?”
“Also true,” I say. “Yes, sometimes everyone is.”
It took me too long to trust that I deserve to be loved no matter what, exactly as I am, and now that I know it, it’s the best kind of weapon. It’s the only way. I’m doing my best to arm my kids with this knowledge so they don’t have to wait until halfway through adulthood to figure it out. So they don’t start to embody the energy of the oppressor. So they can grow up with more of the strength and skills they’ll need to choose to be “that woman, that mother, that spirit” instead of being another Napoleon.
Emily Dagostino is a writer and owner of Dagostino Communications. She has written for many publications, with recent work appearing in Notre Dame Magazine, America and the Sunlight Press. Read more at emilydagostino.com.
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