On Lightbulbs and Epiphanies

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One of these babies. Image from WikiCommons

It was a dumb fight, I admit. But then, lots of arguments between a parent and their pubescent children are over mundane, even seemingly silly things. In this case, it was the abovementioned fluorescent bulb directly above our dining table. Of course, as in with most arguments between a parent and their offspring, there was a lot more to it than a mere bulb.

I’ve been a single mom for a little less than a year, and I confess that doing certain household chores—like changing light bulbs—stress me out. I tend to doubt my abilities in this area and worry endlessly over whether I’d make a terrible mistake somewhere and end up breaking our apartment or humiliating myself at the hardware store or something. On top of that, I feel I have to pretend that I’ve got it all under control, because I’m the adult here, dammit, and being is control is what adulting is all about.

As shameful as it is to admit, I still wish somebody else would arrive in the nick of time like some big, damn hero and do the “hard” things for me—hard being the things outside my comfort zone. Like changing burnt-out light bulbs.

So before we left for the day, I got up on top of our dining table and started twisting the long, still-warm glass tube about to winkle it out of its socket (with the lights turned off, of course). It took some doing, as the darned thing wouldn’t come out at first, only turn a little this way and that with an asthmatic scratching sound. My daughter was worried about me, likely recognizing the fact that I have little to no experience with handymanning around the house. She even got up on a stool beside the table and tried to badger/coach me into finally tugging that bulb out.

After much cursing and droplets of sweat down the bra, I finally managed to extract the stubborn thing. My daughter offered to hold the bulb for me while I clambered down from the dining table. Without thinking, I held it out to her. She took hold of it, then promptly let go with a squawk.

The glass bulb clattered down to the floor, and with yet another curse (we have liberal rules about cursing at home), I braced myself for the shattering of glass. Annoyance flashed through me, as well as two thoughts—“Great, now I don’t have a bulb to show to the salesman at the hardware store so he could get me the same model,” and “Great, now we have to waste precious time while I sweep the broken glass away.”

With annoyance came anger, and I snapped at my daughter, “Why did you drop it?”

“It was hot,” she protested. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not hot,” I immediately countered. I picked up the bulb and moved my hand along it, gripping it in several places to demonstrate. Sure enough, it was hot in the middle, but not dangerously or even uncomfortably so. “See?” I went on. “It’s fine. You and your overreactions.”

She scowled and slunk off, and for the rest of the day, her interactions with me were limited to death-glares and frowns. I apologized after a while in an insincere, aggravated manner, because on top of everything I felt she was trying to make me feel bad for my completely justifiable reaction. Number 1, I needed that bulb intact, and number 2, it wasn’t that hot. Kids can be so melodramatic. QED.

We arrived at my parents’ house, and separated in cold, sullen silence.

Later, as I was driving to work, I had a kind of epiphany. I didn’t want to apologize to her, honestly. I was completely convinced I was right. But then, she was also justifiably hurt at the way I’d invalidated her feelings and responses. In her eyes, what I did was disrespectful. In my eyes, what she did was pure carelessness.

The truth was, we were both completely justified in our responses, because we were both operating on the basis of our own, personal body of experience. Only, as an adult, I had a lot more experience than she had with light bulbs. I knew, having handled light bulbs before, that while they would be hot, they wouldn’t be scorching hot and can be handled. Until that point, she didn’t know that. But she’d had experiences with hot objects, and the appropriate reaction to touching a hot object is to immediately let go.

We were both right. It was just a difference in our level of experience. It wasn’t that I was a rude, disrespectful and abusive mother. It wasn’t that she was an overwrought preteen. It was just…just us being human.

I owe her an explanation. And another apology, a real one this time. She might choose not to understand or accept the apology for a while, but that’s okay. Because as the person with more experience, I know what it feels like to have your own parent invalidate your own inner feelings and responses, and it’s not a nice feeling. And now, I can apologize with sincerity and honesty.

Imagine that. Maybe all those times my own parents yelled at me for constantly doing things wrong, they were simply seeing things from their own perspective, colored by their own much larger bank of experiences. And maybe that doesn’t mean I was wrong at all; I was just operating on the basis of my own, more limited range of experiences. I wasn’t stupid or unthinking or clumsy or useless.

I was just being me. Just as my daughter and I were just being ourselves. No right, no wrong, just a matter of superior experience.

Well. Lucky for me, I’ve got a lot of experience in learning. Thanks to my daughter and a burnt-out light bulb.

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