The other day my 3-year-old was standing next to me in the kitchen, “helping” unload the dishwasher, when I dropped a cup (plastic, because I’m clumsy enough to know that glass in the house is dangerous with my butterfingers and two 3-year-olds around). Before I could open my mouth to mumble, “Shit!” my son beat me to the punch.
“Fucking shit!” he shouted, his sometime garbled voice clear as a bell. This was the first time he had ever uttered a curse word on his own, and I was dumbfounded.
While a teeny tiny part of me was impressed by his proper use of the f-bomb, I also knew it was time to finally stop doing something I’ve been dragging my feet over since the twins were born — I really had to stop swearing so damn much.
I don’t have many vices, but of the ones I do have, swearing is the worst (others include biting my nails and insisting that leg warmers are still in style). I grew up in a family that seasons language with “fucks” the way some people use table salt, and continued the habit in order to fit in with my male coworkers once I went into the practice of law. Once I became a stay-at-home mom, the habit stuck around as a way to relieve my day-to-day frustrations, and since I never used these words in reference to other people (those who cut me off while driving notwithstanding), I didn’t see the harm in it, at least while the boys were too young to talk. My husband is better than I am at substituting his “fucks” for “fudges,” but even he has the occasional slip. Still, I’m the family potty mouth, and it’s not a title I’m particularly proud to hold.
Once my kids were old enough that they started to babble, I made tons of attempts to clean up my language, but nothing seemed to stick. I’d promise myself a nighttime treat of ice cream or a new shirt if I made it through the day without a single “motherfucker,” only to break my own pact before lunch. And then I’d treat myself anyway because I reasoned that if my day was stressful enough that it made me swear, surely I deserved a reward.
I tried punishing myself by vowing I couldn’t read or watch Game of Thrones if I swore, only to pick up my latest novel to relax once the kids went down. And there’s no fucking way I’m missing out on watching Thrones when it airs, because the night is dark and full of spoilers. But hearing my sweet baby boy hurl dirty words with such aplomb really drove it home… kids copy their parents, and I don’t want to raise rude children. Unless I wanted to get called to preschool this fall over my boys’ colorful vocabulary and be known as the mom with the foul-mouthed kids, something had to change.
The solution came to me as I was going through the mail. Our church collection envelopes were tucked in among the junk mail, and being the cheapskate I am, I groaned at the thought of sending in an admittedly long-overdue contribution to our parish. I support charities, but I’m more apt to donate my time or even goods rather than cash.
You want toys for kids in need around the holidays or a person to join your charity walk team? I’m in. But the act of handing over cold, hard cash grates against my core being for some reason, even if it is going for a good cause. As I tossed the church envelopes in the junk drawer on top of last month’s unused batch, I got a papercut.
“Shit!” I cried. “Maybe we should try a swear jar,” my husband joked from the living room. I chuckled, but then realized that could be the solution to our problem. We could keep track of how often we swore at a dollar per swear, and at the end of the week we’d send a check to charity in that amount. The penny pincher in me would hate it, and at the rate I was going, St. Jude’s could have a new wing within a few months. Call it swearing for a cause, if you will.
We agreed to start that afternoon, and tacked a sheet to the fridge to keep track of our slip-ups. Not thinking of the wide array of curse words in the world, we decided “fuck” and “shit” were now officially banned words in the Zander house, and shook hands to make it official. By the time the kids went to bed five hours later, we already owed $15 to charity.
“Son of a bitch, we’re going to go broke!” I declared when my husband announced the total. “That’s a dollar!” he said. Since that particular phrase wasn’t on our original no-no list, I bartered that technically I was owed a freebie, which prompted us to sit down and make a full list of all the bad words we didn’t want the kids repeating.
Both my husband and I struggled with the new regime. But a few weeks and couple hundred dollars later, we finally realized we were going days on end without swearing in front of the kids. As hard as it was to break the habit, it was working, and I felt good about giving back to society when I did slip up and swear.
Of course, there were setbacks.
One morning one of our boys woke up at 5 a.m. and — instead of coming quietly into our room as he typically does — he ran over and pounced on his sleeping brother, who screamed bloody murder at the injustice of it all. The resulting meltdown ended with a full 20-spot taped to the swear sheet. There was the time I lost my grip on the television I was carrying and it fell to the floor with a resounding crash. The “Fuck!” was out of my mouth before I even had time to stop it, and since my kids both witnessed the accident and repeated what I said, I fined myself $3 because of it. And swear sheet or not, I refuse to pay for any four-letter words that come out of my mouth when I’m confronted with a spider, because after all, I’m only human, and spiders are terrifying.
The sad thing about how effective it is to send money to charity as a way to cure my cursing habit is that as my language improves, we’re sending less. I’ve actually started to feel good about sending in our donations, and I hate the idea of not doing it anymore, especially since we have the means to.
But I’m sure there’ll still be enough bad words in the house to keep the tradition going, especially if I start counting spider swears and then attempt to vacuum the basement.