I yelled. I never yell. Or, I used to never yell. I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like to be out of control of myself. But today I yelled at my three-year-old son because he was being too rough with one of the twins, who are almost eight months old. First, I raised my voice to stop him, but that only hurried him up, made him rush to get a hit in. Then, I made myself huge — all excess — and I bellowed down at Theo like my voice was a bear, like I was going to eat him whole. I left my husband to deal with him and the baby he’d knocked over, and I took the baby I was already holding and locked myself in my room for over an hour.
Later, I apologized, and Theo brushed me off in his usual unaffected way. “Wanna play race cars with me?” he asked, as if I’d apologized for spilling some juice.
Throughout the day, there were skirmishes. Josh and I both reminded him again and again, “Please give the baby some space.” He is usually very gentle with them. His little baby sisters are the only entities he regularly expresses his love for, the only ones he regularly hugs and kisses. They are his babies. So when he is too rough, I know something is stirring in him, something wild that he wants just as much as I want to be able to control. He doesn’t want to hurt them. He wants to love them. And yet, when we give a gentle reminder, sometimes, his body betrays him. He is too rough. Mom yells. Days like these are fraught with tension. We are all apprehensive about what may happen next.
On Christmas Eve, Josh took Theo to Target to pick out gifts for me. Usually I’m the one who does the shopping. This was the first year we encouraged him to choose gifts for his sisters, for us. He was proud of this responsibility.
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly which aisle he wandered from. I don’t know exactly how crowded and frenetic it was with all the other last-minute shoppers. I know that they got separated. A code yellow was called. Josh was to supposed to wait, and they would bring Theo to customer service, but he knew Theo would refuse to go with anyone from wherever he was. Josh went to him. He was surrounded by mothers, and he was crying.
They told me the story when they returned home that night. Theo didn’t appear to be upset. I played it cool. They weren’t in apparent distress, and I didn’t want to overreact. I didn’t want to make Josh feel bad that it had happened on his watch. I didn’t want Theo to be scared by me making it into a scary thing. So I said something like, “Oh, you guys got split up? But then Dad came and found you?”
The whole time we were talking, Theo was down on the floor, hugging his baby sister, Caroline.
In the couple weeks following his code yellow, Theo’s favorite book has been Little Owl Lost, a story about a baby owl that falls out of its nest and goes looking for its mother.
Lately, when I’m in another room and I don’t come quickly when he calls for me, he will come to get me, declaring with emotion, “I was lost!”
And he’s been playing out separation with his toys. There is usually a mommy and babies, and they need to find each other. I took him shopping for baby clothes, and he found a package of bath duckies, four small ones. He followed me around the store for twenty minutes, repeating the same story. “We are going to buy these baby ducks and take them home. Their mommy is there. She will be so happy to have them home with her.”
All this business of separation and being lost has done a real number on me. Our transition from a family of three to a family of five has been bumpy. We have drastically changed how much we are available to Theo. We are tired a lot and cranky. There are almost always babies crying, babies to feed, babies pulling us from him. The guilt of this has brought me to tears plenty of times. And for months now we have been trying to decide whether he should start preschool.
“I don’t want to just send him off,” I always say.
As for Theo, when we began to try to sell him on the idea — new friends! toys! your own special place to play and learn! — his immediate concern was, “And Mom can come, too?” Every time we bring it up, he asks this same question. “I only want to go to school with Mom.”
Then there’s the new sleeping arrangement. He coslept with me until my twin pregnancy. Then he moved to his own bed in his own room with Josh lying with him until he fell asleep. But when our help moved away after the babies were born, we didn’t know how to do any kind of bedtime routine with him. If he refused, we couldn’t do much because we had two babies that cried all evening and only slept in our arms. The pallet on the floor of our room — his nest — was supposed to be temporary. Six months later, his room is a storage area for clothes and a place to race cars. We moved his bed in with us. Even so, he crawls into our bed to get as close to us as possible.
I haven’t been able to discern whether all these ways I’ve tried to preserve our attachment has helped or just made things harder. I won’t force him to sleep in his room. I won’t force him to start school. I want him to know I’m close, I’m here, I’m still his safe place, even when the babies spread me very thin.
Today I yelled. I apologized for it. Nothing ground-breaking happened because of it, and I thought, Does he even care? Does he even have these sensitive feelings I’m always trying to protect? Does it even faze him when I get upset, when I lose control like that?
Bed time was a struggle. I was getting the girls to sleep, and I could hear Josh and Theo across the hall. Josh’s voice deliberately calm, deliberately patient. A diaper change and teeth brushed. That was all they needed to do. But Theo wanted to play. He was ignoring him, laughing, evading his reach. Josh got him ready somehow, and I asked, “What’s his deal?”
“I don’t know. He wants to play for a few more minutes before bed.”
