While we are brushing teeth at bedtime, I somehow manage to elbow Bug in the face. I feel the crack, and immediately pull him into my soft belly. A split second passes and then he is wailing. Hot tears and even hotter anger seep through my shirt.
“I’m sorry, baby. Goodness gracious, that must hurt. I’m sorry.”
He howls into my side. “It’s your fault, Mommy!” Choking sobs. “It’s all your fault!”
I call down the stairs and ask my mother to bring us the ice pack from the freezer. She hands it up to us and I talk softly to Bug, finding a pillowcase to wrap around the pack. Bug is still clinging to me, yelling, “It’s your fault!”
“Yep, it is,” I say. I help him press the ice to his cheek then have him put on his jammies. I fill a mug with cool water for his bedside table. “It was an accident. I am sorry.” He keeps crying and scowling as the spot under his eye puffs to an angry pink. He reminds me about two dozen more times that I am to blame for his misery. I concede this fact.
Here is tonight’s small victory: My son does not hit me. He does not bite, kick, spit, or butt me in the face with the back of his head.
“Can I have paper for writing?” He asks. I dig up a clipboard from the clutter in his room. We crawl into bed and I begin to read as he writes on his paper with a thick red marker. Halfway through the first book, Bug interrupts me. “That’s you, Mommy.” I look over and see he has drawn on the far left of his page a frowning stick figure with a distressed look. I am impressed with the expressiveness of the eyebrows.
“That looks like a mean mommy,” I say.
“It is,” he says. He returns to drawing. I keep reading. After the next book, I look over again. He has filled in the page with two more stick figures. “Now you are sad,” he tells me, pointing to my double.
“Is that you with an angry face?” I ask.
“Yeah. I am punching you.”
“Oh. I see now.” He marks in little teardrops falling from the mommy’s eyes. “She seems pretty upset,” I say. “And he looks mad.” He draws the two faces again at the top of the page. One is crying and one is scowling. When he puts the cap back on the marker, I tap the page. “You know what you did, kiddo? You told your feelings to this picture.”
Bug reaches over and gives me the gentlest of swats on the shoulder. “Now I did the same thing to you for real,” he says.
I let it go. So does he. He pulls the page from the clipboard and drops it off the side of the bed. He starts practicing his letters. I start on the third book.
After we are finished reading, I tuck him against me into a full-body hug and sing “Baby Beluga.” My son’s new favorite approach to cuddling is to slip his arm under my neck and pull my head down on his chest. He wraps his hand around my shoulder and strokes my hair. It is an odd juxtaposition, my son holding me against him the way I have held him for so many years. I feel small and safe. I feel gigantic and cumbersome. I feel the echo of my voice off his fragile ribs and his unbroken heart.
Downstairs, I hear Giovanni come to drop off the dog. Her nails tippy-tap on the kitchen tile, a staccato counterpoint to the thundering footsteps of my parents as they wash up the dinner dishes and stash away the pizza stone. Bug’s schoolwork is on the kitchen table awaiting his teacher’s smiley-face sticker. A truck roars past on the muggy street outside. The air conditioner hums to life. The presidential debates begin.
I sing “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and Bug sings along, his voice fading.
There’s a lake of stew and ginger ale too,
you can paddle all around it in a big canoe
He is under before I reach the end, but I finish anyway. I stay there for a few moments. His hand is against my ear, fingers tangled in my hair. He holds me as close as he can even in his sleep.
My son was angry at me. For the first time in 5 years and 363 days, he told me about it with words and art instead of with his hands.
So often, I sense the hugeness of the task ahead. Survive, save, support my child, teach him well, build a future. It is daunting. It can be very lonesome.
Tonight, I can feel my son’s strong pulse against my cheek. All around, the world goes on. It sometimes happens that in all that going on, people help. Sometimes, someone takes care of something that need taking care of. Someone walks the dog. Brings the ice pack. Pays the mortgage. Teaches the kids. Runs the country.
Sometimes, I can whisper my boy through his storm of feelings precisely because I am not alone.
What a revelation.
Sometimes, I am not alone.
