The F-Word

July 3, 2010

The day Toby turned three he began to ask the question “why?” about a hundred times a day. There must be a biological clock ticking inside that little chest of his that regulates these developmental milestones. He also began testing his boundaries, which means pushing us as parents who hold those boundaries. First came the look of defiance when we would ask him to stop a dangerous, destructive, or plain old annoying behavior. Then came the “f-word.”

He said it once or twice, and we ignored it. I thought we were in the clear, but then he began to say it all day long, singing it, shouting it, rolling it around his mouth like a well-worn plum pit. He made rhymes with it as he lay on the floor and played with his trains and buses. It became his best friend. This happened during the winter, too, probably my fault. We were in the thick of house-buying negotiations and I admit that the f-word escaped from my mouth more than once in frustration. We ignored it then, or turned it into a word play: “Oh, did you say truck? Yes, truck, truck, truck!” And the f-word went away.

But now that he was three and worlds more sophisticated than two and a half, he knew that he had found something forbidden, something charged, something that had gotten under our skin. He was drunk with the power of it. We told him it wasn’t a nice word. We asked him not to say it. We told him not to say it. We told him nice boys don’t use that word. This only enticed him to say it more. With everything going on in our lives—new house, new baby, cancer—I guess I just wasn’t prepared for three. And, of course, all of these stressful events have had an effect on Toby too.

One afternoon at daycare pick-up, one of his teachers told me that Toby had used the f-word a few times that morning. My ears rang with embarrassment, and I admitted that it had been quite the obsession at home the last few days. “What did you do?” I asked, looking for guidance myself. “I sat down next to him on the rug,” she said, “and told him in a very serious voice that we don’t use that word in this classroom. And that was it. He didn’t say it again.” That was it? She said it once and he complied? Clearly, Toby understands the social code of his classroom well enough not to jeopardize censure or ostracization. Home is another matter.

When David came home from work, we decided we had to put the kibosh on the f-word before it really escalated and took hold. Reason wasn’t working. Ignoring the problem wasn’t working. Threats of losing his bonus book at bedtime had no effect either. Having exhausted all of our resources, and being quite exhausted ourselves, we resorted to the one thing I never imagined reaching for: the bar of soap. Okay, so in our case it was organic lavender liquid soap, but still. Even as I was dragging him to the bathroom and pumping the soap into my hand and putting it on his tongue, I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I had become my parents. Worse: I had become the parents I hated, the parents at whom I would scream: “Why did you have me? I wish I had never been born!”

I only used a tiny amount of soap, not enough to even foam on his tongue. Of course he cried. Of course he promised he would never say that word again. We told him that if he did we would have to put soap in his mouth. The amazing thing is that he did say it again, like a moth to a flame, or an addict reaching for his drink, or a toddler testing his boundaries. Toby looked at us and deliberately said f_ _ _ at least five or six more times that night. Each time, David would carry him to the bathroom, put the soap on his tongue, and then give him a drink of water. We were beginning to question Toby’s sanity, as well as our own.

By bedtime, Toby had calmed down. He didn’t like having soap in his mouth, he said. He didn’t want to have soap in his mouth again. We told him it was simple: just don’t say that word. The poor little guy had no idea he had stumbled into such a hornet’s nest. He didn’t even know what he was saying. Why did this word, of all words, engender such a dramatic response from every adult in his life but words like “duck” and “truck” were perfectly fine? Was age three too soon for a lesson in semiotics?

If I’m to be honest about my life, then I need to tell you that I had a terrible, and I do mean awful, mouth when I was young. I swore like a sailor. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I did understand that these forbidden words always came with a delicious reaction. With shock, the nice adult would say: “Where did you learn such bad words?” I would look at them with my big, innocent five-year-old eyes and say: “My sister Cindy taught me.”  Fortunately, my oldest sister found it in her heart to forgive her annoying baby sister many years ago.

Hearing my son swear is like revisiting my own childhood. In fact, with every challenging behavior it’s like Toby holds up a mirror to my own faults and limits as a parent, as a human being. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes and disappointments of my own upbringing and yet I find myself doing just that. Toby’s defiance is a trigger for my anger. I didn’t realize I held so much anger in my body until he began to express his will. He’s a strong-willed little fella, and I absolutely treasure that about him. It also pushes so many buttons.

I don’t suppose there’s ever a good time to be diagnosed with cancer. But if I might plead my case for a moment, I would argue that going through a healing crisis with an infant and toddler is particularly trying. It also presents an extraordinary opportunity for growth for everyone in the family. On a gut level, I believe that my healing means polishing clean every cell of my body. The oncologists might go after the “bad” cells with their weapons of mass destruction, but I’m also interested in purifying the subtle layers, especially my emotions and unresolved hurts from the past.

My practice this week has been to breathe through stress. To feel compassion for my children, even when their neediness feels like more than I can manage. To remember their innocence and natural development. To find love and joy and play. To express my feelings and to let them go, let them go, let them go, so there’s no holding back and no tension.

I want to free what waits within me

so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear

without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,

but it is what I need to say.

May what I do flow from me like a river,

no forcing and no holding back,

the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,

these deepening tides moving out, returning,

I will sing you as no one ever has,

Streaming through widening channels

into the open sea.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Rilke’s Book of Hours



  1. Hi Shira,
    I am a friend of Sara Levines. I have met Leo at Folk Chorale rehearsals. I have loved to read your blog, so inspiring and beautifully written. I have nothing but great positive healing thoughts to send your way. Love to you and your beautiful family!


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