Monday, April 9, 2007

Tales From the Trenches

April is Child Abuse Prevention month. When I worked at the Family Resource Center of Iowa County in Wisconsin, we tied blue ribbons on the tree in front of the county court house, one for each reported case of child abuse or neglect. The last year I was there, we had to cut over 200 strips. Where were my allegiances as I attached bows to the branches? With both the children and their over-stressed parents.

I haven’t forgotten those moments of my early motherhood, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted when too many responsibilities and not enough support pushed me to the brink. What kept me from stepping over the line? I was lucky enough to be born into a family with competent parenting skills but realized early on that my instincts had limitations. I also recognized that in spite of my teaching experience, I knew very little about how best to parent my own children.

I read dozens of child development books, discussed options with other parents in support groups, and sought counseling from teachers and friends. I stopped worrying about what everyone else thought about my parenting skills or my children and focused on developing good coping mechanisms. I learned how to set limits and establish appropriate consequences. I took time outs for myself, asked for support from family and friends, gave myself days off and made my expectations clear. Most importantly, I developed a set of responses that I could implement before I reached code blue. Because no matter how challenging a child’s behavior might be, it’s the parent who is ultimately responsible for what transpires and for the quality of the relationship that evolves.

During the next few weeks, I'll be posting stories like this one from my early years as a Mom.

Tyranny of a Toddler

By the time Matt was a year old, I’d forgotten the sleep deprivation, labor pains and nursing fiasco to the point that a second baby seemed like a good idea. I was getting at least six hours sleep a night and we’d reached the golden moment in childhood before toddlerhood hit full throttle. Not that I understood or could verbalize any of that. At the time, I operated under the assumption that a two year stretch between babies was a good idea and had no idea how terrifying toddlerhood could become.

On a steamy spring afternoon, a month before my due date, we rambled off to the local Chinese Restaurant, Rocky's Hong Kong. Matt dozed in his stroller. We rolled right up to the table. I squeezed my ample body into one side of the booth, perspiration dappling my forehead. Matt climbed into the toddler chair next to his Dad. We ordered our favorite plate lunch special with a vegetable fried rice side for the three of us.

Matt played with the packets of sugar and the salt shaker, sprinkled the table, kicked the red plastic booth. I caught the soy sauce jar before it sprayed brown dots on his red, white and blue striped shirt. He'd shimmied half-way under the table when the waitress placed our meal on the table. Matt leaped back into his chair and grabbed the platter. “Mine!” he proclaimed.

I pried his chubby fingers loose, then slid the dish of egg roll and chow mein out of his reach. Gravy sloshed onto the table. Matt knocked over the sugar bowl and banged his fist against the wall. A dollop of rice plopped into Steve’s lap. A water glass tipped. Steve leaped from the table and into the back of another customer. I wriggled out of my seat and scooped Matt under my arm.

He thrashed against my chest and screamed “Mine!” as I hobbled past the other customers. His legs kicked my thighs. My ears burned fuchsia. I gritted my teeth as I dragged both of us outside. Matt was berserk and I was two nanoseconds behind him. He slipped to the pavement where he flung himself against the cement walk and wailed. When the monster stopped moving, I thought the worst was over. Perhaps the egg roll was still warm. Wrong again. Crazy baby resumed his hysteria and shrieked as if he was being beaten.

My neck prickled as I stared at nothing over the heads of strangers strolling past, clucking their tongues and twisting their necks, grimaces and smiles fastened to their faces. My dress stuck to my back. I folded my arms across my chest and shifted my balance. Wild boy simmered to a whimper, then hiccups. I braced myself against the concrete wall in case it was another intermission.

“Are you finished?” I was all business. Speckles of dirt and sweat smeared his face, palms and knees. Matt held up his arms, sighed and sputtered.

I hoisted him onto my left hipbone, bouncing his bottom firmly into position, my arm strangling his waist as I marched to the bathroom. His legs hung limp like a rag doll. The mantra in my head blasted, “I do love this baby. He’s not a devil child.”

The sight of my face in the mirror was more than a little frightening. I splashed soapy water on Matt’s cheeks and arms. We walked back to the table together holding hands. Steve, slumped in the booth, offered me a sympathetic glance as he helped Matt settle in his booster seat.

“You’re up next.” I crammed myself into the booth and polished off a glass of water.

Matthew touched the edge of our cold lunch platter with one finger. “Mine?” He sounded hopeful.

And even though the sight of the congealed mass of chicken, noodles and sauce had obliterated my appetite, I said “No, we’re going to share,” and waited for Matt’s response.

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