Redirecting Those Bad Words When The Kids Are Around
I think I stumbled upon the descendants of those gallant Michigan lawmakers a few weeks back in Home Depot. I was trying to stop my own little animals from exiting our mutant oversized carriage and getting hit by an mini front-loader, when a sun-baked old man cut the line and began to curse out the hapless clerk.
As a former editor, I had to admire his masterful use of the MF-word in all its permutations (noun, verb, adjective, past participle, and so on). The service rep wisely fled the counter to get his manager, but not before he offered a heartfelt apology -- to me! I was number four in line, but the only woman in sight.
I have a confession
As I mulled over ways to play this indiscretion to my advantage -- perhaps as the token shrinking violet, I'd be allowed to move to the top of the queue? -- the manager appeared to drag the "Ancient One" behind some back counter, but not before he too apologized profusely. And called me ma'am to boot. Ouch.
I have a confession to make to those chivalrous Depot dudes. When it comes to strong language, in my house at least, the children certainly do need to be protected . . . from their mother.
Don't get me wrong: I don't swear at my kids, and I hope I never will. But every once in a great while, when things are truly awful, when the urge is simply too much for a mortal to withstand, I have been known to let off a vulgarity or two within shot of their tiny little ears.
Certain words prove comforting
It's disgusting and depraved, I know, but sometimes it's also a source of deep solace. I like to think of myself as a fairly resilient parent. I can hack the liquid poop flowing out of a diaper onto someone's new Stride Rites, the raccoons tearing up the garbage bags, and the 64 ounces of orange juice poured onto the kitchen floor by somebody who just knew he could "do it himself." But I can't hack them all in the same hour of the same day, particularly when the hour is six and the day is Monday.
When domestic life begins to take on water and threatens to capsize, I let down my guard and pop off a profanity that lets everyone know "Mom's Had It." It's a lame rationalization, but to me those F-words and S-words aren't curses, they're comfort, old friends from my waitressing days in college come to aid me in times of distress.
Hey, I want to be a good mother, but do I have to be a goody-two-shoes all the time?
All or nothing proposition
The problem with this half-hearted approach, besides its moral spinelessness, of course, is that soon every event starts to feel like a cursable crisis. Unlike the other adult guilty pleasures -- drinking, smoking, having sex in odd corners of the house, all of which you can still pursue when the tykes are asleep -- swearing is an all or nothing proposition. It's simply beyond human willpower to swear like a trucker in the evenings and not have it worm its way into your daytime conversations.
Then it's down the slippery slope you go, till you hear yourself complaining that your house looks like the S-word, calling the clerk at the shoe store the B-word, and telling your precious offspring to get his F-word cleats off the couch.
And forget driving. In my part of the country at least, every trip behind the wheel becomes a lesson in road rage. "Mo-om," my son said reproachfully as we negotiated one of those infamously dangerous New England rotaries the other day, "don't call that lady a little witch." Ha. Would that all my indiscretions were equally misheard.
Cleaning up a trashy mouth would be a little easier if the alternatives weren't so damn lame. Like low-fat Lays and sparkling apple cider, swear-word substitutes just don't satisfy. Sugar? Shoot? Gag! Has Mom been body-snatched by Mary Poppins? But anything stronger runs the risk of offending as much as the swear itself. Or, as my mother sweetly inquired after dropping my son off from a day-long visit, "so, who in your household says 'goddamnnit,' anyway?" Uh, that would be me.
Searching for substitutes
I tried the teenage-boy school of euphemisms -- balls, bollocks, and so on -- but these don't play too well in polite society either. So for now, I've settled on a two-pronged retro approach that relies on Britishisms like bloody and bonk and '70s derivations like freakin' (daringly close to the F-word but just a few letters away from the always-innocent 'freaky.")
Why bother to rein in the expletives at all? Well, there's the public humiliation factor. A friend was once trying to stifle her son's oncoming temper tantrum in the supermarket when her toddler stood up in the grocery cart and screamed the F-word over and over again.
No fool, this woman put her hands on her hips and said in a loud voice, "Wait until your mother hears about this." Quick thinking! Of course, it's awkward to have to disown your own children in public, but they'll bounce back eventually.
I admit that hypocrisy plays a big part in my profanity struggles. I would never, ever dream of yelling across an entire ballfield, "Get in the F-word car or I'm leaving you here," as I have heard people do. But when my son's el cheapo booster seat refuses to click down for, oh, the fifteenth try and we're already running late, I'll mutter the exact same word about five centimeters from my child's ear and toxically close to his super-receptive brain. Whose wins the Bad Mom sweepstakes then -- loud or close?
Should I simply F-word social convention and be true to my blasphemous soul? I make light of the issue, but truly, I don't want my kids to curse. It's shocking, rude, and dismaying when a child curses, the sign of a failure of imagination in both the child and his potty-mouth parents. It's a loss of innocence for my sons if they swear, and that means I've failed at my much bigger and more important job -- to filter the vulgar parts of life out of their lives so they can just "be," without adult anxiety, pressure or cynicism. And what is cursing but a knowing and very direct kind of cynicism?
I can "read the room" before I either slip in or squelch a four-letter shocker, judge the sensitivity and sophistication of the company, toss it off with a insouciant raised eyebrow, or spit it out with a mock explosion of outrage. But to my kindergartner, an F-word is an F-word is an F-word. He doesn't "own" it yet, so it means nothing to him. I'm not so naive as to think he'll never swear, but I want him to save himself for the trials that await him in adulthood. Things like Boston driving. Runny diapers. Or canoeing. In Michigan.