I just said goodbye to my kids before leaving them for the next five days. When I told them I was leaving to visit my sick grandfather, their great-grandfather, my son burst into tears. His reaction surprised me, frankly; the two of us butt heads constantly, and I thought he might actually be titillated by the idea of spending some Daddy-free time with his far more forgiving Poppy. “I don’t want you go,” he cried, as he slobbered all over my shirt. For some reason when he’s really upset, the mouth controls that keep saliva from spilling out cease functioning. I patted him gently on the back, trying not to get too grossed out by the mucous connecting my clothing to his face. Once he calmed down, we had a chat about what was wrong with my grandfather and why I needed to go see him now. I asked them if they could make a card for him, and they both bounded upstairs to do so, my son still quietly crying.
Today, I gave the babysitter the morning off so that I could get the kids ready for breakfast and walk them to school before heading to the airport. Our sitter usually gets here around 6:45 am, and she tells me that every day, the minute my car pulls out of the driveway, the kids are clomping downstairs ready to start their day. The few times that I’m home in the morning, they sleep in. Late. It’s like the sound of my Highlander driving away elicits some Pavlovian response, awakening their consciousness, and without that sound today, they slept in until 8:00. This gave us only about forty minutes to get them fed, dressed, and out the door.
Thankfully they’re old enough to dress themselves, and today my son came down in shorts and a t-shirt. I reminded him that we live in New England and it will be about forty degrees today, and he said he didn’t care. I decided long ago that this was a battle not worth fighting (after losing many, many such battles), so I just shrugged and told him that if that’s what he wanted to wear, it was fine with me. I made some omelets and toast, and the two kids sat down to eat.
Meal times aren’t the easiest for me when we have something else that needs to get done. Whether it’s after-dinner homework or an afternoon departure for an activity after lunch, I sit there thinking, “Eat faster children. We have things to do.” I am a notoriously fast eater, and even when we have time for a leisurely meal, I tend to finish my food a good fifteen minutes before the rest of the family. I’ve also got these mild-OCD tendencies, and sitting there doing nothing while everyone else is eating tends to drive me a little crazy when I know there are three other things I can cross off my to-do list in that time. I’ve been working on these neuroses though, and I’ve been pretty successful at sitting down and enjoying family meal time.
This morning was not one of those times however. I’m missing school today and Monday, and grades are due Monday morning. I still have 25 essays to grade, and now that everything is online, I’m feeling a bit stressed about being on a plane for seven hours today without Internet access. Once I get to California, I don’t know when I’ll find the time to sit down and grade this stuff, so I’m kind of freaking out internally. I did speak with my principal yesterday about the possibility of not having grades done in time, and he was gracious about it given the circumstances, but even with that extension, it’s just not the type of person I am to sit back and relax with that option.
So during breakfast this morning, several minutes after I’d finished my Chobani yogurt, the children were still slowly eating their eggs and talking about this and that. I decided that I could very easily sneak into the next room, grade a paper, and then check in on them before scooting out to get another paper done. I looked at the clock. 8:20. With this method, I could probably crank out a good three papers, maybe four.
This of course wasn’t the best plan. Yes, I graded four papers over the next twenty minutes, but the kids were nowhere near ready to go at 8:35, just five minutes before they are officially supposed to be out the door. We instituted a check system a few months ago with our sitter, and leaving the house by 8:40 is one of three checks they get, and the checks dictate their weekly allowance and other special privileges like family movie night. At 8:35, my daughter was getting ready to go, and at the same time it became clear to me that my son wasn’t going to finish his breakfast any time soon. I’ll save our struggles with his eating habits for another time, but I slowly erupted inside, secretly mad at myself for not more closely monitoring their progress.
“Just swallow your food and then clean up the disaster area around your chair.” My husband and I constantly marvel at how our son can make a mess out of the smallest meal, even a snack like a single carrot, and this was a full breakfast so the floor contained about a third of the food originally on his plate. Still, I didn’t have to ask him to clean it up with such a harsh tone. He started to look sad, and I went in for the kill. “I don’t know if you’re going to get that check now. You might get an X. There’s only four minutes left.” He started crying while he swept up the food. And I didn’t stop. “You better hurry up and get your shoes on. We still need to brush your teeth and comb your hair. I don’t think there’s any way we’re getting out by 8:40.”
Our daughter, sensing the oncoming blow up, got herself ready and stepped out onto the porch. “I’m ready Daddy!” she called.
“I’ll be right there as soon as your brother decides he’s going to get serious about leaving,” I called as I quickly brushed his teeth with him. As soon as he rinsed out his mouth, he’d had enough. He ran into the living room and curled up in a ball on the sofa crying.
Well, I’d succeeded in breaking him down. Why did I do that? Why do I all too often do that?
I followed the normal operating procedure in our house, and I went to him to apologize. I calmed him down, wiped up the snot from his face, and I explained that I was feeling very nervous about my trip and I was taking it out on him unfairly. But he had already moved beyond all sense of logic.
“You made me late!”
Uh, no. This type of blaming tends to make me forget that I am the adult and he is only six.
“No, I didn’t. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I was mean and not supportive, but you made yourself late. I gave you lots of warnings, and you didn’t heed them.” Granted, they were warnings from the other room while I was grading a paper on my computer, but they were warnings nonetheless.
He wouldn’t let it go. By now it was 8:45.
“Listen, I love you very much. Sometimes we make mistakes. All of us. I made a mistake by being mean to you, and you made a mistake by not watching the time and listening to my suggestions to hurry up. All we can do is learn from them and hope that we don’t make the same mistakes next time.”
I finally got him calmed down enough so we could head out the door, and we walked the one block to school in silence, him clinging to my waist and holding my arm tight around his shoulders. We said our goodbyes on the corner, and I told them they could call me any time they wanted while I was away.
These interactions with my son have gotten better over the years, believe it or not. My husband is incredibly supportive in helping diffuse these situations, and I have good friends that help talk me off the ledges when I feel like the only thing I’m succeeding at is sending my kids into a lifetime of therapy. Still, these episodes pain me every time they happen, and they hurt even more when we’re acting perfectly normal in public and people say things like, “You’re such a great dad.” When I hear that, all I can think about are the times I’m deliberately mean to him. In the end, I hope that the realistic display of how I work through difficult emotions and the careful and caring debriefing that happens after the fact can only help my kids understand me and themselves as they grow older.