In the park, a dad holds hands with one son while his other boy darts off into an empty batting cage. “Garrett, come on,” the dad calls. “We’re leaving.” Dad and little brother are strolling at a toddler’s pace. They have plenty of ground to cover before they reach the parking lot. Clearly, they are not leaving yet. “Bye bye, Garrett. We’re leaving you here.” Garrett, God bless him, ignores his dad. He is in a cage. A deserted one. How dangerous can it be?
I have only one kid. I’ll concede that I can’t fully appreciate the challenge of managing more. How does a parent keep an eye on the one who has run off when the other is foraging in the dirt for cigarette butts? Like every other parent out there, Garrett’s dad is doing his best with the tools at hand to keep his sons safe. Still, I can’t help but think “bye bye” is a flawed strategy for roping the calves.
Garrett has undoubtedly heard his dad’s ploy before and knows it for the idle threat it is. I watch as he moves up and down the cage, lacing his fingers through the fencing. He is busy exploring and marveling, and his dad’s farewells ping off his deaf ears. “Garrett, now.” Ah, yes. Escalation. The wheedling has not worked, so Dad kicks it up to demands. Garrett stands at the gate for a moment before turning and re-entering the cage. Dad’s voice edges upward. “Come here, now. Five, four, three. . .”
I do not stick around for the next installment. The father will figure something out. So will Garrett. That’s the thing about kids and parents. We are always figuring things out. More often than not, what we end up learning is not what anyone intends.
It seems like eons have passed since I last counted down towards a punishment. It has been almost as long since I have seen Bug’s temper go volcanic. Parenting tactics in which I was engaging almost daily are now abstract memories. “If you don’t get over here by the count of three, the cinnamon toast goes in the garbage. One. . . Two . . .” Threats are disappearing from my vocabulary. Time-outs have also been enjoying their retirement. Occasionally, warnings about endangered privileges still slip out. My voice became accustomed to the feel of “If you don’t ____, then you lose ___.” These tics still skitter past my lips before my brain can intercept them. Like Garrett, Bug ignores these ploys. I usually do, too. We return to mending whatever is frayed between us.
From time to time, I still walk away. Before I respond, I need to quiet down my own howling, growling head. I am not always so good at telling Bug I need to step away to catch my breath, but I hope I am getting better. When I explain I will be back and we will figure it out together, he usually manages to wait for me without going off the rails.
They say twenty-eight repetitions form the habit. New approaches I established in my interactions with Bug are actually working. We get into the car for school most mornings now just by moving together through the preparations. It stuns me to watch my boy perform the straightforward exercise of walking out the door, sitting down in his car seat, and picking up his book. For months as long as lifetimes, that stretch between bed and car was a minefield. Now, I explain the expectations, give him choices, and speak in an upbeat tone about what is unfolding right in front of us. The former slog has become a simple morning routine.
While Tee and I were leaving kindergarten orientation last week, Bug threw not one, not two, but thee rocks at me. They all missed, but not by much. My vision constricted and my jaw set. I walked away from the first throw (which is why he hurled two more). Trying to stay calm, I called over my shoulder, “I cannot be near a little boy who throws rocks at me, even though I love him very much.” He had been asking to stay with me that night. It was, however, his night with his daddy. Repeated requests and increasing volume had not worked, so he scaled up to aggression. He was also tired, having forgone a nap at preschool, and was a little disoriented by his tour of the new elementary classroom.
All of these facts about his experience in that moment were right there for me to notice. Shifting my gaze away from my own rising temperature and back onto my son had the effect of cooling and centering my mind. In a previous post about Bug’s defiance, I wrote about focusing my attention on just one measure when deciding how to approach my son: Does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug?
Halfway up the hill, I paused. Looking back, I saw my little boy standing all alone. He had been left behind. Even Tee was walking away, explaining calmly that Bug was going to lose his movie that night for throwing rocks. With yet another punishment added to the burden, Bug was cracking under the weight of it all. Somehow, he was supposed to swallow the disappointment and describe rather than act out his feelings in an unfamiliar location while being incredibly tired. He had almost no resource to handle the task before him. Clearly, he was far too small for all the decisions required of him in that moment.
