It is once again game night. Steve is back in Baltimore
visiting his second family working so I have called in reinforcements. Our neighbors gather around the table with us to play Apples to Apples Junior. After several years of using Sharpies to customize cards the game has a decidedly less “junior” feel. There are about 5 cards that read “my balls” but lately the ante has been upped and there are “hairy balls” “big bald balls” and “your neighbor’s balls.” This one was particularly awkward with my neighbor at the table. It was all fun and game until the choking.
Oliver did something “unforgivable”. Something along the lines of winning a single card and Leo was out of his seat at Oliver’s side. There was a light tussle and Oliver’s face began to redden. At first I thought he was choking back laughter…lots of times their physical scuffles crack him up. Then I realized he was simply choking. Leo had his hands around his neck. I had been solo parenting on little sleep. I had even chaperoned a field trip that day…which is meant to imply that my reserves of creative and kind parenting were depleted. Add to this an audience and possible death and you can see the swirl of the shit storm that was rising up within me.
“Leo.” I barked. His hands dropped to his sides so I knew that I could eliminate death of my first born from the problem list. “You can leave the game or tell me you are going to keep your hands to yourself.” His fists balled, his eyes squeezed to slits.
“You don’t want me here.”
“I do.” I told him, although at that moment I did not. In theory I was speaking the truth, I wanted us all to enjoy the game and live to see another day.
“I love it when we all play together, but we can’t worry about someone not SURVIVING the game. Can you tell me you won’t harm Oliver?”
“Leo, he is in pain…you really hurt him…take a look at his face…can you tell me you will keep him safe?”
The neighbor’s kids were frozen with interest. This was obviously more entertaining than any Apples to Apples game, no matter how many spiky ball cards there were to play. I have spent a lot of time and effort not parenting myself into a corner. I try never to pit Leo and I against each other by issuing an ultimatum. I know from being raised by my father, and living with myself that that simply puts us on tilt. We are a line of angry spitters and we need a way out with grace or we will dig in our heels until the bitter bitter end. And that end can be quite bitter indeed.
There was a beat. Oliver’s face lost its beet like color, I took a deep breath. Leo stayed frozen…stuck. I needed to carve a way out. I needed to let him choose us.
“We all really want you to play Leo.”
The other mom chimed in. “We do…we want you to play.”
He walked back to his spot and picked up his cards. Looking at Oliver whose fingertips were gently rubbing his neck I knew I couldn’t quite leave it there.
“Leo. Please tell me you will keep your hands to yourself.”
In a little voice tinged with malice he muttered “I’ll keep my hands to myself.”
So we played on.
This is one of those moments in mothering that I will always second guess. Should I have reacted more strongly? Protected Oliver more fiercely? How do we encourage rather than demand kindness? How do I elevate my son who plays the victim without challenging his gentle nature, and how do I subdue my son the aggressor without leaving him feeling judged and tamped down?
Later, lying in bed with a boy on each arm I am thinking that it is hard work raising people. Even when I am a lazy mom there are still tears to dry…and sometimes they are not my own.
And sometimes they are happy tears. That morning I trudged along Dinosaur Ridge with 62 third graders. It was the site of the first reported Stegosaurus discoveries. There are bones and tracks and fossils. That said my mind was flipping between counting my little charges and wondering how the hell these tour guides could make dinosaur bones boring. It was quite a feat. I shifted from foot to foot and wondered when lunch was. I would be a crummy third grader. Or maybe just a typical third grader. Leo was loving the field trip so when he asked me what was wrong I told him I was jealous of his water bottle with a strap…mine was getting difficult to hold. It was some quick thinking not to bring him into my pit of immaturity at the edge of the excavation.
“Lets’ trade” he told me holding out his beloved black Rockies bottle and reaching for my bright blue one.
“No thanks babe, I got it.”
“Let me help you…let me hold yours.” His eyes were looking up at me, wide open, he wanted to help. So I handed over the bottle. He whispered “I love you.”
From behind another mom, who may or may not have been enjoying the field trip nudged me. I looked back and she made the saddest face, holding up the two water bottles in her hands. My son bore the burden of both bottles, and her daughter’s arms swung free at her sides. Her expression was perfect and I had her pose for a follow up picture. She pointed at Leo. “Get one of him with both bottles too.” So I did. It turns out I might not remember the igneous rock or dinosaur bulges but I will remember this moment. I didn’t know how soon I would need to call it to mind. So here I am in bed with the boys, three hours past choking, 12 hours past my son tending to my needs, and 300 million years past that first fossil choking up myself. I hold each boy a little tighter and then push them away. I need a little breathing room, and some time to fill the reserves so I can be mom tomorrow.