“Hold my hand,” I say to Nate softly. It’s awkward to drive with my right arm bent backwards around the seat and my fingers clutched in his drool-slick hand, but he quiets. His mind-piercing shrieks calm to snuffling sobs and he takes a shaky, stuttering breath. In a few minutes, he is asleep and I pull my aching arm back around to the front, turn up the music, sip my coffee and place my hand back on the wheel.
A flash of memory cuts through me and it hurts. I remember an afternoon driving Saige and Garrett and a newborn Quinn to some destination. Toddler class? The store? Quinn screamed in that five-alarm-fire newborn squawk that induces a fight or flight response in every mother. Garrett threw an epic fit about a shoe, I think, that he wanted off or on or backwards and Saige, ever the opportunistic tantrum thrower, sensed weakness. Or possibly safety in numbers.
I briefly lost my mind. I reached around from the front seat and swatted at my two toddlers’ feet. Hard. And then, I pulled over and cried. This is not one of those confession posts. “I swatted her hand and curled up into a little ball under the table and died a thousand deaths from grief and guilt and misery.” No. I was positive that, having given up a child that I couldn’t parent a mere month before, some black-clad government official was going to leap out at me at the slightest mistake and snarl about unfit mothers while taking away the rest of my children. I was positive that losing my temper was “not okay” in the grandest of senses. In truth, it happens. It’s not the best reaction; but under normal circumstances, I think most parents repair the relationship and move on.
I don’t know when it started with Nate, this hand holding, but he must have been quite young. I can’t remember when it didn’t work to soothe him and let me focus my (one-handed) attention to a task. It probably began at story time when we are all tired and his demanding baby antics wreaked mayhem on my bedtime routine. He would plop himself in my lap, pull at the pages, block views until every single person in the room screeched manically including me.
I can’t see. Stop it now, it’s okay. He’s in my WAY. No, Nate. I can’t see the pictures. No! Don’t hit him. Nate, sit beside me. Nooooooooo. One night, I met his eyes and said, sit here, baby, hold my hand. It worked, but not because holding hands is some magical solution to parenting temper tantrums. It worked because I am a calmer mother now than I once was. I am more regulated.
“Be with your child in his emotional storm,” my favorite attachment psychologist advises. “Be with whenever you can, take charge whenever you must.”
Being with, for me, especially for the hard emotions, anger and fear, is a skill that has grown with experience.
I have changed so much as a mother and as a person in the last six years. I am steadier. More centered. I understand (though I don’t always remember) that being with a child in an emotion is a function of staying out of the storm yourself. Every time I handle Nate with ease and patience that I didn’t possess four years ago, I am grateful for the wisdom that comes from practice and time and heartbroken just a bit for my first babies.
I was a good mother then, but I’m a better mother now. But then again, I’m a better mother to all of them.
If you throw a fit about leaving the park, you will not get to play tomorrow. You will sit on the bench, I tell her. Saige scrunches up her mouth and chokes down the scream in her throat. Will you hold my hand to the car? she asks me. I will. / Quinn crumples to the ground in toddler agony over a moth that is. not. coming. inside. my. house. I’m sorry, bubba. I want to hold your hand, he sobs. / Nate shrieks for the red Candy Land man because only the red one will do, but Garrett will not give it up, possibly because he likes to see me die of pierced, bleeding eardrums. I’m fed up, impatient and short, ready to put the entire game away. Nate, Saige coos, seated beside him on the dog-haired covered carpet. Nater, Nater, do you want to hold my hand? He takes her fingers with his sweaty little paw and lays his head in her lap while I sit at the table and cry fat, disbelieving tears into my steaming coffee cup.
I think it’s going to be okay. I think maybe I’m doing alright. After all, she never swats at his feet.
It’s scary. I’m reminded daily that one person’s story about personal growth is another person’s story about their crazy bitch of a mother. That’s generationally required, right? Tell me it is. They have to have something to blame it all on, don’t they? How have you grown as a mother?