Slippery Slope

My dearest Peanut and Munchkin,

I could have killed you.

It started that morning. I took you to an event with lots of vendors for kid products and services. One specific vendor drew me there with an opportunity to have your photos, fingerprints, DNA, and other important information collected and prepared for law enforcement use if (God forbid!) we ever needed their help to find you. But there were other attractions I thought you would enjoy after the 15-30 minutes that was supposed to take, like a petting zoo and bounce house.

As soon as I turned off the car and announced I would get the stroller out first, then the kids, Munchkin launched into a screaming, kicking, flailing tantrum about wanting to walk instead of getting in the stroller. I tried explaining that once we were inside and I had the lay of the land, I would be able to let her walk for a little while, but it did no good. Ultimately, I had to wrestle her into the stroller and cinch the straps tight so she couldn’t buck out of it. She was still wailing as we walked through the parking lot, though not so much she didn’t notice the petting zoo as we passed by.

I used her interest as an opportunity. “Munchkin, the animals would be scared of you right now because you are being so loud and kicking and hitting. If you want to visit the animals, you need to show me that you can be gentle and quiet again, and you will do what I ask you to do.” She seemed to be trying to settle herself down but was still having flare-ups of wailing and hitting the stroller as we entered the building.

It took a while to find the room where they were doing the child ID packages, and Munchkin continued to whine that she wanted to get out and walk. I kept reminding her, “if you want to get out of the stroller, you need to show me that you will be quiet and gentle, and you will do what I ask you to do.” Finally, we found the room, and it was packed. Clearly, this was going to take longer than 30 minutes, but I felt it was important.

The registration volunteer handed me one set of paperwork for each child. It was only a permission form and a 2-page basic data form. Uninterrupted, I probably could have finished in 5 minutes or less. But as I tried to balance the clipboard on the stroller handle and pull phone numbers from my phone, both of you grew bored and agitated. No way was I letting Peanut out in the crowd; Munchkin had been showing better behavior, so I let her get out to stand next to me. I don’t know how long I worked on the paperwork in between reassuring both of you, giving you snacks and things to look at, and breaking up mini-fights and mini-tantrums, but it felt like forever to me. It must have felt like infinity for you.

Finally, we were ready to start making our way through the stations, but due to the large turnout, there was a long line for each one. You both were surprisingly complacent about having your pictures and fingerprints taken. Munchkin resisted the DNA mouth swab, but Peanut thought his was funny, or maybe it tickled a little. Nevertheless, I think we were all ready for a change of pace by the time we had completed the process.

We went into the exhibit area, which had a number of people in character costumes. You were both excited about Elmo, Spider-Man and the Bunny Bread mascot. You also had fun popping bubbles from a bubble machine, and enjoyed receiving stickers and coloring books from various vendors. Nevertheless, Peanut had to be in the stroller most of the time, and Munchkin chose to ride more than she walked. It was also very loud in the building since they had events on a main stage; the noise bothered all of us. Large crowds and lots of interaction with strangers quickly drain your introvert Mama, too, so I didn’t want to spend much time in there. I could tell you were pretty much done with the whole idea, too.

Behavior had been better, though, and I had promised a visit to the petting zoo on our way back to the car. A promise is a promise, no matter our fatigue and stress. I got a cup of animal food for each kid and told Munchkin we’d have to leave when all our food was gone. After she dumped her entire cup into the first pen, she kept trying to extend our visit by scooping food off the ground to refill her cup while I just wanted to keep her moving. I made sure we distributed Peanut’s cup more evenly, sharing with Munchkin as we went to each pen. I was very surprised that Peanut clung tightly to me and said “no” every time I asked if he wanted to touch an animal, but I figured he was just tired. I thought he’d want to do some walking around, but he repeatedly insisted on being carried. Finally, both feed cups were empty, we sanitized our hands, and headed for the car. It was 1:45 p.m., well past nap time. Peanut was asleep before we left the parking lot.

Though you had both snacked quite a bit, we hadn’t had lunch, so I decided to grab drive-through for Munchkin and me. Since I had to stop for gas on the way home, as well, we didn’t arrive until close to 3 p.m. Peanut woke up at the gas station but still looked sleepy. I hoped and prayed he would go back to sleep for about an hour, for his sake and mine. I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. I needed a nap.

Munchkin, mercifully, was content to sit on the couch and read books. I quickly changed Peanut’s diaper, then settled down to rock him back to sleep.

He would have none of it.

Peanut screamed and cried and fought me. He was clearly overtired and needed rest. I kept thinking, if only I could get him to hold still and relax, he would probably fall instantly asleep. We moved from the rocking chair to the bed with no luck.

After an hour of Peanut kicking and screaming in my ear, I gave up. I got both of you in the bath tub, which was a pretty safe bet for a tantrum-free zone. As you played, I sat just outside the door. I couldn’t leave you unsupervised, but I knew I needed some separation. It wasn’t enough to completely settle my nerves down, but at least it was something. We finished the bath and got dressed without incident, then headed to the kitchen for dinner.

