04/09/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taming the Wild Things by Force

We've been in the new apartment less than a week. Our boys' bed frames still lean in pieces against the wall, their mattresses on the floor. We live like college students, like hobos, like squatters -- surrounded by towers of boxes we don't have the time or energy to unpack.

And at this moment, deep in the cardboard city, I'm straddling my son as he struggles against my weight. His face glows red with anger, his temples wet with tears. I hold his arms down and try to will his eyes to lock onto mine.

His evening of temper tantrums and meltdowns escalated until, during bath time, he kicked his brother. Hard. My camel back could stand no more straw. I scooped him up, took him to his room, placed him on his mattress and told him I would keep him there by force until he calmed down.

Here, crouched over him as he shouts and fights, a phrase repeats in my head: "I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm doing."

How did we get here? Is this parenting? Dr. Huxtable wouldn't handle it this way. Of that, I'm sure.

His sniffles and sneezing earlier in the day mean a cold is on its way, so he's tired and cranky. When that happens, the tantrums seem more about mood than frustration, like he wants us all to feel as bad as he does. That's something he got from me.

Each tantrum was sparked by not getting something he wants -- a toy, a sugary snack, whatever. I remind myself, however, that to him these feelings are genuine. The sadness and anger are real.

As I straddle him, I tell him wanting something does not mean you get it. Though a mature concept, I try to burn into his mind with repetition. I say it again and again, calm, steady. Yet even as he fights against me, I realize I sometimes want things so badly I'm moved to fits and tears, too. Maybe in those moments, I need someone to pin me down, to force my eyes to look into theirs while they calmly repeat, Wanting does not equal getting, wanting does not equal getting, wanting does not equal getting.

I continue this outer mantra and my inner one: I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm doing. They play together like a two-part harmony, a sad dirge about my ineffectualness as a parent.

He raises a knee and accidentally kicks me in the crotch. It's a reminder that neither of us really has the advantage.

After a few minutes, he calms down. The tears slow, then stop. He says he understands wanting does not equal getting, but I know he's just saying that so he can return to the tub and the company of his mother and brother. I have a glass of wine. Or five.

Later, as we select books to read before bedtime, he requests Where The Wild Things Are -- a book about a boy so untamed, he scares even the most ferocious of creatures. There's a metaphor here, I know it. Is he one of the wild things? Am I? Are we both the boy? What does the boat represent? Has the wine made me wax too poetic?

Exhausted from our battle, he quietly asks me to spend the night on the floor next to him just before he falls asleep. Our wild rumpus comes to an end for the day. But, tomorrow brings another, just as the day before brought one, too. Surely, not as dramatic, but the wild rumpus always starts again. Being a parent means the wild rumpus always starts again.

My son lets out a wet snore as I lie on the floor and pull a blanket over me. My back will hurt tomorrow, sharp shooting pains calling out my age.

I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what I'm doing. But, I know I want to be here in my boys' darkened room, listening to their whispered breathing.

And right now, wanting equals getting.


A version of this post originally appeared on The Daddy Complex.