“We’re Pachycephalosauruses, mama,” my four-year-old said, tears streaking down the spoiled oil painting of his porcelain face. We just got into an argument about 20 minutes prior about bedtime about picking up the minefield of plastic dinosaurs strewn about his room. After his screaming and my growling a bit, we both calmed our bodies down. As he settled back in his bed, he felt safe to look at me and share his truth.
It was a completely left-field comment, as little kids often make, but I saw he was thinking about this for a few minutes, judging by the frowns and confused looks soon to be followed by clear, big eyes as he said it. I can always tell his synapses are firing on all cylinders in the background, careful to architect exactly what he wants to say so that it comes out just right. I know exactly where that trait comes from.
“Why are we Pachycephalosauruses, bub?” I asked, completely dumbfounded that he knew and perfectly pronounced this eight-syllable word. I didn’t even know which damn dinosaur he was talking about at first. A few days prior, we learned that a Pachycephalosaurus, literally named “thick-headed lizard,” was a dinosaur that had a huge bump on its head, making it easier to use as a weapon or defense system like a bighorn sheep. Brendan was taken with this instantly recognizable predator when he saw it at Woodland Park Zoo a few days before. Two male Pachycephalosauruses fighting for their honor by hitting each other’s heads in an almost realistic animatronic form. Typical masculine bullshit, I remembered thinking while we walked past the grunting reptiles.
“Because they butt heads. We butt heads. We’re headbutters!” he declared and gently touched his pointer finger on my forehead – a secret gesture between the two of us for our “aha” moments. I sat there dumbfounded, mouth open wide with a slight smile to my lips. Damnit, he was right, and I told him so after taking a long deep breath. He beamed, truly proud of himself for saying something that made me pause and think. He saw something I couldn’t.
I’m turning into my mother, I thought.
And just like the Roadrunner in my favorite cartoons growing up, Brendan said “beep beep” and sprinted out of his room, leaving me surrounded by his plastic Triceratopses and his beloved stuffed Pteranodon named Terry, which were now scattered all over his bedroom floor.
I sat there for a few minutes, stunned and mentally tiptoeing through the minefield about how we got here. Just 20 minutes prior, he was flailing like a fish out of water, screaming because he didn’t want to pick up the plastic dinosaurs and Legos and stuffed animals that he threw about his room. He threw that damn Triceratops at me like a javelin, horns darting toward my face. He hit my shoulder deliberately as I grabbed him to sit calmly with me.
He is stronger than he realizes – that punch left a mark and I saw it start to bruise. I so desperately wanted to shake him and yell “why in the fuck did you hurt me!!?!” I wanted to spank him, to hit him as hard as he hit me – something I swore I’d never do.
Spanking was something you did to keep your kids in line in the 80s and something I so quickly exclaimed to everyone that I wouldn’t do as soon as I found out I was pregnant. All of the conscious parenting Instagram accounts I followed shared that there was a more calm way – one I honestly couldn’t wrap my head around. The problem: this was the way of parenting that my body remembered and it takes more resolve and patience to approach things calmly. More patience than I currently had. Instead of acting on impulse, I rolled up my sleeve to show Brendan just how much the jabs hurt. Trust me, bud, I thought, you can’t hurt me more than I can hurt myself.
The “more adult” thing was to stay calm and collected, as much as I could behind my eyes, welling up with tears and my teeth clenched, suppressing my own scream. Thank the goddesses I have Invisalign retainers in – I would’ve chipped my front teeth by now from all of the grinding I’ve had to do to keep my mouth shut during these tantrums.
And then, half-mad and half sad that he hit me, he fell into a puddle of tears. “I’m sorry mama. I’m so sorry,” he trailed off as he closed his eyes and nestled into our snuggling position. My legs crossed as I sat on the floor. He, sitting on my legs with his long legs dangling over the side and his cheek resting right against my collarbone.
Mind you, this entire swing from the gnashing of teeth to “I’m sorry” took 10 minutes and felt like 10 hours. In the earlier toddler days, these bouts would stretch for 30 minutes or longer, depending on who would relent first. I used to give in to the anger and yell and scream with instant guilt and regret and self-judgment as he and I became a collective wellspring of tears. Now, we’re a bit better about this shuffle – two steps to the right as his emotions ramp up. I step forward as he steps back and shuts down his own emotions for a split second. He lunges his right foot forward as the throwing of toys commences. And then we bring our feet together, hands together, hopefully catching deeper breaths as we calm down.