He’s been doing this lately, playing for about five minutes alone, then turning off his light, shutting his door, and climbing into his bed in our room, no fuss.
But I remembered my apology earlier, how I couldn’t even be sure Theo had been listening to me. “I’m gonna talk to him. After I yelled at him… Maybe that’s why he can’t settle down.”
I opened the door and stepped in. “Hey, buddy. What are you up to?”
“Playing. Wanna play with me?”
“I do. I also want to talk to you for a minute.” He was kneeling and facing the wall, driving his cars around.
I sat behind him. “Have you had a good day?”
“Yeah,” he said. Then he added, “I made bad choices today.”
“Well, you made some bad choices. You made good choices, too.”
“I made bad choices like hitting and kicking.”
“Yes. What are some of the good choices you made today?”
“I gave hugs and kisses.”
“You did. I remember you doing that.”
He looked back at me, and I hugged him. He took my hands and gathered them over his chest. “I’m putting my good choices in my balloon.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said.
He pulled my hands apart, then brought them back to his chest. “I’m putting them in my heart balloon. When they’re in there, you can hear them.”
“You can hear your good choices when your heart beats?” I said.
“Yep. You can feel them, too, and when I put them in there, it gets bigger and feels good.”
I hugged him tighter. “I like that.”
At this point, I was ready to call the day a win because I thought it was such a sweet, beautiful metaphor. But my three-year-old turned around and looked at me, and he asked, “Did you see us in the heart balloon?” He made a face like he’d messed up and corrected himself, “In the heart hot balloon?”
“A hot-air balloon? A heart-shaped hot-air balloon?”
He nodded. “We were flying in it. And then we came back home to Dad and Mom.” He made another face. “I was flying in it, and I came home to you and Dad.”
“Oh. Were you on an adventure? But then you came back home?”
“Yeah.” He pressed his lips together, and his chin dimpled. This wasn’t a fun adventure story. It was turning into something else.
“Where did you go in your heart hot-air balloon?”
“I floated way up high in the sky. But then I came down, and I was stuck in the mud.”
“Oh, that must not have been good.”
“I was stuck,” he said, and his chin trembled.
“You were trying to come home, but you got stuck in the mud? Were you able to get out?”
“A tow truck came and got me out.”
“Oh, good. And then you came home to Mom and Dad?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t have wheels, so I couldn’t roll home. I had to fly.” His eyes shined with tears, and he pressed his lips together again.
“It sounds like it was kind of lonely when you got stuck. Like you were a bit sad, and you needed help to get home.”
He nodded, and when he blinked, a tear spilled down his cheek. I pulled him into me. He said something that I couldn’t understand. He repeated it twice, and I had to pull away to ask him to say it again. “I want some orange juice,” he said meekly, trying to control his tears. At some point, someone must have offered him a drink of water to help him calm down, probably back when my mom was living with us during my pregnancy and the girls’ first several weeks. Now when he gets hurt, he asks for a drink and stops crying almost immediately. It’s his way of coping, I guess. Although I’ve wondered if it’s the right move to give him a drink, it has always felt cruel not to, when he is trying to take care of himself. He has not wanted us to touch him during the height of his upsets; only after he has soothed himself can we offer a hug. But I didn’t want him to shut off his feelings so fast. I told him I’d get him a drink in a minute.
“When I yelled at you today, that scared you and made you feel sad, didn’t it?”
“When I got stuck in the mud.”
“When I yelled, that’s when you were stuck in the mud?” At this point, I was crying, too.
He nodded. “But then I got out, and I floated home in my heart hot balloon to you.”
“Well,” I said, “I am so, so glad that you came home to me. I’m sorry that I made you get stuck, and that you were lonely. I will try very hard not to get you stuck in the mud like that, and to help you out if you do get stuck. I sure love you so much.”
He hugged me. “I sure love you so much, too.”
I got him some juice.
We moved the extra box spring and mattress from his unused room and made a “bed tower” by placing his floor mattress on top. Now his bed is up high at almost the same level as ours. I don’t know if it will keep him from crawling into our bed or not, but he was so happy. He was so relieved. “I’m so glad to have a big bed up high next to your big bed!” he said. He crawled in and pulled up his blanket, pressed the hem tightly over his chest. “I’m so glad to have a tower bed. I think it will be so good to sleep here in my big bed.”
He gave us hugs. He told us he loved us. He went right to sleep.
Today, I yelled, and I thought it was one of those bad days that you just try to sleep off. I thought I was going to have to start over tomorrow, fresh, and try not to bring today’s baggage over with me. I almost didn’t bother to go talk to my son. In fact, in a really bad moment today, I told Josh, “I’m done being his mom today.”
Thank goodness I was not done. Thank goodness he was ready to talk when I was ready to come in and listen. He was lost. Maybe I was also lost. The point is we didn’t stop looking looking for each other.