A number of options are available to a parent to get a situation like this under control. Roaring, wheedling, doling out consequences, and putting the kid in a time-out all are on the table. The simplest approach might be to just ignore the behavior and continue walking. Wouldn’t this deprive the kid of a the satisfaction of a reaction while also making him practice moving through his stormy emotions? Any of these options might make Bug drop the rocks and get his butt in gear. They also might further fracture an already strained relationship.
The mantra about strengthening the bond reminded me to set aside every extraneous objective and slip back into alignment with my child.
Down the hill, Bug’s face was set somewhere between tornado and downpour. My response could determine which climactic event would occur. I took a breath. Then I walked straight out of the tight corset of my own anger and returned to my child. I knelt and opened my arms. He collapsed against my chest. I spoke in a very quiet voice. “You threw three rocks. You must have been feeling something big.” He quivered and sobbed. “I feel disappointed when something doesn’t go the way I want. I feel like throwing and breaking stuff, too.”
He quieted against me. “Yeah?”
“Yep. But throwing and breaking usually hurts people and makes things worse. So maybe I say how sad and disappointed I feel, or I cry, or I go find a hug. You did that. You cried and now you’re getting a hug.”
I kept holding him and letting him hide his face in my neck. He was as small as he needed to be. He was small enough to disappear. This was just fine, because I had become a big sanctuary carved into the side of a mountain.
For the first year or more of the separation and divorce, I lacked integrity. I understand this now. The foundation was cracked, the floor bowed, and the walls were caving in. My flawed judgment and instability led to poor choices. I was not able to face the truth of my limitations and situation, so I found escape in dishonesty. With upended priorities, I forgot how to be Bug’s refuge. He did not know who inhabited the tilting room that was supposed to hold his Mommy. Would he be entering Opelia’s haunted quarters or Medusa’s lair? Would his pre-dawn knock awaken Miss Havisham or one of the Scylla’s sleeping heads? Sometimes, he did not find anyone at all. His grandmother had to fill in the sinkhole left in my absence.
“There is nothing easy about divorce,” writes Abigail Trafford in Crazy Time. “It is a savage emotional journey. You don’t know where it ends for a long time. You ricochet between the failure of the past and the uncertainty of the future. You struggle to understand what went wrong with your marriage, to apportion the blame and inventory your emotional resources. There is one thing you are sure of almost immediately: you know that life will never be the same again.”
During those falling-down months, I was not Bug’s safe place. Now, I can be now. The new floor is laid on bedrock. The beams are carved from oak.
“Tell you what,” I murmured into his scalp. “When I pick you up day after tomorrow, the doggy and kitty and grandma and granddaddy will all be at our house. We will have a special dinner. Anything you want. What is your all-time favorite meal?”
“You know,” he said, pushing his head up under my lips. He could not get close enough.
“Pizza,” I say.”
“No? Hmm. Lasagna? Ham and eggies? Chicken on the grill?”
“No. You know.” He was smiling in his shoulders now. Stone pillars no longer pressed them down. He grinned up at me. “Thai food!”
“Really? You want Thai on Wednesday?”
I lifted all fifty pounds of him into my arms and carried him like a baby up the hill to Tee’s car. “I will get a whole order of spring rolls just for you.”
“Five whole orders!”
I want to tell Garrett’s dad that his kid never needs to hear that he will be left behind. Not even a struggling, just-good-enough father would abandon his son in the park. Even if the little boy cannot keep up, even if he tests how far the radius of his parents’ attention extends and moves an inch or three beyond that, he will never have to find his way back by himself. This is the contract that we sign with creation when we become parents. We commit ourselves to being the safe place.
Building a refuge requires measuring with precision. We speak truth first to ourselves and then let it guide our voices. Because we know we would never hurt or leave our children, we should not say aloud the lie that we might. A threat, even a toothless one, is that first termite eating its way into the frame of our relationship. Either our children believe the lie and our rule is one of terror, or they do not believe us, and the emperor wears no clothes. Trust is brace, footing, and bolt. Trust is the stuff of integrity. If I have faith in my mind and the good universe to guide me along the parenting journey, then my son can have faith in me. He can even dart out of my reach from time to time, and I will always be there to carry him back home.
Trafford, Abigail. Crazy Time.. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. Print.