11 June 2000
It started when the screen door swung closed but not completely. The latch didn’t catch. The cat saw his opportunity and went for it. I realized he was missing two beats later and rushed out barefoot after him. Planning to be outside for just the five seconds it took to scoop him up and haul his furry butt back inside. But Damian saw his opportunity and ran out after me. Barefoot too.

Lunch was almost ready. Dan was adding the chickpeas to the tuna salad, warming the salmon bits for Damian, setting the table. And I was hungry. This wasn’t the time for a trot around the block. But Damian didn’t want to come in. He protested. Dan put him in the high chair. He protested some more. Whined. Complained. Fussed. Cried. I wanted to take him out of the high chair, let him run free in the house. Dan felt he should join us for our meal, that we were setting a precedent, that Damian would calm down given time and cajoling. He gave him corn puffs, he played peek-a-boo around the back of the high chair. He worked the room, you might say.

And Damian did start to calm down, did start to eat, but he was frazzled and jumpy and when the puff slid off his spoon he started crying again.

It didn’t help that I was anxious and tense. I thought keeping him in the high chair was a horribly bad idea. I said so, not hiding the emotion in my voice. It brought back memories of my own childhood, feeling helpless under the heavy hand of authority. Feeling constrained, roped in, tied down. Probably another residual effect of my father’s treatment, because my mother was never authoritarian or arbitrary that I can remember. Which is a good thing, because I don’t take it very well.

Witness the story of the tomato: It was summertime, so we were at our cottage in the Berkshires. I was probably eight or nine. My parents had to go somewhere; they left the next door neighbor’s teenage daughter to take care of my brother and me overnight. I was a picky kid. The list of foods I wouldn’t touch was encyclopedic. Tomatoes were way up there on the list. So of course when the sitter offered me a tomato slice, I refused. She insisted. I refused. She took the tomato slice and shoved it down my throat, trying to make me eat it. I gagged and spit it out. It was nearly twenty years before I even tasted another tomato.

So I have a problem with insisting that a child do something just because. I have a problem with power struggles when one person is so clearly at a disadvantage. Ideally, I would gently cajole and convince Damian to do things my way or calculate the downside and allow him to go his own way or distract him or reason with him or something. But it doesn’t always work like that. I’m not superhuman, I can’t always control my emotions, I can’t always see far enough ahead to know how to steer the course of events.

In other words, sometimes I fuck up.

My mistake with the high chair incident was twofold:

If I had a problem with Dan’s way of handling things, I should have simply -- calmly and without fuss -- taken Damian out of the high chair and let him nurse or sat him on my lap to eat. I didn’t because part of me wondered if I was wrong in my reaction, if he was right in thinking that we need to be firmer with Damian now, that we’re spoiling our son by giving in too easily.

But if I was going to go along with Dan’s approach, I needed to shut up and stay out of it. And I didn’t. I couldn’t. I felt ill. I don’t want my baby to cry like that, not ever.

No, my mistake was threefold. I couldn’t stand being in the room with them, especially after Damian started leaning out of his chair, reaching for me. So I walked out. I went to the bedroom so I wouldn’t have to watch. But Damian is still very mommy-centric, especially when he’s upset. This defection pushed him over the edge into heartbreak.

The screams brought me back. I grabbed him, lifted him out of the high chair, and went into the nursery to rock and soothe and nurse. And everything was okay again. We were all shaky but we survived. For the moment.

Dan told me two things later that clarified everything. First, he had actually intended to try cajoling Damian and if it didn’t work, he was going to take him right out. But then I got so upset, which made him -- Dan, I mean -- dig his heels in. He’s got a stubborn streak -- no, it’s more like a mile wide swath of stubborn. As do I. As does Damian. So we were caught in the spin cycle, spiraling around each other, raising all our stubborn hackles and making everything so much worse.

Second, he was doing all of this partly because I had complained just the day before that I feel like a milk cow. I feel like Damian uses nursing like a crutch and I’m sick of it. I nursed without complaint for most of the past two years, but he’s not a baby anymore, he’s a walking, talking child who eats full meals (well, sometimes) and drinks juice and water and can understand simple concepts. I don’t mind nursing him to sleep at night, nursing him to sleep at naptime, nursing him when he’s sick and needs the easy-to-digest nourishment. I don’t even mind touching base occasionally with a nursing session. But I mind the pawing and the mauling and the neediness that’s not about anything other than "I can have mommy now." I mind the hand down the front of my shirt when I’m holding him at the store. I mind the foot shoving my chin while he’s nursing. I mind being on call because he just happens to feel like suckling for a while. And Dan knew that Damian was crying because he wanted to nurse and he thought it would be better to not give in to that, to give him lunch instead. Which obviously backfired in a big way.

