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The past few weeks have stretched me as a parent more than I thought possible. Julia has been exceptionally difficult. She's always been, let's say, spirited. But these past few weeks she has oscillated back and forth from the exuberant girl I love to a moody, demanding child I barely know.
All during her third year, I was told that things would get easier when she turned four. The tantrums would lessen, the whining would fade, and her self-centered view of the world would expand to include other people. But, alas, the opposite has been true so far.
The other day was particularly bad. I should have seen the storm coming. We had an incredibly busy week. Her sleep schedule was off, which always makes her more prone to emotional outbursts. To make matters worse, Nelson was away on a week long trip, and my single-parenting routine was starting to falter. My nerves were frayed, and my patience was depleting.
That being said, I ignored the warning signs and stopped into Target on our way home from a day long play date. Julia wanted a new pair of flip-flops. I was willing to get her a pair. At first, we disagreed on her choice. She wanted the flimsy jeweled pair that had no cushioning whatsoever. I steered her towards a few other choices. She conceded, but when we finally found the pair she wanted, they didn't fit correctly. She refocused her attention on the jeweled pair, but I stayed firm. And so did Julia. She flung to the ground and screamed so loud that a sales lady came running. When she arrived on the scene and realized it was just a child tantrum, she smiled sympathetically and left the aisle. I scooped Julia up and placed her in the back of our big red cart.
She continued to screech and kick with a ferocity I had yet to witness in all of her four years. I raced out of the store. When we got to the car, I went to place her in the car seat. Up until this point, I had remained steady and calm. But then she swung her arm and hit me several times, and I lost it. I put her down and gave her a spanking on her butt. At that moment, a few mothers from across the parking lot yelled over to me. "We feel your pain" they said. "We're going through the same thing." When I looked over, I saw them in a struggle with a screaming toddler boy. But their words of maternal support didn't make me feel any better. Let me say that, in principle, I'm opposed to spanking. But every once and a while my own emotions get the worst of me and I retaliate out of complete frustration. I realize that very little is achieved. I realize that I've just reinforced Julia's own behavior by hitting out of anger.
Despite the disciplinary spanking, Julia proceeded to screech and wail about the flip-flops for the rest of the 30 minute ride home. Once we did get home, she continued to act up. So I decided to start our bedtime ritual a little earlier than normal. Sleep was the only thing that was going to save me at this point.
We headed upstairs, and to be honest, I don't know what set her off this time. But right after her bath, she was having a complete meltdown. I decided to skip our usual story-time. What was the use of reading to a screaming child? Of course, this only exacerbated the tantrum. She decided to fling a heavy hardcover Angelina Ballerina book at me. The corner of it nailed me in my upper arm. I put her into bed. Then she proceeded to rant and rave, kick and scream, twist and flail, and throw everything off her bed. She did this for 45 minutes. After unsuccessfully trying to get her to calm down, in between my own fits of yelling, I walked away. But she ran after me and hit me again. And for the second time that day, I spanked her.
And then I burst out crying—not only because Julia had pushed me beyond my limits, but because I felt like a horrible mother for letting an irrational child get the best of my own emotions. I felt sick inside for hitting the most precious person in my life.
After the spanking, Julia finally gave into her exhaustion and fell asleep. I went downstairs and cried some more over what felt like the worst day I had ever experienced as a mother. When I lay on the couch, the baby started to flip around. I felt another sweep of guilt over all the yelling that the baby could probably hear. I also wondered if he could feel my stress and sadness. It was bad enough that Elise cried as she watched Julia and me battle it out, but now I felt guilty for disturbing the baby's peaceful existence inside of me.
John Kabat-Zinn, author of my favorite parenting book Everyday Blessings, writes "Parenting is a mirror in which we get to see the best of ourselves, and the worst; the richest moments of living, and the most frightening." This is the truest thing I have ever read about parenting. I've seen the very best of myself emerge since becoming a mother. I've realized strengths and qualities about myself that I never knew existed. At the same time, I've discovered the worst of myself too. And that truly is frightening when I realize that I'm charged with the awesome responsibility of raising these children.
As I lay on the couch feeling total despair over how I had ended the evening with Julia, I wondered how I will ever be enough of a mother to raise three children without totally messing them up. I wondered how I could overcome the worst of myself and be the best of myself more often. Later that night, I crept upstairs and lay with Julia. I stroked her forehead and whispered "I'm sorry" over and over. A few minutes later, she woke up. I hugged her and told her how much I loved her and how sorry I was. I told her that even though her behavior was very wrong and unacceptable, I also needed to do a better job at handling our disagreements. She looked at me with her swampy green eyes and said "I'm sorry too, Mommy. I love you so much."
Perhaps I'm not the worst mother. I had taught this little girl that we all make mistakes. That we all get angry, and that, if we are lucky, we'll always have someone who forgives us and loves us no matter what kind of awful mistakes we make. Suddenly, the most frightening moment had turned into one of the richest of my life.
Shelley Abreu is a freelance writer living on Cape Cod who strives everyday to be the best mother she can be.