I admire those who can evolve on their own, shedding old bad habits through sheer mindfulness and mental discipline. For me, it takes acute laryngitis.
“You’ll become a good listener real fast,” a friend joked. So true! Here’s what else happened when I lost my voice:
1. I got firm, fast.
It only took an hour of apologetically croaking, “Mommy can’t talk!” until I realized I’d never recover at that rate. But of all times I needed to speak up, why did it have to be when I literally had no voice? Even during both my labors, amid rooms of screaming women, I merely whimpered. As a mom I’ve always capitulated to Sam and Abby, laughter crumpling my poker face, saying “No” with dwindling conviction over their whines, pleas, and negotiations. Abby splays out in bed with me, refusing her crib, and I obediently scrunch over to the edge, trying to doze on six inches of sheet, caving in night after night. This week, I’ve relied on body language. Emphatic glances, even glares. Snapping my fingers. Counting (and mouthing) one-two-three. To my shock, the theatrics of stomping and snapping have worked like a charm–far better than when I yell so loudly that somehow the neighbors hear me as Sam tunes me out. Maybe it was the novelty: Mom the Mime. But maybe it was because my gestures were emphatic. Direct. Focused. Quiet yet firm. Kind of like my voice should be.
2. I stepped back.
Playing with the kids this week, I couldn’t “referee” nor etiquette-coach as I usually do (“Sam, Abby was using that–Abby, don’t take his milk–ask her if she’d like to play with you–say something nice–be sweet–give a kiss”). Miraculously, or maybe not, the kids cooperated beautifully upon realizing I wouldn’t possibly interject. They narrated books to each other. They took blocks and built a city, accommodating Abby’s modernist shanties (think two rectangles and a semicircle) and Sam’s skyscrapers. Could this be: my children playing happily together, even (especially?) without my meddling? They’ve earned more of my trust, which is good for all of us. Plus, it was such a treat to eavesdrop.
3. My kid quoted me.
Sam’s tower collapsed and so did he, throwing blocks between flailing legs. Before I could start gesturing my rebuke, Abby lowered her gaze and said calmly: “Sam’s in time out.” And Sam stopped crying, looked at her, looked at me–I nodded, biting my lip to keep from laughing (must remember this trick!)–and trudged over to the time-out chair. My daughter had quoted me! If I hadn’t been forced to remain silent, I’d never have known how much she’s absorbed, how attuned she’s become, and how swiftly decisive she can be. I’d do well to imitate my little disciplinarian.
4. I realized silence isn’t (always) golden.
As a reporter, I’m used to having people utter outrageous things as I dutifully transcribe their words. My opinion, my retort, doesn’t have a place in interviews. Replace “interviews” with “family drama” and you get the dynamic of my household. I get rants, grievances, and plenty of judgment crammed down my ears. And usually, I say nothing–just nod and murmur and scramble to think of a way to appease the most people in the least time. But strangely, having laryngitis made me yearn for a voice so I could finally talk back, even just a little. As they say: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Maybe knowing that I couldn’t talk helped fuel the fantasy of speaking up. I only hope I can summon the resolve now that I’m back to, at least, a chain-smoker scratchiness of voice.
Of course I can’t wait to sing, joke around, and read recklessly. But I’ll remember the power of gesture, or at least the futility of yelling. I will let my kids surprise and delight me by handing them the reigns at playtime, squelching the urge to interject and hover. And I’ll remember how oppressive silence can be when I next feel my voice begin to falter. If all else fails, I can threaten Sam: “Just wait till your little sister hears about this when she wakes up from her nap!”