The Better Parent

“Is it hard taking care of me?”

He asks this as we coast at long last on a hard-won current of harmony. We are under the Tinkerbell blanket and nearing the last of the songs.

I laugh at his question to buffer the twist of the knife. He has seen my jaw tonight. It has been a locked box heavy with chains. He is seven and keen to learn the cues.

His face is near. I kiss his forehead. “Some days, it’s tough just getting through it all. Home and chores. All that.” The long mess of his hair presses into my cheek. “But that’s just part of being a family. It’s not hard being your mom.” I pause. “Is it hard being my kid?”

He flashes a wicked grin. “Yes. It’s really hard. It’s terrible.”

“Why’s that, bub?”

“You don’t give me anything good ever. Not Pokemon cards. Not ever, not even once.”

We are back here again. Back at the fight that started yesterday at 3:30pm in Bug’s classroom. Tee and I had joined three other parent volunteers to run the first-grade holiday party. When I offered myself up a week earlier, I was picturing a pan of brownies and paper plates. Instead, at 9:30 the night before, I was the glassy-eyed zombie walking through the screaming aisles of Party City collecting cheap props for a class photo booth. At the actual party, I ended up pinch hitting for the mom whose sick son kept her home. This meant, on a half-beat of notice, coming up with holiday-themed movement games to play with sugared-up groups of 7-year-olds in a suffocatingly small indoor space.

As we bagged up the party’s limp remains and the kids licked the last frosting from their fingers, Tee was in the back corner trying to convince Bug to pose for a photo. Our son was the only student who hadn’t had his glamour shot taken. Twenty other children had donned reindeer antlers and glittering top hats to ham it up for Tee’s camera. Not Bug. He’d flat out refused.

Instead of letting it ride, Tee cajoled. He begged. I dressed up for one. Tee dressed up and had me take one. Bug wouldn’t do it.

Tee wouldn’t let it go.

(Allow me to step aside here for a minute and say that Tee is super-dad. He’s the dad that eats, dreams, and oozes dad-hood. He’s engaged and loving and patient and on board with Bug’s all-around development. He coaches Bug’s basketball team. He comes to all the parent-teacher conferences. He takes the kid camping and ice skating and makes him do his homework. He is the father everyone wishes they’d had so they wouldn’t have all their daddy issues. He’s also a fantastic co-parent.)

Okay. Back to it.

Tee bribed Bug to take the photo. Bribed him by saying the next time Bug stayed with him, Tee would buy him Pokemon cards.

Bug posed for the photo. Tee reminded him that it would be Friday before they stayed together again.

Also? Tee made this same deal two weekends ago to convince Bug to go to a concert. Pokemon cards. Straight-up bribe.

It’s Tee’s issue, yes? His to deal with? If my son’s dad exchanges goodies for favors, not my problem, right?

Wrong.

When I picked up Bug from school after the party, the kid cracked into a dozen pieces. Sobbing. Wanted to go to Wal Mart. Said his daddy promised. Begged me to let him stay with his dad. Told me he didn’t like my house and he never wanted to stay with me ever again.

On our way out the door, the after-school care folks cheerfully reminded me of the potluck to be held the next day. Reminded? No, wait. Informed. For the first time. So, after working all day at my job and then volunteering in the classroom doing Rudolph Says with three dozen wired mini humans, I was to go home and cobble together some festive dish to take back to school in 13-1/2 hours?

“Remember, no nuts or pork! Thanks! We can’t wait!”

Me neither.

But we were still hours from the menu planning. Right on the heels of the car meltdown came galloping in an epic homework battle. Bug scrapped with every sentence. Tore at the paper. Slumped. Drew on the table. Deliberately misspelled every other word then flipped out when he had to correct them. Took 30 minutes to do a 5 minute assighment.

Finally, we ate. Bathed. Sang extra-long Christmas carols. Bug crashed. I went into the kitchen to make brownies, prepare a cheese platter, and assemble Bug’s lunch while finishing up wrapping gifts for the holiday exchange at my office.

Bed for mama sometime after midnight? Did I even dare look at the clock?

Fast forward to tonight.

I pick up Bug at school. Collect the brownie tins and cheese tray. Play the last two rounds of Pictionary with the kids.

Then.

“Why can’t I stay with my dad? He promised me Pokemon. And it’s Thursday which is the start of Friday so you’re a liar and I hate you!”

Ding Ding! Round 2!

Bug wails and rages and sobs the whole way home. Claims he is homesick. That his daddy is better because he gives him the food he likes and he has all the good toys and he buys Pokemon. Everything about his dad is better. And I’m mean. And he hates me.

Another homework battle. Another long lecture.

Another chokehold on my temper.

Here’s mom breathing. Mom steadying herself. Mom only yelling once and immediately changing tack. Mom talking through feelings and expectations. Mom explaining that homework is his own, his name is on it — not Mom’s name — and it’s his choice to do his best or not. Here’s mom methodically making dinner. Pausing to kiss the boy on the head. Ironing the fuse beads. Chatting calmly over grilled cheese sandwiches and broccoli.

So, at bedtime? Sweet mercy, we fall into reading and cuddling as we do every night. As if nothing in the world is ever very big, as if three is the magic number.

Three books to call up some fallen angel’s wings. Three songs, the incantation that wraps them around us.

“Is it hard taking care of me?”

This tap-tap on the sealed edge of my door. This spinning of the combination lock.

When he tells me it’s hard to be my kid because I never give him anything good, I chuckle instead of wincing. This is the third invocation in the spell of threes. This is the charm that animates the thing embracing us and warms it to life.

I laugh. He tries again.

“You don’t ever give me Pokemon ever.”

(Which isn’t true, but)

He curls into my arms and tickles my neck with his breath. I say, “I give you more good things that you can even count.”

I say this to him. To me. I say this to oil the hinges and thaw loose the frozen clasp.

I say this:

I give you cheese quesadillas.
A gazillion books.
Trips to the library.
Rides to the ice rink.

I give you a hot breakfast every morning.
Clothes you can move in.
A sweet doggie.
Cuddles. Hugs. Three songs every night.

I give you art stuff in every room of the house.
I give you a home.
Near a park.
And walks to the park all the time.
And walks all over this town.

I give you bandaids.
Time with your grandma.
Playdates with friends.
Help with your homework.

I slow down. Bug’s eyes droop. I ease up on the list and start the same last song I sing every night and will sing every night for as long as this fleeting eternity lasts.

Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea.

And I say without saying the words between the lyrics:

I give you my steady face. My calm half-attention when I reach all the way in and half is the most my fingers will grasp.
I give you my breath.

When I know the beast inside is snapping for bones, I give you the locked door.

I give you my best self. When I haven’t seen her in days and don’t know if she’s even in this time zone, I call her back home. I sit her down in the place I just was and let you have her version of love.

Yes, it’s hard to be your mom.
Some days I just give you a mom.
But you deserve her, this mom of yours.
I’m still figuring out how to be her.
 

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5 thoughts on “The Better Parent”

  1. That made me wipe my face a little. You handled that entire situation with grace. Sadly the gifts will cause your little one to fall short in the relationship with his father. You are doing it right and you are doing parenting awesome! Way to go to not give into that and teach him that what he has right now is important. Most parents just give in!

    1. Some days, I want to be a soft and comforting place for him. But that’s what I want, not necessarily what he needs at the moment. It’s tough to provide firm, calm detachment when I’m having my own internal storms. When I do it, though, the payoff is huge.

      In a way, being a bit tough and unflappable allows him to go through his whirl of emotions while holding onto something fixed. I guess it’s a way of being comforting without being soft. At least, this is the story I tell myself!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words.

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