The Aftertaste of Guilt: An Acquired Taste Moms Learn to Live With
Ever have a day that completely turns on its head and rears an amazingly ugly face that seems almost like a joke? That was Monday. After spending eight hours working at home, I run off to pick up my five-year-old from football camp. (That means soccer, as I live in London.) I’m on the bus looking at all the twinkle lights on High Street Kensington. We drive past Queen’s Gate in Hyde Park and across it the gorgeous Royal Albert Hall with its immense Christmas tree standing proudly in the lobby. I’m feeling better after being cooped up all day in my home office writing and editing.
Walking down Exhibition Street towards the huge Fit For Sport building where my son is, I see families returning from The Science Museum or The Museum of Natural History that now has an ice-skating rink set up for the holidays. Everyone looks quite happy and rejuvenated.
Inside the complex, I see my son playing indoor football with about five others and a counselor, and he ignores me. I try to give him a hug and tell him it’s time to go home and he yells, “NO!” I back off, realizing that some of the children are staying later than the 4:30 p.m. sign-up time. The counselor tells me that some children can stay until 5:30, but you have to pay ahead of time. So I tell William, ‘You can stay until 5:30 tomorrow, but we didn’t pay for that today. You’ve been here eight hours and had so much fun, let’s go home, maybe we’ll get a hot chocolate (I’m not below a little bribery).”
He ignores me and runs toward the goal set up in the gymnasium. I see the overgrown camp counselor give me the look I’m now quite familiar with that seems to say, “Spoiled Americans.” So I decide to physically go and pick him up. I am wrangling with his coat and saying: “time to get on the bus,” (as he adores riding on the top of the double-decker buses.) William seems to be okay, or so I think.
As we’re walking out of the lobby I see a tear stream down his face and his little hands ball up into fists. This little boy, the first Scorpio in the family, gives new meaning to the word temper tantrum. (I’ve been enduring them since he was fourteen months old. I have nightmares, still, about them: the ones when he’s face down, hands pummeling the floor, feet kicking in the grocery store for not getting a Ding Dong. Or when he’d refuse to leave a park or playdate so he’d arch his back so strongly that I couldn’t physically get him into his car seat. It would sometimes take up to fifteen minutes of wrestling.) Luckily, he turned five last November and for most of his fourth year, he had few of them. So I thought I was out of the woods—but seeing the telltale sign of hands in fists, I knew it was coming. We’re walking up Exhibition Road towards Hyde Park and the screaming started. It didn’t stop. I tried to walk bravely on, ignoring it. I’ve read so many advice books that I know the theories: ignore it, as any attention is good attention. Don’t beg, plead, or bribe. Don’t yell, you’re teaching him that yelling is a good communication tool. Don’t spank, it teaches violence (and I think illegal in the United Kingdom). Or, the one I tried for a few months, empathy: “I know that you’re sad we had to leave, you were having such a good time.” The theory is that children just want you to know how they feel. Not this time.
So, I walk valiantly on holding hands with my kid who is screaming at the top of his lungs. He’s screaming horrible things about me—about not being able to stay, about wanting to go back to America, about how I never let him do anything. I had just spent a fortune for him to go to this camp, and was already feeling guilty that the week before Christmas—when almost all the Europeans from his international school were spending the entire three weeks away from work and together—he was at a football camp, eight hours a day.
The good news, I realized later, was that he liked the camp and I could continue to work. He’s an uber-social kid. He loves hanging with older children and loves playing in general. The bad news: I couldn’t handle the screaming anymore. When he was two I had trained myself for it and had so much more tolerance and patience. And so, regardless of all the parenting advice I’ve read or actually been told by parenting experts in interviews over the years, I turned around and said loudly:
“Then GO back! Go back to football camp and see if your father can pick you up in an hour. I doubt that will happen. You’ll end up sitting in the lobby for two hours waiting for him.”
With that, I turned around and started walking down the street. My husband has a high-pressured job for a California-based company, so he travels a bit and when here is typically on conference calls between 5 and 8 p.m. Many nights he comes home and only gets to kiss William who’s already in bed. I didn’t need to draw more attention to that. I was just exhausted and under-appreciated.
After stomping down the street a few feet I turn around to the silence. My son is standing there with his mouth wide open, his balled fists by his side, his backpack on the ground. I am suddenly filled with such guilt and love. I run back to him and say I’m sorry, that he had just hurt my feelings. Suddenly, it was over. He takes my hand. We walk down the street towards Hyde Park. As we turn towards the #52 bus-stop, he says, “Can Max come over for a playdate tonight? I just wish I had a little brother to play with.” And then he sighs, loudly.
And with that added bit for me to feel guilty about, we ascend the bus and go up top to watch all the twinkle lights in London as we drive home. During the fifteen-minute ride, I’m going over our fight in my mind and how badly I handled it. Of course, I also wonder if I could possibly handle having another child. Could I go through the sleep deprivation again? Could I handle two-year-old and then, three-old temper tantrums again? Sadly, I just don’t know. I swallow down the guilt, but as always, it leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth.