The floorboards beneath my feet creaked. He sat up, rubbing his sleepy eyes, haphazard wisps of blond hair glowing in the shadowy light.
“Daddy went to work,” my 2-year-old son states matter-of-factly in a croaky miniature voice. He sounds like part frog, part angel.
“Yeah, Daddy is already at work. Good morning, buddy.”
He yawns and starts to blabber sweetly about other things. I smile because I love mornings like this. They’re delectable.
“I love you buddy,” I say.
“I love you too, Mommy,” he replies.
This will be a good morning, I think. I relax a little. I look at the clock—there’s still plenty of time before we have to leave.
“Ok, let’s go potty.” I pick up my son and carry him to the bathroom, snuggling his warm fuzzy head against my cheek. I put him down, pull down his pajama pants and take off his diaper.
“No. I don’t wanna potty.”
I tense slightly. The word “no” uttered by a toddler can often indicate an abrupt shift is about to occur.
“Are you sure? Can you just try?”
“Not right now,” he says.
Ultimately, I decide to pick my battles. I don’t want to be late for work again.
“It’s ok,” I assure him. “Let’s go get dressed.”
I take off his pants and shirt. He clutches the buttons protectively.
“NO! I don’t wanna take my shirt off!”
It’s gone from sweet to sour, and I look at the clock, knowing that once again, we’ll likely be late, despite how early I woke up to prevent it.
He collapses to the bathroom floor in a dramatic heap as I take off his slippers and pull off his pants. In a swift move, I have his shirt off and I’m already heading toward the bedroom to get his clothes.
He is screaming. “I want my slippers! I want my slippers! I don’t want my underwear!”
There is an invisible fence upon which toddler behavior teeters. One side is sunny pasture, the other side is a bleak landscape of wasted time, tears, screaming, writhing… When they balance on this fence, you consider your next move carefully.
Maybe I should sing a song? Should I pretend to be a monkey? Break into an impromptu dance party?
All things that have worked before, but not always.
I tap a beat on my legs and make up a song about getting dressed.
“NOOO! I want my slippers! Aaaaahhh!” He runs away from me, snot and tears smeared across his face.
I know I’m going to be late now. I know what I have to do next. I don’t have a choice.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” I say as I grab him around the waist and carry him to the bedroom as he kicks and tries to slap me.
He puts up a horrendous fight as I wrestle, literally, his pull-ups, pants, and shirt on. His arms flail and his cries become helpless. I whisk him up and carry him down the stairs. At this point, there is no time left, but there is one thing I must do.
My son is getting over an infection, so I must administer his antibiotic. If I don’t, he’ll miss a dose and as the internet has dutifully informed me, doing so would be catastrophic. He’d surely develop a resistance and likely succumb to some misfortune years later whereby his life might have been saved if only I hadn’t skipped this one dose of antibiotic.
I get it ready and offer it to him. He stops crying for a second and considers. It’s bubblegum flavored, after all. I envision him, arms out like an airplane as he balances on the invisible fence…I wait. He dives off into the abyss.
“NO! I don’t wanna wear my shirt!” His shrieks are feral. He tries to rip his shirt off, which he can’t because he’s two, and this only makes things worse.
I say a silent prayer that Jesus will give me patience.
Sweet baby Jesus please.
I crouch down.
“Buddy, I can see you’re upset. I’m sorry you’re upset, but mommy can’t do anything about it right now. You have to wear your shirt.”
He grabs his shirt and stretches it, while the screeching continues.
This whole ordeal has lasted nearly 15 minutes. Fifteen of our precious minutes, and we’re dangerously close to being really, really late.
I take the plastic oral syringe and fill it with the white, milky fluid. My own frustration is boiling just under the surface despite my best efforts.
We’re late. He has to take this medicine. He doesn’t even have his shoes on. Fuck.
The hideousness of what I do next seeps into my gut before I’ve even done it. I lunge, grabbing him firmly, holding his arms down, as I try to plunge the medicine into his mouth.
He screams and struggles, turning his head wildly from side to side.
I try again. Half of the antibiotic drips down the side of his face as he fights, knocking over the whole bottle and spilling the antibiotics everywhere.
“Goddamnit!” I hear my voice yell.
I see red. I am no longer me. Or maybe I’m the real me. I continue to hold him down while I pick up the bottle and add more to the oral syringe. I hit the plunger and pinch his nose. He swallows.
And it’s done.
I don’t even stop to put on his shoes and socks. I throw them into a bag, grab my purse, my coat and his, and take him straight to the car.
My hands shake as he continues to scream for another five minutes down the road.
“I don’t want my shirt! I don’t want my shirt!”
I try to focus on the soothing voices of NPR and finally he stops. The tantrum is over.
We don’t speak on the commute. I try to suppress the jagged lump in my throat as I recall every single detail of my behavior. Mine, not his. For 20 minutes I convince myself that I am a failure. I am a repugnant blotch on the name of motherhood, and my eyes well with tears. My arms are meant to be warm and welcoming, not cruel and constraining. My voice is meant to soothe, not spit resentment.
I wonder about the damage I’ve caused. I considered his tantrum and I know, as I knew when it was happening, that he just felt helpless. He felt like he had no control. I consider the reality that moments like these will shape the person he becomes. My mind volleys between detesting myself and staying mad at my son for electing to fight for his rights on a work day, a morning when I simply don’t have time to let him explore independence.
We arrive at daycare.
“Mommy, where’s my shoes?” He asks the question with such innocence. Like nothing has happened – like I didn’t just ruin our relationship with my maternal incapacities. Like I didn’t fail him.
I put his shoes on and carry him in. I stroke his hair—it’s matted in places with sticky antibiotics. His hands are sticky too, and his cheeks—evidence of our battle.
I walk into the room and set him down while I put away his things. His teacher asks if he wants breakfast as a mom I don’t know signs in her child. Another teacher comes in and asks my son if he wants to come have breakfast in her room, where he’ll be transitioning in the next few weeks with the “big kids.”
He shakes his head, and I know today is not a good day for change.
“We’ve had a really rough morning,” I blurt. “He had an epic tantrum, he’s got antibiotics in his hair and all over his face because I wrestled him down, I don’t think it’s a good time.”
The other mom turns and chuckles. “Ugh. Yeah, we struggle with that too.”
I want to kiss the strange woman. I want to thank her for not judging me, when I feel I deserve to be judged. For not judging my son whose face and mane are blotted with white crusty goo.
I don’t feel better, but I don’t feel alone either.
My son kisses and hugs me and we part ways.
My stomach churns on my way to work. It’s bitter cold as I walk in from the parking lot. I forgot my gloves and scarf in the melee and the frigid air stings my fingers. I let it. I deserve it.
I sit at my desk and start the day. It already seems long. I can’t wait to hold my son again—to pick him up and kiss him, and try to be better. I can’t wait for another chance to try my best.