Christmas is just over a week away and for my family that means there’s been a lot of talk about the Naughty and the Nice lists. Like generations of mothers before I have told my five-year old son that Mr. C keeps two lists: one is of those who have behaved well this year and the other is those who behaved badly, and depending on contributing factors like effort at school, general kindness towards others and a consistent bedtime, every person on earth’s name will end up on either one of these roll calls. For Moms who believe in reality-based parenting this may seem like something of a desperate attempt to gain control over my sometimes-defiant child but I happen to belong to the Whatever Works For You Party of bipartisan child-rearing and the threat of ending up on the wrong piece of paper has done wonders for my son’s ability to clean up his toys and stay in bed after lights out. So at this stage I’m pretty sure which list JP will end up on. Me on the other hand? I might be in trouble.
Generally speaking I’ve been a bit of a grouch lately, which I blame mostly on a bout of insomnia I’ve been suffering from since early fall. Almost every night I wake at 4:23 exactly and usually don’t fall back asleep until about 10 minutes before my alarm clock signals the start of a new day. Since I am a conditioned night owl who finds it hard to fall asleep before midnight no matter how tired I am, there is no hope for adequate sleep. The results have been general irritability, sluggish afternoons and a fuse that isn’t quite as long as I’d normally like. It’s really no excuse but still I’d appreciate it if you could keep this information in mind as I retell the story of one of my Top Ten Worst Parenting Moments So Far, which happened to occur early last week.
It was a Monday and by 7:30 a.m. I already knew the day wasn’t going to go smoothly. In fact my suspicions began the night before when my husband insisted he would cover the bedtime routine as a mea culpa for the fact that he had been out both nights that weekend while I stayed at home with a cold. For various reasons, including some late night Christmas specials on television that weekend, JP had been up past 10 o’clock on Friday and Saturday and was pretty cranky most of Sunday. For me, this behavior was a clear signal that JP needed an early bedtime— ideally a goal of lights out by 7:30—in preparation for a week of full-day school, afternoon activities and regimented evening rituals. For my husband it apparently meant he could watch the entire second half of a Jets game before he turned his attention to our son’s needs. JP called downstairs more than twice to find out when Daddy was coming up to read him a book but it wasn’t until the clock was blinking a foreboding 8:48 that I gave Jim the “It’s over” look and he headed upstairs. I’m not exactly sure how much sleep JP got that night but by the looks of him that morning as we walked to the bus stop, it wasn’t nearly enough.
When JP came home that afternoon he seemed normal enough but judging a child at face value is a rookie mistake and I should have known better, especially when his classmate’s Mom called to see if JP would like to come over for a play date that afternoon. Against my better judgment I agreed to drop my son off for an hour or so mostly because I didn’t want this boy’s mother to think I wasn’t open to the boys’ budding friendship. As a result of our abbreviated afternoon ritual, we ended up rushing through JP’s homework and skipping the snack that he was normally hungry for. I dropped JP off at his new playmate’s house just as the sun was setting and agreed to pick him up in about 90 minutes.
Later, when I arrived to get JP, I could immediately tell that it wasn’t going to be a smooth exit. Everyone was in the foyer, seemingly waiting for me to arrive. I checked my phone to make sure I wasn’t late and was relieved to see that I was just on time. The boys were taking turns playing a game on someone’s smartphone while Mom of Potential Friend held her bag around her shoulder, an indication that she needed to be somewhere shortly. I thanked MOPF, offered to host the next play date and told JP it was time to go. No one was more surprised than me when, as if on cue, my son literally threw himself to the floor and, cartoon-like, began to bang his fists and feet on the floor while screaming “I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE YET!” My first instinct was to do what I would normally do in the privacy of my own home, which would be to get on the floor with my son and beg him not to embarrass me in front of this woman I had just met. Instead I tried to remain calm and said in my best, fake sing-song voice, “What are you doing, Buuuud? It’s dinner time but I promise we’ll set up another day to play soon.” Of course JP heard none of this because he was screaming—yes screaming!— and couldn’t be reasoned with. MOPF tried to help by offering a quick session at whatever game had just seconds before had been held in such high esteem, but even this gesture couldn’t placate my son. He was beyond talking to and was on a path to an epic tantrum that couldn’t be avoided even if I had agreed to let him live at this person’s house.
At that point all I wanted was to get out of the house, to deal with this on my own turf and beyond the watchful eyes of this MOPF who I was sure was judging me, my son and our entire family. “He’s really tired,” I offered, but even the truth sounded lame in face of the performance JP was giving. My worst fears were realized when MOPF tried to console me with, “Don’t worry, I understand that he’s an only child.” In her defense she meant well, was trying to come up with a logical reason for such extreme behavior but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that tears came to my eyes right there in her foyer. The implication seemed to be that JP’s destiny was to be a spoiled brat simply because he had no siblings to temper his disappointments with. She didn’t know that he was normally a very cool kid, a sweet boy with lots of friends and a funny disposition. That he wasn’t usually the “pain in the ass” she described her only-child nephew as, but just an overtired boy who didn’t have the resources at that moment to control his own behavior.
After I got JP in the car I thought the worst was over but his fit was just gearing up. By this time it was rush hour and the dark roads were increasingly hard to navigate through a heavy downpour that came out of nowhere. So when JP continued to scream uncontrollably I felt the anxiety rise through my chest. Intellectually I knew his actions were merely symbolic, that he was in a trance-like tantrum I had the misfortune of seeing before and that nothing would appease him. I knew from experience that I should just let him scream it out. But that’s not what I did.
When he unlocked his seatbelt and tried to climb out of his booster seat just as I approached a police car stopped at the next intersection, I lost all my sensibilities. I screamed back, a practice I knew even while I was doing it was counterproductive and for my own benefit, a way to release my frustrations at being tired, embarrassed, frustrated and unnerved. By the time we pulled into our driveway I don’t know who was more worked up, JP or I. What I do know is that I was at the end of my rope and I behaved accordingly by growling at my son through clenched teeth that he was in big trouble! I basically dragged him into our house and when he refused to go to his room, as I had loudly demanded, I pulled him kicking and screaming up the stairs and announced that this is where he would be spending the rest of the night. I held the door as he screamed on the other side to let him out, that I wasn’t being very nice, that he wanted to go back to the play date.
I started to cry. There was screaming and yelling and general chaos and any chance I had of gaining control of this situation was long gone. I had failed the test that all parents are forced to take at one time or another, the one where we choose to be the adult or the child. I had let the situation control me, instead of the other way around.
After many tears and a few deep breaths I went to JP’s room to talk about what had happened but he was fast asleep. It was only 6:30 and he had fallen in to such a deep slumber that he didn’t fully wake again until the next morning. By then JP seemed to have forgotten about the events from the night before but when I brought the subject up he said he was sorry for being fresh. I said I was also sorry, for losing my temper and especially for touching him when I was angry. He didn’t seem all that fazed by it but that’s the thing with children, you never really know what it is that will end up leaving mark. You think it might be the huge fight in that results in slamming doors and kicking stairs but it could just as easily be a less than kind word said in passing.
So am I on the Naughty or Nice list this year? I’m not really sure but if Santa is listening I’d like to let him know I’m trying really hard to be good. For goodness’ sake.
Ellen Askin Bailey is a mother and contributor to mamasagainstdrama.com. She wishes you all the happiest of holidays this year!
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