This all ties directly into tantrum number two.

Yup. There was a second, following the first like an aftershock follows an earthquake.

After Damian calmed down, I figured he was tired, I should nurse him down for a much needed nap. So I settled in the armchair to nurse. Another mistake. For whatever reason: anxiety, residual anger, fidgetiness, general angst -- he insisted on pulling on my mole.

The background: I have a mole on the left side of my left breast. Damian is drawn to it like a doodler to a scrap of paper. I used to allow him to touch it but not to pinch it or yank it or do anything else painful. Problem is, that’s a damned fine line to draw for a two year old. So recently I’ve tried to discourage him from even touching it, with middling success. Dan thinks I should be firmer, more consistent. Consistent rules and boundaries are important for small people. They make them feel more secure. At least that’s the theory.

So when he started pulling on my mole, I said no. He kept on doing it. Stubbornly, doggedly persistent. I covered the mole with my finger. He got mad. I switched him to my right breast. He twisted and contorted his body in an effort to get back to the left breast. He screamed to nurse. But every time I let him nurse on the left side, he tried to yank my hand off the mole so he could grab and tweak. Battle royal. I said no, I said if he persisted he couldn’t nurse anymore. He persisted. I disengaged him. He screamed. And screamed and screamed. I held him close in my lap and told him I loved him but that he couldn’t tweak my mole.

His face was flushed, his eyes were staring and hollow, his body was rigid. He cried an angry cry I’ve never heard from him. He was somewhere far away from us in a hell of his own and I couldn’t bring him back.

Finally I suggested to Dan that he rock Damian. Usually if Damian is taken away from me when he’s upset, he freaks. But he was already there, it couldn’t get any worse. So Dan rocked him and gradually his cries got a little less loud, gradually he took longer and longer breaths in between. Finally he calmed and fell asleep.

Dan brought the monitor into the living room. We heard Damian’s soft breathing, but with that telltale intake of breath, that hiccuping sob that says you’ve been crying.

I felt like crying myself. I felt like I’d failed him as a mother.

This is not the way we want to parent. This is not what we want our child to feel. I know some people think it’s inevitable. I don’t. At least not with Damian. I know my kid; he’s not tantrum-prone.

I think it was a combination of factors yesterday: a little tinder, a little fuel, a dry wind, and voila, combustion. Tinder: the first battle of wills over the high chair. Fuel: my growing unhappiness with our nursing relationship and Damian’s inevitable awareness of my feelings. Dry wind: the kid was tired, therefore grumpy, therefore oversensitive. In a perfect world, I would have picked up on all this. In a perfect world, I would have forestalled the explosion, splashed water on the incipient brushfire while it was still smoldering but before it burst into flames. But that perfect world assumes a perfect mom, not a tired, grumpy mom who isn’t thinking straight, who is tired of thinking. Who is afraid she doesn’t have the tools to be mom to a toddler after all, who doubts her own parental instincts.

The aftermath:

I decided to get serious about getting Damian down to three or four nursing sessions a day. I’ll be saner, therefore more patient. But I need to find a gentle, non confrontational way to do it. My May Moms came through with some great suggestions. I tried one today: when Damian wanted to nurse and I knew it was just to touch base, I let him for a minute, then I told him nursing would be all done when I’d counted down from ten. "Ten. Nine. Eight." Etc. He laughed, delighted, at my countdown. And stopped happily at "one."

Dan and I agree now that Damian needs gentle persuasion, that any hint of rigidity and he’ll dig his heels in. Like his father. Like his mother. That’s us, the Stubborns. We need to respect that in him and not try and twist him to conform to our expectations.

This is the age for boundary testing. It’s a test of parenting. It’s a test of discipline, not only ours with him but ours with ourselves. This morning, Dan and I were both in the kitchen dealing with food. I walked out into the dining room to find Damian with his hands buried in a plant pot, the soil dumped out onto the window seat and the floor. Veritable heaps of dirt. I said "no!" and Dan said "no!" and Damian cried. But instead of continuing to yell, I told Damian that "the plant needs that dirt to live. It’ll die if it doesn’t have that dirt. That dirt is its home just like this is our home. That’s why you can’t take the dirt out of the pot." I have no idea if he had a clue what I was going on about but you know what? He cheered right up. I was talking to him with respect, I had a reason for being severe about it. I wasn’t being arbitrary and I wasn’t judging him. Everything was okay after all. And he hasn’t tried the plant pot dirt trick again. Today, anyway.

We were all very loving today. Damian got lots of attention and affection and he responded with giggles and general sunniness. I feel like a mom in recovery, like I may be okay after all. I’ve fallen once but the black mark won’t be held against me for eternity.

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