Henry and I had a really great afternoon together on Monday. We did all the charming things the parenting pundits say a mom and her little boy should do together. After a trip to the ice cream shop for a "Dollar Sundae," we stopped at the library. We played in the puppet theater, we looked at books and did puzzles, and we made several trips up and down on the elevator (Henry's idea.) He also made sure to let all the library patrons know that we were in the elevator by ringing the fire bell. When the doors opened to let us out, right in front of the service desk, both of the bookish, middle-aged librarians were peering over the rims of their spectacles, scolding me with their disdainful glances. "What?" I asked. "It was him," I said playfully, pointing at Henry. I wasn't irritated; not even a little bit. When we got home that evening we ate vegetables with our dinner. We read stories. We sang songs. I even brushed Henry's teeth before bed (which I frequently forget to do,) and he went down without a fuss.
After making motherhood look so picturesque, I decided to start the "What Works" list. That night I was cheerfully perusing the internet for images of favorite story book covers, album covers, little pictures to illustrate felicitous motherhood. I should have known better than to act so presumptuously, my glossy-magazine-mothering lasted only one day. Tuesday morning Henry woke up grumpy. He refused his breakfast, except for a few nibbles of banana, and then asked for cookies and "gubbuh beaws" (gummy bears) all morning. When I took away my favorite Burt's Bees chap-stick, (that I found him eating in the clandestine privacy of my closet,) he expressed his disappointment in no uncertain terms, with a Texas-sized tantrum on the closet floor. It seemed as though the Family Fates were conspiring to decisively burst my positive parenting bubble. The day epitomized the old joke: "Everyone who thinks they're a good mother, please step forward...Not so fast, Emily Williams!" The reminders were relentless.
Later that afternoon we had to run out and get a few things at the store. Wanting to make the outing somewhat adventuresome for Henry, I opted for the cart with a kiddie car on the front so he could "drive" through the store, a real sacrifice seeing as how that child-friendly cart handled like a dump truck. I don't know how he freed himself from the restraints of the seat belt, but by the time we were at the front of the check out line, Henry was out of the kiddie-car and had a Butterfinger in one hand and pack of Gummy Lifesavers in the other. In the instant I pried the candy from his fists he dazzled the other customers and the cashier with the supple flexibility of his back, his lung capacity, and his utter disregard for public conduct. "Would you like some help out with this today, ma'am?" the courtesy clerk asked. There was only one bag of groceries. "Sure, you take my kid, I'll take the bag," I said. "And could you ride home with me? 'Cause I could use some help there as well." All this from the woman who was ready to nominate herself for mother of the year the day before. I could feel the cramp in my neck, the one that I always get with stress, burning its way up my back.
What works? What in the world WORKS? I wondered, as I drove home to the tune of Henry's sobs. Some days nothing works.
Later that evening, I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror surrounded by a heap of rejected outfits, getting ready to leave for a church function. Henry pulled my basket of makeup off the bathroom counter--mascara tubes, bobby-pins, eye liner pencils, lip gloss -- crashed, bounced, and rolled all over the bathroom floor. I felt like someone was holding a blowtorch to the back of my neck. I was supposed to accompany 50 singers in twenty minutes and I didn't even really know the song. My husband, who worked seventy hours last week, who said he would be home to babysit, had just called to say he was leaving work and traffic was crawling along the 75. And my favorite "Champagne" eye shadow was now a useless mess of sparkly crumbs.
"Stop it! STOP IT!" I yelled.
Henry brought his right hand up to his mouth, palm facing out. That's what he does when he gets his feelings hurt. And he sobbed. When his sobs finally mellowed into sniffles and whines, I realized that he was saying something. I couldn't understand. By this time my rage had given way to painful sorrow. I felt like the poster-child for ineffective parenting. I knelt down in front of Henry's face, "What?" I asked.
"Nuggow," he said, still crying.
Snuggle? With me, the woman who just screamed at you for acting your age, you want to snuggle? With me?
We sat and rocked long enough for me to kiss every inch of his little face and apologize over and over...and over again. And long enough for me to realize that love works. Even on the desperate days when nothing else does.