I have children ages 4, 3 and 1. As such and until yesterday afternoon, I believed I would never feel the blunt rejection often exhibited by teens toward their parents until my kids were… teens.
Ah, the lessons these cherubs never hesitate to teach me.
Each morning, The Husband drives Charlie (4) to his pre-K program at a local public elementary school. Charlie has Down syndrome so qualifies for this free program, and school has been a dramatic catalyst to improved speech. We are grateful.
Every afternoon, I load up the minivan with the 3- and 1-year-olds and set off to retrieve Charlie. We wait in the longest pick-up line known to man, and inevitably the 1-year-old screams at the lack of vehicular movement and shrieks like the rays of sun are searing his eyes in their sockets. I try to focus on a People magazine or important Facebook posts, between popping Tylenol, praying for the line to move and keeping Frozen on loop.
Charlie loves his Daddy. Daddy hung the moon, invented monkeys and grows cheese slices in his ears, as indicated by Charlie’s unwavering adoration. Daddy also goes off to work each morning and returns later that night, hours after school ends. Charlie misses Daddy. No amount of cheese slices from the refrigerator can substitute for Daddy cheese slices.
Yesterday, that unending adoration collided violently with the utter and life-changing disappointment of discovering Mum in the pickup line, not Daddy.
For some reason, I had the windows down halfway as I rolled up to the assigned pole to get Charlie. I whipped the car into park – the starting gun for my daily race to not hold up the car line because I will make sure he is buckled properly, and no I will not let him bounce around the car until I can pull up out of the way and buckle him and no I will not carry two children into the school every afternoon to get Charlie so as to avoid holding up the car line for 15 seconds.
Through the window, I hear the teacher say the D word, followed by, “Oh, nope, not Daddy! There’s Mommy!” I see shock and horror in Charlie’s eyes. I see shock and horror turn to defiance as he plops his little bottom down on the cold, hard cement in not-so-silent protest that ohmyGodMumispickingmeupandnotDaddy.
I mentally and completely blame the teacher who introduced the concept of Daddy picking up Charlie from school. DADDY IS AT WORK, DUDE. DO NOT MENTION THE D WORD. MOMMY IS ALWAYS THE PICKER-UPPER.
I’m a tad dismayed, but Charlie has done this before. No big deal. When he sees me, it will be OK. (I tell myself.)
“Hey, buddy! Charlie! It’s Mommy!” I round the vehicle and make my approach.
The Meltdown Begins
Defiance turns to rage. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” Charlie shrieks at the top of his lungs, exhibiting some of that freakishly Ironman strength he can have when intent on pushing the ball back and not forward.
Everyone stops what they are doing and stares. This is unprecedented. The school pickup line is a continuous flow of soldiers, dispensing children from the school to their parents’ cars, which sometimes don’t even come to a complete stop as their child dives head-first through a fully open window.
Seriously. The flow doesn’t stop. It is imperative that the flow continues or hell may freeze and someone might take a moment to exchange a pleasant word. (OK, now I’m being dramatic. The Husband is, too. You can see where our child gets it.)
As I lean down to pick Charlie up – the “I give up, hold your fire, I surrender” signal in parenthood when you concede the child will not move forward without force – he throws himself back and becomes the heaviest, limpest dead weight I never knew a 4-year-old could become.
Of course, this is all while continuing to shriek, “NOOOOOO!!!! NOOOOOO!” and sign vigorously for Daddy. (Take your left hand and hold it up as if to say hi. Then poke your temple with your thumb. This is the sign for Daddy. Coincidentally, my sign for “shoot me now” pokes that thumb just a little lower. Like in my eyeball.)
Now, I’ll step back for a moment. Charlie does have Down syndrome, and sometimes I feel like we are publicly representing Down syndrome when out among the typical population. In such moments, I want to scream to anyone who can hear me that the Down syndrome isn’t causing this!! The fact that he’s a child is causing this!! Charlie has delays. That is true. Forgetting that Mum is going to pick him up every single day of his school career instead of Daddy is not one of them.
