Tonight, I sat in the middle of my daughter’s bedroom, absolutely furious, and surrounded by every. single. shirt that child owns. Maggie sat hunched in the corner, babbling inarticulate sounds of despair, while tears fell down her face – tears that were big enough that I could hear them when they slid off of her chin and onto the floor.
It started at “clean up” time. Every night the routine is the same. When we get to the appointed time, Maggie must clean up her toys, her books, her crayons. She needs to help tidy any of the communal property that she has helped disturb during her play (such as pillows, pulled from the couch to make a bed for her baby dolls). She gets help and coaching from whichever parent is available, and on Monday nights, that is always me, as David teaches a night class every Monday.
I had already had a long day. Mondays are long days, generally, but this Monday felt particularly long. I had a deadline coming up, and so I was trying to finish my work without David or outside childcare to help me corral the kids. When this happens, I usually set up my computer at the dining room table, which means Maggie is free to play just about anywhere, and I can keep an eye on her. Beckett, too, can scoot around the room with relative ease, but really can’t get into much trouble re: electrical outlets or breakable things. I take breaks from my work to read a book or draw with Maggie, nurse Beckett, or get one/both of them some form of sustenance. It works, but it puts me on edge, because the work basically has to happen in 5-minute intervals.
So we get to the designated clean up time, and I give Maggie the 10-minute warning. “In ten minutes, it will be time to clean up your toys.” This warning is met with a simple, yet determined, “No.” The warning gets repeated at 5 minutes, then 2 minutes, and then, it is time. “Maggie, take your crayons and put them in the art box.”
“Maggie, I will count to five, and if you don’t start putting your crayons away, you will sit in time out. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”
She sits in time-out happily. When she’s done, she says “I’m sorry.” And then goes back to coloring, despite my instruction to clean up. So it’s another time-out. Then another. And yet another. She is sitting happily in time-out as if it doesn’t bother her one bit, and I’m getting more and more aggravated. At the end of the evening, she had spent a good 45 minutes in time-out, though her time outs are TWO MINUTES long.
I made the decision to skip her bath, because so much time had already been spent between time out and cleaning up, and she was clearly tired. So I got her dressed, washed her face, brushed her teeth, read her stories and put her to bed. Then I went to tend to Beckett, who was wailing in the next room. After about 30 seconds, Maggie started to SCREAM. I still don’t know exactly what she was screaming for, but it was something about a shirt. I was nursing Beckett, and so there was nothing I could do at the moment. I sat there, nursing Beckett, willing him to not listen to his sister and just chill out and go to sleep. When he was done, I went into Maggie’s room.
She had removed her pajamas and was standing there in only a diaper, wailing at the top of her lungs. I tried to put her shirt back on, but she pushed my hand away. Then I reached into her closet to get a different shirt, thinking maybe she just wanted something different, but she not only pushed my hand away, but she tried to hit me. At that point, it was clear that she wanted a specific shirt.
Now, what I should have done at this point is given her a simple choice: this shirt, or no shirt. Instead, I lost all perspective. I spent the next 25 minutes offering Maggie every single shirt of hers that exists. I dumped a laundry basket of clean laundry and a hamper full of dirty laundry in the middle of the floor. Each shirt offered was summarily rejected, and met with more tears and screaming and “SHIIRRRTT!”
When all of the shirts had been presented and rejected, I yelled. I let my overly-tired, sobbing, two-year old, daughter have it. I stormed out of her bedroom, slamming the door in the process. I left her sobbing while I took off my clothes and turned on the shower.
The sound of the water masked the sound of Maggie’s sobbing, but I knew it was still there. I felt terrible, like the worst mother on the planet. I was confident that I had broken my daughter. But I breathed, listened to the running water, and made a plan.
The water turned off, I could hear Maggie still sobbing and screaming in her room. I got out, dried myself off, and put on some fresh clothes. Then I went into her room and quickly put all of the clothes scattered on the floor into a laundry basket. I offered Maggie her shirt – the original shirt – the one I had put on her two hours earlier. She put it on, and reached her arms up to me. I picked her up, told her I was sorry and that I loved her. She answered with her oft-repeated refrain, “Help, please NOSE?”
So I wiped her nose and dried her tears. I sang her the song we sing her every night before bed, and I laid her back down.
Now she’s asleep. She’s quiet. When the morning comes, there will be no resentment, no grudges. She’ll probably ask for a banana and cereal the second she gets up, the way she does every morning. But I’ll remember. And the next time, I’ll try to be better.