Today is birthday week at our house. My daughter, now 2, was born on April 6th. Today is my eldest son’s birthday, he is now 6 and tomorrow, April 9th my second son turns 4. Needless to say, birthday week is a crazy one around here. I try to make each child’s birthday special for them, doing whatever it is that they choose for the whole day (within reason of course!) The children have not been sleeping well because they’re so excited! Then factor in the cake and ice cream, increased levels of sugars in their diet – I let them eat cereal for breakfast and parfait with store bought granola for snack. Add to that jealousy the children feel as they watch their sibling enjoy their special day. Needless to say we’re a bit out of sorts.
Yesterday was our day off from birthday celebrations, so we headed to the grocery store to stock up on the things the boys wanted to have for their birthday meals. The children, excited at the prospect of getting to choose their menu were having difficulty containing their excitement. I usually have the littlest two ride together in the car. But as they grow it is getting harder and harder for them to share the middle leg hole space! My middle son was feeling uncomfortable and asked to come out of the cart. Ensuring I had his attention, I confirmed that he had to stay near me and not touch things on the shelves in order to be able to stay out of the cart.
The two boys did a decent job of containing themselves in the aisles, but things started to unravel when they started playing horse and rider in front of the supplement shelves, lined with tiny bottles. When I asked them to stop, pointing out the density of products on the shelves as well as the dirty floor, my younger son began to spin instead. Dizzy, he knocked into the elbow height bottles, knocking every over. Bless my eldest, who helped him to line them back up with careful precision. Now spinning again, I had to remind my middle child to help with the mess. He helped as much as he was able.
Shortly after, the boys decided it would be funny to play a game on me and head to the next aisle over on their own. My eldest was gone only a few seconds before he thought better of the plan and came back to find me. My younger son held out until I could maneuver the now heavy cart around the end cap to find him. Reminding him what I had told him when I lifted him out of the cart, I placed him back in the seat. He was not a willing participant, but I got him into the seat without too much commotion. He continued to protest in new ways, clearly not wanting to be at the store any more. His disdain turned into bothering his sister by squishing her leg and leaning over to compress her body. I asked him to stop several times, but was unable to think of an alternative to him sitting in the cart…and taking the 2 year old out was not an option! Despite my attempts to use sportscasting and non-violent communication by the time we reached the check out line she had grown tired of his antics and began hitting him in an effort to get him to stop. He was quick to join the party, adding a chorus of cries to the mix. I wanted to leave for the sake of my children. But with three small children to manage by myself, a cart full of unpaid-for groceries and no other time to accomplish this errand, we had to find a way to move though the last of this shopping trip as gracefully as possible.
To maintain the limit, I stopped their hands gently, saying “I won’t let you hit each other.” When my daughter tried to start the fight again, moments later, I held her hands firmly but gently, saying, “I won’t let you hit your brother.” I asked her to tell me when she was ready to stop hitting. It didn’t take long. Once I released her hands, the hitting stopped. For a time. I tried entertaining them all with a game of ‘I Spy’ while we waited. Participation was waning when my middle child decided he would like to get out of the cart. I set another limit…”It is not safe for you to stand in the cart. You must stay sitting down or I will have to put the buckle on.” Cheekily he tried again as I was distracted with loading the groceries onto the conveyor belt. On went the buckles. Then the cries of protest erupted. It didn’t take long for my son to begin the hitting again. Again, I maintained the limit, “I will not let you hit your sister,” holding his hands gently to stop him. When he was finished trying to hit again, I released his hands. He continued to cry for the duration of the check out process.
Once we finished, my eldest needed to use the bathroom. I stood there and talked to my middle son about what had happened. He expressed how angry he had been because I made him sit in the cart and put his buckles on. I listened. Then I asked if I could tell him my dies of the story…how I needed him to be safe by being near me in the store and staying seated in the cart. Also by not hitting or being hit. He understood, ending with, “I love you mommy.” We hugged, rejoined with my eldest, and headed out of the store.
It was the first time I haven’t felt embarrassed at this type of misbehaviour. I was able to keep my temper under control for the whole thing…an remarkably, I didn’t even have to think about it! For the first time, in the moment, I felt like I knew what to do to help my children. For the first time I wasn’t worried about what other people thought of my children, my parenting style, me.
After the whole thing was over, and we were heading home, I pondered what was different. Nothing really. That was probably the worst behaviour we’ve had at the grocery store. The difference was in myself. My ability to keep calm despite the fact that my children weren’t was new. Detachment from my children’s behaviour was new. Usually I feel like the way they are behaving is a reflection of myself…but not this time.
Ironically, this day, this one day where I felt like I nailed it given the circumstances, having confidence in the way I had handled it, a woman stopped me on the way out of the store saying:
“We’ve all been there. And if people say they haven’t they’re lying. You’re doing a great job. Don’t worry about it!”
I uttered a quick “Thank you,” with as much of a smile as I could muster, feeling pulled from my disconnection from judgement and proud that I didn’t really need any congratulations this day. I knew that I was doing right by my children. Yes, they had a loud and unsavoury emotional experience at the store. But people have big and difficult emotions and as a culture we hide them away all to often. Perhaps we created a disturbance for other people who were shopping there, but really, that is their problem. My problem is to figure out how to support my children through their emotional turbulence the best way I am able. I am building confidence because I see that my efforts to be a mindful and respectful parent are working. I am beginning to more consistently access my ability to be vulnerable, and in doing so I am finding that I am more connected to my children…and myself. The difficult moments aren’t what matter…connection does.
Thanks to Janet Lansbury for her post which inspired me to share this story.