A few years ago, back when I had only one child and he was still quite young, I knew a mother with a son with significant behavior issues. "Knew" might be too strong a word. I "saw" her frequently enough to recognize her and her son, and I spent enough time around her kindergartner to know first hand the issues he faced. I am proud to say that I don't feel as though I judged her. I did notice that she always looked exhausted. I also noticed that sometimes it looked as though she had "checked out" when someone was speaking to her about her son's behavior. Sometimes she just seemed as though she couldn't hear another word.
I don't know when her son's behavior challenges began. Maybe she had been dealing with them since birth. Maybe she was an adoptive mother. I don't know why the behavior challenges occurred. Maybe it was trauma. Maybe it was DNA. Maybe it was lack of structure. I don't know if the behavior challenges have worked themselves out by now, some four years later. I hope so.
Yesterday the tiny toddler did not have a good afternoon at day care. He hit. He threw a few toys. He basically attempted to tear the room apart a few times. He refused to nap, disagreeing with even laying down and trying to rest his obviously over tired little body and mind. On the way out of the school he refused to walk, forcing me to carry him to the car while he swung at my head and spit at me. I held him, half in his car seat, half in my arms, whispering to him that he is safe, he is loved. I finally had to hold him down while I buckled him into his seat. Halfway home he stopped screaming, but not until after he took off his shoes and threw them at me. We both came out of the scuffle with war wounds, he with a scratch by his eye from my fingernail and me with a large bruise on my shoulder from him kicking me.
I sometimes feel as though it is a love/hate relationship we share, my tiny toddler and I. When we got home he put on his apron and helped me make dinner before he spun out of control again. Eventually I gave up and took him upstairs to bed, again kicking and screaming. Finally in his crib, surrounded by books and toys, with me sitting in the rocking chair across the room, he calmed down. Another day done, some good, some not so good.
We have worked hard to get our little guy to the point where he isn't having bad days every day. We have so many days of joy with him. He is sweet and caring, and likes to play jokes on Daddy. He loves to sing and is starting to ask question after question about everything. He is beginning to learn his colors and numbers and he is starting to babble as he pretends to read books, which is a strong precursor to learning to read. But when we have back to back downward spirals it is hard not to spiral down right along with him. It is hard to push through and stay in that place he needs me to stay in. Unlike my tiny toddler, I don't have the luxury of fighting back.
This morning we spiraled down over tennis shoes and coats. Not able to fight yet another battle we headed out the front door, one kid wearing a coat and backpack, with DS in hand. (Having taken advantage of my distraction he managed to walk out the front door to school carrying his DS, something he doesn't usually get to play on short car trips.), and one kid in a t-shirt, arms bare, stomping to his side of the car. Then the tears started, because he was cold. Seriously??
By the time we walked into his classroom his coat was on and all was well with his world again. We stopped and checked out the lunch menu. (Happiness over the mashed potatoes listed but unsure of the turkey being offered.) He walked into his room carrying a plastic bowl of cut up grapes, his offering for the "Friendship Fruit Salad" his class would be making today. I was beginning to relax. And then a teacher appeared out of nowhere to talk to my little man about something destructive he did yesterday. And it happened. I. couldn't. hear. another. thing. I could not take anything more in to my overloaded brain. The teacher didn't seem to want to talk with me, and even though I knew I should stop and have the conversation with her, I didn't. I chose to turn away from her. She was kneeling down in front of my son, helping him take off his coat. He was crying, like he does every morning when I walk away. (I love you! I hate you!). She had it under control. And in that moment, she had more control than I. I placed my hand on my big five year old's back and guided him out of the room. I could feel the tension in my shoulders creeping back in; I could barely remember the relaxation I was starting to feel just moments before. And then it hit me.
I am that mother. The one I knew four years ago. The one whose eyes glazed over when the topic of behavior popped up. Now I know I am not always that mother. I know that the mother I met four years ago wasn't always that mother either. Usually I am checked in, ready to tackle these challenges together. Together with my husband, Together with the teachers. Together with my son. But this morning I was at my limit. I walked out of the school wondering what those teachers were thinking of me. Did they think I didn't take them seriously? Did they think that if only I offered more structure at home these issues would disappear? Did they think I didn't care? I'm not going to lie to you. This morning, I didn't care. I just wanted out of there.
It affects every aspect of our lives, this trauma. It affects my marriage, as we sometimes struggle to contain our anger and to remain united. It affects the big five year old, who sometimes see his little brother get away with behavior he can't. It takes time away from him, which is heartbreaking. Knowing that my big five year old was all alone downstairs watching TV, or raiding the pantry, or doing Lord knows what, when I was upstairs dealing with the tiny toddler's behavior last night was enough to make me cry. When it's good, it so good. And when it's challenging, it's heartbreaking.
I know it's time to have the "child of trauma" talk with the day care. I have filled in his main teacher but I don't really think she fully understood. And how could she? His behavior is so inconsistent, frequently with many good days in a row. It is hard to understand that his behavior may worsen as he trusts more, as he tries to push his teachers away because he is starting to feel too comfortable there. It is hard to understand that he is waiting for the other shoe to drop, for this great thing he has going on to be pulled out from under him. It is hard to understand that he might not do well in larger groups of loud children because he has internalized the feelings of his first 24 months of chaos. I don't even always understand it. I find myself frequently wondering why he just can't get with the program. Why something so seemingly small as a 10 second wait for grapes can sometimes cause him to clear everything off the breakfast table before throwing himself on the floor. If I have a hard time fully understanding his feelings then I know others don't get it. And I don't want him labeled. He needs to find his path in his own time. And I need to stay on that path with him. I need to be always stable, always consistent, always loving, always 100% present. I can't let myself be that other mother. My tiny toddler has seen loss. Birth mother. Caregivers. Friends in the orphanage. I can't be another loss to him. I have to stay in the game.