Posted by: Kate | August 3, 2008

Not a Success

When 4:30 in the afternoon sees you standing in the IKEA parking lot, leaning up against a minivan containing the wailing and indignant whelps supposedly sharing your own DNA, with tears running down your face and a headache brewing that starts somewhere around the knees and ends several feet above your forehead, it’s safe to call the entire day a loss. Even if the rest of the night somehow magically smooths out and fades blissfully into bedtime – and it did not – that level of embarrassment and misery just taints the whole day by association.

I’m not sure exactly how things went so wrong. The morning started out well enough; we have a very full house, even with Willem off on his Mancation, and so I made sure to sit down with each kid, in a quiet moment, to explain the planned events for the day: a morning of playing and hanging out at home, an hour-plus drive south, an afternoon of shopping at IKEA, and an evening at the Boston/Styx concert.  Good times, right?

I bet they would’ve been great times, if it weren’t for the daemons which promptly sucked the souls right out of my children.  Sometime shortly before we were planning to leave, chaos burst upon my household.  Suddenly, one child can’t find her purse and the other can’t get his pajama top off.  There is a swarm of ants invading the spot where a spoon formerly containing honey was left after a middle-of-the-night coughing fit.  There are children screaming at each other in a hotly contested argument over the specific ownership of a Matchbox car – one out of the four billion that are spread in a fine layer throughout the house.  There is an oddly timed and poorly cleaned frenzy of snacks.  There are three separate tantrums regarding shoes.  All within the space of ten minutes.

There were further bouts of bickering – almost entirely between my kids, who claim to have missed each other dearly while Emily was at my mother’s house but are acting as though each other’s mere presence triggers a psychotic fugue state – punctuated by repetitive questions and whining by X.  No reason to let the other kids have all the fun, though I pointedly refused to let her push my buttons.  My buttons were all in flagrant overuse by my own offspring, anyway.

It reached a point where I actually did “pull this car over,” because driving whilst scolding people who are seated at least six feet behind me just feels disempowering and stupid.  (I won’t, at the moment, delve into that unique frustration that circles around the fact that I was not the only adult in the car, but I was the only adult attempting to corral the beasts in the back seat – but at the same time, for varying reasons, it would have been inappropriate or ineffective for the other adults to dive in.)  Turns out, it is no less disempowering and stupid to attempt to discipline your children in front of a crowd of family and friends who politely pretend to have been stricken blind and deaf at key moments.

During the second pull-over-and-yell session, in which we played some musical chairs (though I did not, contrary to impulse, strap anyone to the roof of the minivan.  That just makes for poor aerodynamics, and with gas prices being what they are…), I resorted to spankings.  They were planned, not done in anger, a single thwack to a non-vital area.  I’m not proud of this, but nor am I ashamed.  I have a certain number of tools in my disciplinary arsenal: I start with humor, and if that doesn’t work, I move to a casual reminder about the consequences of certain behaviors.  When casual doesn’t work, I get more stern, but still conversational.  I only move on to threats of lost privileges or removed toys after the reminders have fallen on deaf ears, and I’m very consistent about actually following through with those threats.  Spankings are a tool of last resort, an attention-getter when nothing else so far has worked to change a trend of behavior that I am finding either unsafe or unbearable.

Given the throbbing of my head and the roiling of my stomach today, their behavior was decidedly unsafe to my health, if not to their own.

And to those opposed to the concept of spanking, you may rejoice: that didn’t work, either, today.  This is a first for me; I would estimate that any form of physical discipline is a less-than-annual event, and I’ve never been this far away from home when we reached that point.  I’m a much bigger fan of the time-out spot or simple quarantine in separate bedrooms, where they can play all they want, alone, but they need to spend some time not contaminating the moods and well-being of those around them.  But today, there were no bedrooms or even quiet spaces available.

We arrived at IKEA, had yet another stern and serious talk, and within ten minutes of entering the store, Jacob was literally throwing a little table at X and Emily was simultaneously whining, doing her jerk-the-shoulder-and-grunt-bad-naturedly maneuver, and asking for candy.

So instead of a pleasant IKEA trip, which includes lunch at the restaurant followed by time for the kids in the play room while the rest of us finish our shopping, I dragged both kids through the store at light speed, snatching up the specific items I wanted and barking at them only when necessary, as a sort of echolocation-by-angst device.  I took them out to the parking lot, buckled one in the farthest back seat, buckled the other in the farthest front seat, and proceeded to burst into tears.

Now, I’m not a cryer.  At least, not when I’m unpregnant.  I was thinking about it on the drive home, and I can only think of three times that Jacob has ever seen me cry in his whole life: once when I fell in the driveway, once when the hotel in New York City was several steps down from acceptably safe and clean, and today.  It certainly wasn’t an episode of hysterical, mindless bawling; I just let them see how badly they had hurt me and made it clear that their snarkiness and disrespect and plain old meanness had ruined my day.