I fixed leftovers for both of you, but as usual, your needs kept me running so I didn’t have time to eat. After Munchkin demanded “I. want. ____!” for about the billionth time that day (despite my ever-present reminders to ask for things politely), I declared “the next time you start a sentence with ‘I want,’ Mommy is going to take a break.” I started to get up the next time she did it, but she quickly corrected herself, and I relented.

Peanut, still cranky, kept looking out the windows, pointing and exclaiming something I couldn’t understand. Though I was sincerely trying, as Daddy has observed, Peanut’s vocabulary has increased but not his phonemes. Most of his words still sound very much alike. He was growing more and more frustrated. I thought he wanted to go outside, so I set him on the back patio and stood just inside the door to keep an eye on him. That made him scream and cry harder, so I brought him back in. The cycle repeated; Peanut’s frustration and screaming only escalated.

I lost it.

Blindly, I clapped one hand over his mouth; even so, instinct led me to protect him, simultaneously using my other hand to stabilize his head.

In that terrifying moment, I knew I was the one thing in our home that posed the greatest danger to both of you. “I’m taking a break,” I declared, “leave me alone.” And I stormed up to the master bedroom, closing the only door with a child lock to keep you out.

I called Daddy immediately. I knew he was probably already on his way home; he confirmed he was about 10 minutes away. I stayed in my room, praying for peace and strength, praying that God would keep you safe while you were unsupervised, and listening carefully for any indication of danger.

Peanut continued to scream and cry for a while. I knew by the sounds of the baby gates that both of you came upstairs. When I heard Munchkin scolding Peanut to stop, blaming him for my disappearance, I hollered (but not yelled) at her to leave him alone. By that time, I was already starting to calm down. I continued to focus on breathing and regaining my composure as the sounds morphed into contented playing. Finally, I felt sufficiently collected to emerge from my room and interact with you again. Daddy arrived a few minutes later and shortly thereafter, took you both out of the house for not quite 2 hours.

Suddenly, all was peaceful and quiet. I could hear myself think. I could relax.

I admired the artful way you had strewn star-shaped table scatter from one end of the lower level to the other, and up the stairs, while I left you without direct supervision. I marveled that you (probably Munchkin) had carried several gallon jugs of water into my office, since they were in the way of the bag of table scatter, and thoughtfully placed them where they would not be directly in the path to my desk. I calmly cleaned up the large, expanding puddle from the jug that had sprung a leak.

I put a child lock on my office door.

I fixed myself some dinner and ate it undisturbed, watching an online episode of a TV show I enjoy. I contemplated a nap but figured that would only make it harder for me to get up again and help with bedtime when you came home. I spent some time on Facebook and other web sites. This time alone was nothing remarkable; the key was that it was alone time. As an introvert, “down time” is essential to my sanity. Not only had I had none that day, but the vast majority of the day had been a draining battle of some sort.

I don’t mean any of this as an excuse. Clapping my hand over Peanut’s mouth like that was wrong. Absolutely wrong. I thank God for preventing me from doing any physical harm, and for giving me the presence of mind to remove myself from the situation before it got any worse.

There is nothing in this life more precious to me than you, my darling children. I would give up my own life for you if I thought it would keep you safe.

But I want you to understand that taking care of children can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. Even “good parents” are human, and we all make mistakes. Most parents of young children are chronically sleep deprived, as I am. Sleep deprivation is a fairly well-known torture method, and for good reason. It’s effective at breaking down a person’s rational thinking capabilities, and it can be physically debilitating. In addition, kids are sometimes cranky and rude. Kids are very demanding, even when they’re not “issuing orders.” They can have violent emotions which sometimes result in violent behavior because they don’t have the words to express themselves yet. Put everything together, and the situation can easily become volatile.

Again, none of these are excuses.

The key here is how adults react when they hit their limit. It would have been best if I had “taken a break” before my own behavior turned violent. I am ashamed that I didn’t. Thankfully, I was able to recognize the danger and remove myself after that first violent action. But this is how child abuse can happen, even to “good parents.” Any number of factors could lead to a parent reaching his or her limit. It is vital that parents work on recognizing in themselves what that limit is and when it’s approaching.

Parents and other caregivers should have boundaries and standards for themselves, too. Daddy and I agreed we would not use corporal punishment; as soon as I laid hands on Peanut in anger, I knew I had crossed a line. Parents should know their resources, too, which might include posting the national child abuse prevention hotline on the refrigerator or message center. We can’t allow pride or shame to prevent us from reaching out when we need help.

When you came back home, Peanut was calling “Mama, Mama,” so Daddy passed him off to me. Peanut laid his head on my shoulder, wrapped his arms around me, and patted my back as if to reassure me (or himself?). He’d done it once before in a less stressful moment; this time, it nearly brought me to tears. I hugged and snuggled him, then confessed to Daddy that I’d been rough with him earlier. I apologized to Peanut and cuddled him some more. A little later, as I rocked with Munchkin before bed, I apologized for being grumpy. As usual, she asked “why?” I explained I had been tired and frustrated; we held and comforted each other in the darkness.

It was a good end to a bad day.

I love you more than words can express,
Your imperfect but dedicated Mama

NB: April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month.

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One Response to Slippery Slope

  1. Pingback: The Christian Parenting Handbook | Notebook of Memory

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