The plane was full, and we were in the very back row. I acquiesced to my husband's request for an afternoon flight this time instead of the cheaper tickets that required a pre-dawn wakeup call, knowing that it could be touch and go with holiday delays. Indeed, both flights were delayed and we were flying through dinnertime.
We approached our seats, and my husband was in the window seat a row in front of us, my son and I in the middle and window just behind him. Confused, our son wanted to know why he couldn't sit by Daddy. I explained to him that we were unable to get seats together, and he suddenly exploded like the old-fashioned snake-in-a-can gag gift.
"I WANT TO SIT BY DADDY," he shouted, crying. He glowered at the woman in the aisle seat in our row. "I DON'T LIKE THAT LADY! I DON'T WANT TO SIT BY HER." Thank heaven the woman was the mother of four grown children and she just smiled.
Flushed and feeling desperate, I pulled out every trick: Reasoning. Lecturing. Pleading. Bribing. Cajoling. Threatening to take away toys. Silence. Nothing worked. It's one thing to practice patience and let him ride it out in the quiet of our own home, but on a plane full of strangers, it's quite another challenge. Finally, I got him to laugh, and we were fine until he decided he didn't want his seatbelt on anymore, and we started over an hour later. I was left bewildered at how he was behaving -- my usually-great mini traveler who has been on more than three dozen flights with me before. This is just a phase, I chanted to myself.
Bedtime was a struggle the week before that while on vacation, and my logical, adult mind knows that he was having trouble because we were at my parents' condo in Florida and because it was Christmas season, when everything is topsy-turvy.
On the second night of procrastinating and one-more-book-ing and I-need-another-glass-of-water-ing and I'm-not-going-to-listen-ing, my frustration built. I had things I wanted to accomplish and everything felt like it was taking an eternity. My focus was elsewhere. I lost my patience, used short and harsh tones with him, and felt about as big as a flea.
I am an adult. He is 4. He is going through a period of big feelings and he is trying to harness them all. In theory, I should have mastered mine.
After he fell asleep, I went back to the room and cried into his soft little-boy hair as I fell asleep myself. I am hard on myself, knowing that I can be better. We had been surprised as we sailed through the terrible twos and trying threes without a problem. No tantrums, no toddler throwing himself on the floor in public, no forcible removal of a child from a Target store. My husband and I jokingly gave each other high-fives on our excellent child-rearing and example-setting (ha); we thanked our lucky stars that we had a child with such a great temperament. We've got this.
Four was a sucker punch. Four is trying the edges of my patience. Four is pushing the envelope and trying out the limits of what he can get away with. Four is telling us "NO" and "I won't do that!" and pouty lips and the occasional screaming. Four is "hold me" and "don't hold me" and "I'll kiss your boo-boo" and "don't kiss me!"
I ask my mother for advice and she smiles and says, "This will pass."
The truth is that I have been spoiled. My little boy is showing signs of imperfection; I worried about my skills as a parent. How does his behavior reflect our parenting? What if people think I am a flawed mother who spoils her child? Am I not preparing him well enough to handle his feelings? What am I doing wrong?
Even as I think that, I tie a little balloon to those thoughts and let them go into space. First of all, it's not all about me. Second of all, he is human and he is a child and he is imperfect. And I am too. I remind myself that I can and will do better tomorrow.
I brought up my frustrations with my Listen to Your Mother colleagues Heather and Leigh Ann, and Heather said the word that has been sticking with me. Surrender.
He won't be this age forever. Surrender.
Find a way to stay calm and roll with it. Surrender.
When he rages, hold him and let the moment wash over me. Surrender.
If he says something that hurts my feelings, know he doesn't understand or mean it. Surrender.
I am imperfect and should give myself grace when I lose my patience. Surrender.
Surrender to the imperfect.
I don't have to surrender my beliefs, or surrender to his whims. I am still the parent and I still must guide him. But I can guide him in a way that is gentle and loving and less frustrating for me if I surrender to the fact that I can't control him all of the time. I will work to better surrender to the moment and let the waves wash over me. I have control of my emotions even when he does not. I can teach him that he is safe here in this haven of home. He, then, can surrender in relief when he feels comfortable. I can help him by ensuring that he is fed on time and in bed early enough so he has enough fuel and sleep.
So often, I talk about the beautiful moments I share with my son, and there are many. Sometimes, however, it's messy and confusing and I'm stumbling toward the place where I think we need to go, together.
I always love him with all of my heart. I always appreciate what I have and am thankful for him every day. When he is sleeping, he still looks like a baby. There is so much more joy than anything else; the loud moments sometimes become a roar in my ears until they fill up the space and take up more room than they should be allotted.
Today, I did a better job. And I will try to give myself the space to be imperfect, as I give him the space to be imperfect too.
To the joys and the frustrations. To childhood.