My son was three-years-old the first time I made myself silent for him.
I’d taken him with me to the grocery store and bribed him to stay in the cart with an ice cream cone. Chocolate dribbled down his chubby forearms dripping from his elbows into little puddles on his pant legs. But it didn’t matter. Elbows and pants were washable. It was the stain of an explosive tantrum I was desperate to avoid.
The skin on my wrist still burned along the edges of an angry scratch made by his sharp little fingernails. I’d told him the night before he couldn’t re-watch Lightning McQueen because it was bed time. And then I’d held him for over an hour while he thrashed and screamed until we were both drenched in sweat. I’d managed to keep the back of his head away from my lips and nose. But he’d wiggled his hand out of mine for a split second. It was a bad scratch, but not the worst he’d given me. And at least I’d kept him safe, kept him from hurting himself that time.
Over the last year, the melt-downs had turned increasingly frequent and violent, sparked by the slightest provocation. I’d taken him to the pediatrician several times, begging for advice, strategies, explanations. The doctor had referred us to a child psychologist, but my son was still very young, and an accurate diagnosis could take months, even years. We’d have to guinea pig our way through medications, therapies, and coping strategies, hoping that with time we’d stumble on the things that would actually help him. But in the meantime, no one could tell me what to do.
So, I walked each day on eggshells praying that the gentle crackling under my feet wasn’t the very thing that was going to set him off. Constantly worrying myself sick anticipating the next explosion. Wishing I could tattoo a proclamation across my forehead that stated I was actually a very good mom who was only currently failing at parenting an impossibly difficult child.
He finished his chocolate ice cream as I loaded a spiral-cut ham into the cart, barely swallowing the last bite of soggy cone before letting out a cry. He hated the cart’s metal child-seat, and now that the chocolate distraction was gone, he wanted out. Wiggling, straining, pulling at the safety belt secured around his chest, smearing chocolate goo everywhere. I should have known better than to press my luck. Should have sensed the volcano boiling and cut my losses, gone straight to check-out, and asked my husband to finish the shopping on his way home from work. But with only four items left on my list, I made the fatal decision to hope. Maybe if I was clever and quick, I could keep him distracted long enough to finish.
I stopped at the drinking fountain to rinse off his sticky hands and arms, then started a game of “I Spy”, snagging two more of my listed items while he tried to spy a red balloon caught in the ceiling’s metal rafters. Finish-line in sight, I sped the cart toward the bulk-food bins, tore a plastic bag from the roll and opened the bin of dried banana chips.
“Mommy, I holp you?” He wanted to help scoop the banana chips into the bag, which sounded like the perfect distraction, so I unbuckled the safety belt and lifted him to the floor. But it took me a few seconds to figure out which end of the plastic bag was the end that actually opened, and in those few seconds, my son spotted the jaw breakers.
He moved several bins away from me and pointed. “Mommy, ca’ I have dat?” The giant, white, rainbow-sprinkled balls were bigger than my fist, and expensive. I swallowed hard. Telling him no was like flirting with dynamite. But I’d determined that spoiling him for the sake of peace came with its own costs. And I was feeling brave.
“Not today, Buddy. Come help Mommy with the bananas.” I filled the metal scoop with crunchy yellow chips and wiggled it tantalizingly toward him.
“NO! I want dat candy!” He made for the bin as I hastily funneled the scoop of bananas into the bag. The permanent stress knot in my stomach tightened, but I tried one last distraction as I snatched a green twist tie and secured the end of the sack.
“Sweetie, that candy is too big, but look at all the fun treats in the cart. Mommy got you graham crackers, and fruit snacks, and lots of other stuff.”
But he didn’t take the bait. In a flash he opened the lids to two bins filled with individually wrapped candies, filled his fists, and screamed as he pelted my legs with root beer and butterscotch bullets. I tossed the sack of banana chips in the cart and made a grab for him just as he delivered another candy volley to my face. He dodged my grasp like an NFL running back, and tore off down the aisle, screaming.
I didn’t chase him, but waited to see what he would do. At the end of the aisle, he stopped and turned back to look at me, teeth bared, chest heaving like a mini-Hulk. Daring me to come after him.
The game was on, and I was already losing. But I couldn’t let him see my fear, so I left the fistfuls of candy where they lie on the floor and summoned my most patient demeanor. Without a word, I pretended to examine the merchandise on the shelves while slowly walking toward him. Careful not to make eye contact. But he wasn’t fooled, and as soon as I got too close, he bolted. Left. Around the corner, and down the next aisle. But by the time I’d followed, he’d disappeared.
I jogged my cart straight past several end caps, sweetly calling his name, hoping to spot him in one of the next aisles, but he’d played this game before. He was hiding. On purpose. And no matter how many times I called his name, he was never going to answer. But I needed to find him fast before he hurt himself or did something dangerous like wandering out of the store. And the fastest way to find him was to get help. I’d played this game before, too, and even though it was humiliating, “Code Adam” was a valuable ally.
I abandoned my cart in the baking aisle and hurried to the front of the store where I spotted the manager. “I’ve lost my little boy.” I gave her his name, age, and a description of his green shirt with the blue dinosaurs, then waited while the “Code Adam” was announced through the loud-speakers. Store employees jumped into action while the manager patted my shoulder reassuringly.
