by ABBIE JOHNSON TAYLOR
Whack! Whack! Whack! The palm of my hand slapped my little boy's pajama-clad bottom a few times while he screamed and writhed in pain and frustration. I picked him up and carried him upstairs to his room. He continued to cry. I spoke not a word as I removed his soiled pajamas and dressed him in clean clothes. He was sniffling as I said, “Now, are you ready to come downstairs and eat your breakfast like a civilize human being?”
His crying resumed in earnest. “Fine,” I said in disgust as I turned toward the door. “You can just stay there and cry. Don't come downstairs until you're ready to stop crying and behave.”
In the doorway, I stopped short. At the top of the stairs stood my neighbor Brenda. I braced for another round of negative criticism. “I heard Dylan screaming. Is he okay?” she asked.
“He's fine,” I said as I pulled the door closed. “He just needs some time to himself.”
“Oh, Cheryl, did you spank him again?” she asked, her eyebrows raised in disapproval.
With a sigh, I answered, “I won't deny it. But he needs to learn to control himself. You should see the mess in the kitchen.”
“It can't be that bad,” she said. “He's only two. What do you expect?”
“I know how old my kid is,” I said. “I turned my back for one minute and there was milk everywhere, all over the table, all over him, on the floor. I swear to God this kid is the mess maker from Hell.”
“Okay, I was only trying to help,” she said as she turned to descend the stairs. “I don't have time to argue with you. Now that I know Dylan's okay, I'll go about my business.” She hurried down the stairs and I heard the screen door slam.
Fuming, I rushed to the kitchen. I had a million things to do today and I didn't have time for this. Ever since Brenda moved into the apartment next door a few weeks ago, she criticized the way I disciplined Dylan. Whenever I spanked him, she appeared,, acting as if she thought the boy was involved in a serious accident. When she learned the truth, she uttered her famous line. “He's only two. What do you expect?”
Brenda had no children of her own. She claimed to have a degree in child psychology. That didn't give her as much knowledge about child-rearing as the actual experience, I thought as I wiped the table, Dylan's chair, and the floor around it with a wet rag.
The mess wasn't that big. Dylan's pajamas had absorbed most of the milk. There was a puddle on the table and maybe a few drops had splashed onto the chair and the floor. My anger evaporated as I sank into a chair and placed my head in my hands.
I reflected on the events of the morning. Dylan was sitting at the table, chattering as he ate his cereal. I was washing dishes and thinking about the day ahead and not paying much attention to him. I heard the clatter of a plastic glass overturning and the dribbling sound of liquid being spilled. I turned around and as I suspected, Dylan had upset his milk glass.
As I relived this scene, memories of my own childhood came flooding back to me, memories of times when my own mother spanked me for knocking over a glass of milk or spilling spaghetti down my front. At the time, I was a few years older than Dylan. Perhaps I should have known better. But the humiliation still hurt. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I sat recalling these scenes. Like Dylan, I was playing while eating to keep occupied because my mother, like me, was too busy. I was about six or seven. Dylan was only two. Maybe Brenda was right.
Most weekday mornings were the same old routine. My husband left early for work before Dylan was out of bed. So it was my responsibility to get him up, dressed, and ready for the day. Although I was a stay at home mom, my days were filled with cleaning or shopping or trips to the gym or various volunteer obligations while Dylan was in preschool. So most mornings, I was preoccupied with the day's schedule.
I blew my nose and shook my head as I tried to remember the last time I sat down and ate breakfast with Dylan and talked to him about what he was thinking or what he wanted to do that day. Usually on weekends, the three of us ate a late breakfast together. But when had I recently taken the time to enjoy the meal with my son?
With determination, I marched upstairs to Dylan's room. I opened the door a crack and peeked inside. He was lying on the floor face down but he turned to me when he heard the door creak. The curtains were drawn and in the dim light, I couldn't see his face but I knew he was hurting. I turned on the overhead light and crossed to where he lay, kneeling by his side. “I'm sorry, Mommy,” he said with a note of desperation in his voice.
“I'm sorry, too,” I said, stroking his hair. “I shouldn't have spanked you. We all make mistakes. I spilled plenty of milk when I was your age.”
Dylan gazed at me in astonishment as I took him in my arms and held him, drinking in the scent of the shampoo I'd used on his hair the night before. Fresh sobs erupted from him, shaking his shoulders as he snuggled against me. “It's okay,” I said as I rocked him and stroked his back. A minute later, I said, “Why don't we go downstairs and eat breakfast together, you and me?”
“Can we really?” he asked as he gaped at me in amazement.
“Sure, why not?” I said, rising to my feet and pulling him to a standing position. “We've got plenty of time.”
Hand in hand, we returned to the kitchen. A while later, Brenda appeared with a social worker from the Department of Family Services. Dylan and I were sitting at the kitchen table, eating cream of wheat, laughing, and talking. “You're right, Brenda,” I said. “He's only two. What should I expect?”