We’ve done this shtick every weekday since Sept. 4. The shtick has not once changed. Sure, he’s been out sick for the past two weeks, but it’s a Wednesday. We’ve been back in our routine for three days now. He greeted me with smiley waves yesterday. WTH, little boy.
Act Two: The Got It Under Control Mommy Dance
Back to the stage. By now, the teacher in charge of delivering my son to my vehicle is flustered and feeling terrible (Good. I think). He is prattling on about how his daughter doesn’t like to spend time with him, either. This is not the pep talk I need right now. Plus, I don’t believe him. Daddies are gods. Everyone knows this.
I proceed to perform the almighty “Totally got this under control, nothing to see here, everyone move along” parental gesture of smiling, making witty little remarks and trying not to seem like I am actually stuffing 30 pounds of toddler flesh into the car seat he refuses to embrace.
“Hah! He’s never done this before!” I say brightly. “Wow! I swear I don’t beat my children!” I say with a chuckle and hopefully the tone of sincerity.
(No, really. I don’t. But if you saw a child reacting to his mother as if she were the prison warden with tasers coming out of her eyes, wouldn’t you wonder?)
I am light. I am amused. I am determined to pin my little cherub’s shoulder blades behind those straps if it’s the last thing I do.
Charlie is having none of it. He is planking. He is bucking. He is screaming and crying real tears and blowing snot bubbles at me. The air in the bubbles seem to fuel his screams. He is loud.
By now, the flow of cars is a stream beside us. They have all given up on me as a parent, as a pick-up line participant, as a human. No one can bear to watch this. Finally, I win the car seat match. It isn’t pretty, but he is restrained.
I blessedly hit the button to shut the minivan’s sliding door and instantly curse myself for keeping the windows down. Charlie’s refrain of, “NOOOOOOOOO!!!! DAAAAAAAAAAAAADDY!!!!” can be heard by the North Koreans without technological intervention.
I dance along the tightrope of, “Well! That was embarrassing!” and “We’ll be going, now! Have a great day, everyone!” while backing away quickly.
As I dive head-first into the driver’s seat and hit the gas before completing the shift out of park, I see Charlie’s classroom aide gesturing to The Troublemaker (as he may always and forever be known) and asking, “What happened?!?”
I am defeated. I am incredulous. As we drive off, I offer one last line of “we’re totally fine here” proof. “Haha! Can I just leave him here?!” I joke as we glide by the last pole. “I’m not sure I want to spend time with him now, either! Haha!”
The teachers all guffaw and nod vigorously. It is teacher speak for, “Holy hell who has Child Protective Services on speed dial?”
My jaw remains dropped all the way to the traffic light, even with a goofy grin on my face. I mean, whoa. WHOA. What just happened here?!
As we drive exactly the speed limit up the road, shock begins to wear off and tears prick my eyes. I will not get upset about this, I tell myself. I. Will. Not. The tears burn. I have never felt rejected by my child like this before. I am a failure. My child doesn’t love me. I will never be fun like Daddy or grow cheese slices from my ears.
Another mile up the road, and I glance back at Plank Boy. He is peering at me with softened eyes. “Eh?” he sounds, and offers me his foot. It’s the game we play while in the car where I reach back and tickle behind his ankle because that’s all I can reach.
I reach back and touch the soft skin gently. I feel some pressure in my chest relieve. “Eh?” he sounds again, when I take my hand away. I return to gently tickling his leg. He is apologetic. This is how we make friends again. I look back with a sad smile and say, “I love you, Buddy.” He gives me a tiny, guilty smile.
I still feel a bit crushed. I know that is ridiculous and will be nothing compared to the wrath of the teenage years. I realize I won’t be able to mush them into car seats when that happens. Sigh.
I make a snap decision. I will restore my popularity, if only to ease my aching heart.
An hour later, all three children have eaten far too much Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and are hurtling around the small store, burning energy and sugar.
Is this how a parent should react to poor behavior? Nope. But this parent just found solace in some salted caramel blondie ice cream, and man did it make me feel better.
PS – The Husband reports a targeted conversation with The Stinker this morning on the way to school. Something about being nice to Mommy when she picks him up. Stay tuned. Not sure my approval ratings (or psyche) can take another dive.