“We found him.” It had only been a minute, but an employee in a blue vest motioned for me and the manager to follow him to the store’s entrance. I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding as a relieved smile perked up my face. But as I rounded the corner of the customer service desk, a familiar angry scream tore from the center of a gathering crowd of onlookers.
The store’s entrance had two automatic sliding doors set in a giant glass-paneled wall. The manager and I pressed our way into the crowd and I finally spotted my son. He’d gone out the front doors and wiggled into the tight space between the glass wall and two stacked pallets of blue Gatorade. Six people in blue vests, three on either side of the pallets, were employing every trick in their arsenal to convince my screaming son to come out of his hiding place.
“Do you want a balloon?”
“How about an ice cream cone?”
They tried squeezing their bodies and stretching their arms to reach him, but my son had wiggled his way to the exact middle, just out of reach and he wasn’t budging. Every bribe, every outreached hand only infuriated him further. The more he screamed, the harder they tried. And the growing crowd was beginning to whisper.
I walked up to the glass. His little back was to me, and he couldn’t see my face, so I tapped the glass with my finger. “Hey Buddy. It’s me, it’s Mo…” but he had never reacted like other children. He wasn’t relieved that I’d found him, wasn’t soothed by my presence. If anything, hearing my voice only resparked his anger and he screamed louder. My cheeks burned in embarrassment. What mother couldn’t soothe her own child? I sensed the faces of the crowd behind me turn shadowy with judgment.
The employees continued their extraction strategies to no avail, and I was beginning to regret asking for help. My son wasn’t going to come out until he was ready, and everyone’s “help” was only making a bad situation worse. I knew my son. He’d crawled in there because he was overwhelmed by his own emotions. He was trying to get away. To find a quiet place to be alone. He needed time. Time to calm down and come back to himself. And if everyone would give him that time, he’d eventually extract himself on his own terms.
I tried to speak up, to tell the employees that I’d take it from here, but they wouldn’t have it. A gentle snow storm had just begun, and my son’s coat was still in the abandoned shopping cart in the baking aisle. “Ma’am, it’s dangerous for him to be out here in the cold. We’ve got to get him out.” But I wasn’t sure if they were more motivated by my son’s safety or the threat of a lawsuit.
I tried again, “I know it’s cold, but I think it would be better if…” I didn’t get a chance to finish. An employee holding a t-shaped metal rod interrupted, announcing, “I’ve got the key!”
The manager spoke loudly. “Okay, I need two strong men on each of these glass panels. We’re going to unlock them from the floor and swing them upward and then someone can get in there and grab him.”
I was appalled. They were going to dismantle the wall? This rescue was quickly turning into a gross overreaction.
I touched the manager’s arm. “That’s really unnecessary. I’m sure he’ll come out in a few minutes.” But the employees had formed their own mission impossible team, and encouraged by the growing crowd of onlookers, wouldn’t be persuaded away from their moment of glory.
The manager finished twisting the metal rod into the floor locks keeping the giant glass panels bolted to the floor. “On the count of three…” Four male employees grasped the metal frames, and the remaining employees hunched like track stars on their starting blocks ready to race in and snatch up my errant son.
The manager began the countdown. “One…”
I held my breath.
“Two…” the crowd held their breath.
“Three.” The men groaned as they lifted the heavy glass wall from their floor anchors. A woman dashed into the widened space and snatched my son underneath his arms, carrying him to “safety”. The crowd cheered.
The men reset the glass into the floor with a heavy thud, as the woman carried my stunned son triumphantly toward me. The crowd misted over in anticipation of the reunion between mother and son, but my son had never played by the rules. I reached out for him, hoping he’d let me hold him close and disappear back into blessed anonymity. But the second he was passed into my arms, his Vesuvius blew. I held him by the armpits while he released his full fury, screaming in my face, hammering bruises into my thighs and stomach with his shoes, tearing fresh wounds into my arms with his nails. He tore the silver hoop earrings from my ears and threw them with all his might at the shocked crowd.
I adjusted my grasp attempting to hold his arms and legs tightly while the crowd stood looking on, and something inside me snapped. A scream formed deep in my stomach, boiling, steaming, fuming. I wanted to shake my little boy, hit him back, make him see the bruises and the cuts, and scream in his face “WHY!?! Why do you do this to me when I do everything for you? When I’m the one who loves you? Why me?! Why?!”
And that anger nearly escaped me. Would have. Except that I happened to look into the faces of the crowd. Saw the silent judgments on the ends of their tongues. The daggers of shame aimed at me the incompetent mother, but worst of all was the disgust directed at my precious little boy.
How could I betray him by screaming at him in public? Abandon him by taking up sides with the hateful crowd? Their glances dared me to do it. To show my true colors. To give them any reason to call the authorities.
Hot tears threatened to spill from my eyes and run over my steaming cheeks, but I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. I swallowed my scream, and poured every ounce of energy into restraint. I held my precious little boy even closer, buried my face in his neck while he continued to tear at my skin. I made myself silent and let him scream for the both of us.