Thinking about that kept them quiet for all of five minutes.

I could have sent them home with L, and gone to the concert with my sisters, my father and his girlfriend, but by then I was so strung out and flattened that I just couldn’t go.  I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy myself, and I didn’t want that to impact the rest of their enjoyment.  So L and I took the kids home, and dumped them immediately into bed.

Tomorrow, a combination of martial law and indentured servitude will descend.  I don’t believe in long-term grounding (not yet, anyway – ask me again when Emily is a teenager), but I do believe in spending time alone, contributing to the household, and missing out on a fun day-trip with Grandpa and the girls in the afternoon.

I don’t feel like today was a total failure, on my part or on theirs.  I never completely lost my temper, never called names or lectured or struck in anger.  I have a philosophy about discipline and responding to unpleasant behaviors, and I stuck with it long enough to deposit them safely in bed.  And they were overtired, or overwrought, or just plain crabby today, and certainly were able to express those negative emotions to the fullest.

But the day was also not a success.



  1. The mere fact you did not lose it at the children is a success and don’t you forget it! I remember dayswhen I screeched like a fishwife and then broke down in tears. Yeah. That works. NOT. I know how annoying a 7yo can be, let alone a toddler and a pre-schooler. Ya did as well as you could with what you had to work with at that time. I’m freakin’ Impressed. I bow to your greatness…..

  2. Oh, Kate. Kate. What. A. Day.

    Can I just say I’m sitting here quite awed at this moment. Your writing, and here your mothering, your ability to maintain, somehow, perspective and a grip? At such times? I, too, bow.

    My bet? Today will be much, much better. Your consistency and chosen course, combined with their own nascent sense of decency as human beings, will steer the path. I’ll stay tuned…

  3. That’s too bad that your Ikea trip was ruined it is one of my favorite placed to shop, and I would have been crying in the parking lot too. My kids have been very good at pushing my buttons as well this summer and it is getting old. I can not wait for the school bus to pick them up, I will miss them but it has been one thing after another this summer and it is beginning to take a toll on my mental well being. I hope today is much improved!

  4. Not a success, but not a complete failure, either. You kept your cool a lot longer than I probably would have. My kids have a way of knowing when I am at the end of my rope and strategically pushing just the right combination of buttons to send me over the edge. Maybe they are all born with that instinct? I hope today offers smoother sailing and a less achy head.

  5. Blah. So you’re still sure you want another one, right? I have an easier time taking the obnoxious behaviour in stride when I can glance over to my husband while he’s driving and watch him put an imaginary finger-gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Oh, the laughter! I mean, how inappropriate of him!

  6. I hate to even type this, but I hope you will take this in the spirit in which it is intended.

    I read that post with some happiness. Not that your day was not a success. But, that you, too, have those days. Even when you write about bad days as they relate to your children, you always seem to handle them with such calm, reasoned responses. I never feel like I have calm, reasoned responses to temper tantrums and other bad behavior. In fact, today is a no TV day at our house because of bad behavior. I may have gone overboard, and I probably will regret it, but I was at the end of my rope and it was the only thing I could think of at the time.

  7. I have had more than my fair share of those days, and I can safely say that you handled things far better than I have in the past. And even though it didn’t have much of an effect on the kids at the time, it was probably good to let them see you cry. I believe that kids need to know that moms and dads have feelings too.

    Hope today is better.

  8. I actually threw my 2 kids out of the car once. They were about 9 and 12 and we were a good mile from home in a safe neighborhood. Felt great! Sometimes retribution is a just reward. Enjoy tomorrow.

  9. Wow, that day sure did stink. It sounds like you handled it about as well as anyone could. Hopefully you’ll be rewarded with some better behavior this week. This parenting stuff is tough.

  10. […] yesterday, I did a bad thing, and I called Willem on his vacation.  I just needed to hear a pleasant, […]

  11. I stumbled upon your blog while blog surfing and enjoyed reading several of your posts. I like your writing style.

    My kids are all young adults now, but I remember those “Don’t make me pull over” days well. They always seemed to instinctively know that a trip in the family minivan was the perfect time to misbehave.

    Those days are over and have been replaced by sleepless nights waiting for them make curfew. Sigh. I would tell you that it gets better, but it doesn’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have great kids. It’s just that Mommyhood is a marathon and some days I feel as if I’ve hit the “wall”. 🙂

  12. But Kate, the day was a success in the grand scheme of things. Your kids survived with no more injury than a well-placed swat on the backside (my much beloved great grandma always said that’s what backsides were made for) and you my dear did not end up on the evening news. Kudos to you!

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