Friday, April 20, 2007

Terrific or Terrible Toddlerhood

Imagine life as a two or three year old. Your world view is eye level with table tops and adult knees. No one explains the rules until you make a mistake and then they expect you to remember it the next time. Your fingers drop spoons, spill juice and can't pull on a sock. When you speak, no one understands except your parents and even they often miss the point. Asking for a cookie can become downright aggravating. You ‘toddle’ when you walk on unsteady legs making skinned knees a daily occurrence. On top of that, you have to remember to say ‘potty’ about ten times a day or you wet your pants. So it’s not surprising that you find creative ways to have your needs met like the little boy in this next story.


Nothing prepared me for life as the pregnant mother of a toddler. Oblivious to the humiliation ahead, I parked our station wagon in front of Hull House on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, hopeful the tot-lot program proved worth the effort. By the time I pulled Matt from the car seat, I was winded. Mounds of snow blocked the sidewalk. I grasped his hand in mine as we inched our way towards the front door.

“Doesn’t the snow look like frosting?” Drifts covered the gothic roof spires. Matt didn’t answer as he tracked a flake with his tongue.

Inside, the entryway smelled like burnt toast.

“It’s out of order.” A scrawny woman sprawled on a sofa pointed to the elevator, sniffed and flipped open a newspaper. “Stairs’re over there. Four flights.”

I should have followed my instincts and gone home. But no, I had parked and fed the meter. Playtime was important for Matt. Who knew how long we’d be stranded inside after the baby was born.

On the first landing, Matthew reversed direction and tried to slide down the banister. I hoisted him onto my hip and continued the climb. We reached the second floor dripping from the heat and lack of oxygen in the narrow stairwell. I stripped off our coats and rolled them into a bundle. Matt’s hair was plastered to his scalp, his cheeks flushed.

“This’ll be fun. Promise.” Could there have been a more inconvenient place for a children’s play group to meet? “Just a little further.”

We pulled each other up the last flight and entered the remains of a ballroom. Parquet flooring splintered underfoot, dirty white paint flaked off the walls. Huge grimy windows provided the final touch of gloom.

A dozen children sprinkled among tricycles, blocks, and toys jostled each other. I dropped into a folding chair and helped Matt pull off his boots.

“Go play,” I sputtered, wheezing.

Matt tottered into the morass. When I finally took a deep breath, the room smelled like the monkey house at Lincoln Park Zoo. Not one face looked familiar. Toddlers coughed and sneezed. Did the paint chips that littered the floor have lead in them?

Before I could find a water fountain or open a book, a shriek shattered the room. The kind of scream reserved for lions and tigers. My boots left puddles as I charged into the chaos, worried that Matt was hurt, relieved when I saw him steady the handle of a Big Wheel Bike and climb onto the seat.

The other mothers had formed a protective shield around the victim, kissing and soothing the ‘good’ child, who, between sobs, pointed at Matt. I avoided eye contact with anyone and focused on the victim’s hand. A dental impression of twelve small teeth encircled swollen blue flesh. I tasted fermented orange juice.

“I’m so sorry. That’s horrible. It’s okay, I think.” No blood, thank god. I whipped around, gripped Matt under my arm and hustled towards the stairwell. “How could you bite that child? You’re a bad boy. You hurt him. Did you hear him scream? That was a bad thing to do. We’re never coming back here!”

Someone behind me said, “Good!” but I didn’t look back. In two strides we were out the door. Matt hung like a dishrag while I railed at him from the fourth to the first floor. “Biting is bad. You can bite food – bite a toy – but not a person, not a little boy. Ask when you want something. NO BITE!”

I stuffed Matt back into his snowsuit, tied the scarf too tight, slammed boots onto his feet.

The woman on the sofa grinned. “That was quick.”

Matt’s feet stumbled and flew as we marched to the car. Within minutes he was strapped into his car seat while I strangled the steering wheel. Snow covered the windows, transforming the car into a cocoon. I turned on the motor, hoping the hum and vibration would soothe me.

How many snarls did a bite deserve? True, Matt lost the big wheel. We left. He didn’t get to play with the other children. But did he understand this could not happen ever again? When I turned around to scold Matt one more time, he was asleep.


Carol Owens Campbell said...

The snow as frosting on the gothic roof spires, the smells of burnt toast and fermented orange juice, the sounds of shrieks, and the exhaustion of climbing stairs with a toddler makes me feel I'm right there with you. The reality? After reading this story, moms everywhere can feel they're right there with you. Thank you for sharing this glimpse, this "bite" of "reality." Thank you for sharing the ups and downs, the first-time joys and second-guessing of motherhood. We're all in this together. You're a magnificent writer. Love, Carol

Anonymous said...

Dear Barbara, Going up those stairs hurts me almost as much as it hurt you. I am so sensitive to your pain. When I read this, I wished I could have seen the incident to know why Matt had to bite. One of my children bit a few times. She'd have a look on her face like there was no alternative and then she'd grab an arm. It didn't last too long. Today she can still hurt someone just not with her teeth.