He’s getting so tall, I think. I wonder how our bodies will apologize to each other when he can’t sit in my lap anymore. Maybe we’ll make up some new dance steps.
The time that I wouldn’t get dressed when I was three years old has become a story of legend. It was told at my wedding dinner, sitting under the Costa Rican twilight at a long table for 30 close friends and family. My mother shared it, doubled over laughing with tears streaming down her face, during her trip to Washington, DC to meet Dave, my husband, for the first time when he was just my boyfriend.
Retelling this story at pivotal family moments is a rite of passage. You know you’re considered family if you hear it being shared over a meal. Even my stepmother tells it, and she wasn’t even a part of my life at that point – she joined our family at least a decade after it took place.
As any good legend, it billows and expands over time, but the crux of the story (as it’s told by my parents and my late grandmother) is essentially this: I didn’t want to wear underwear when we left the house on the coldest February morning in Wichita, Kansas. And because there was no underwear on, my mother couldn’t get me dressed so she could drop me off with my grandmother to volunteer at St. Francis Hospital. (Her rules, not mine, but in hindsight, totally appropriate.) It was my mother’s day to get chores done and have her own time, so I thought. However, she really had a hard-to-get psychiatrist appointment that she couldn’t reschedule – something I wouldn’t find out until almost four decades later. There was nothing that was going to stand in her way to make that happen. “Come hell or high water, I was dropping you off with your grandmother,” she says in her retelling, pointing at me with her two pointer fingers as if she was holding a cigarette in between. (She doesn’t smoke now, but she still uses those same two fingers to point with a phantom Marlboro in-between.)
After a long-fought battle between a small girl and a girl who was learning to be a mom, she gave up. I won, and I was still going to volunteer at the hospital – an activity I really loved. Instead of dropping me off fully clothed, my mother drove me up to the doors of St. Francis’s outpatient wing on that blustery February day in my Rainbow Bright shirt, pink tube socks, winter boots, and a winter jacket that was two sizes too big so that it would cover my knees. I walked in the doors holding a plastic grocery bag with my pants and underwear. “Here, you take her,” my mother said to my grandma as she recalls the hand-off, holding both hands, palms facing up as if she’s pushing me by my bare bottom inside the door. Over the years, the infamous drop-off part of the story takes on more of the character of pushing me out the car door, like I was an unwanted stowaway in a robbery heist gone wrong. Of course, as soon as I saw my grandma and handed her the bag, I changed right away and had the most delightful afternoon.
The funny thing is, that’s not at all how I remember the story, though I never stop the laughter-filled retelling to share my thoughts. No one would believe them anyway – the tale is too cemented into the history books to be changed by this point.
My version is a little more simply put: I wanted mom to read one more book before we left. There was a Berenstain Bears book that I loved, and I wanted five more minutes with her to read it before we changed and left. Its purple cover and gold pages, now frayed around the edges from years of page-turning, still reminds me of the time with my mother when I read it with Brendan. The Bear family always seemed to have their shit together. Even if the kids were mad, they were much more chill than I was or my son is. The mother bear always stooped down to listen and connect with her kid.
I loved that book because I was jealous. I wanted to be in their family. I wanted to be seen and listened to, without an agenda to fix any of my flaws. I only see that now in hindsight after years of therapy, desperately trying to parent a toddler in a new way that would make three-year-old Amy proud.
It was never about not wanting to get dressed or me just being a pain in the ass, though now as a mom I see it differently. I was sad because my mother wasn’t listening to me and all I wanted was one more book. I wanted more time with her. Instead of turning pages, she needed to get out the door. To do that, I needed to get dressed. The only way I knew how to stop that train and get my point across was to kick and scream and butt heads – literally. I remember hitting her head and feeling sad that I did it, but my anger needed somewhere to go. It signaled a stormy fight between us, starting with a smaller lightning bolt and spreading fast.
I wonder what would’ve happened if she just asked why I was sad, pointing those same two fingers and cigarette at me. Maybe she did and I just don’t remember. I can only imagine that I frustrated her, but I had no idea how to work through those emotions.
If Mr. Rogers asked me what I do with the mad that I feel, I’d tell him that I’d just stuff it down. Honestly, at three years old I wouldn’t know what to say. Sometimes at 40-years-old, I still don’t either. I’d just shrug my shoulders, tilting my head to one side, letting my bright blonde chin-length hair, shaggy bangs, and dimple on my left cheek charm the crowd. Smile through whatever storm I was in.
The funny thing is, no one has ever asked me what my version of this story is. I imagine everyone finds it quite funny that I have a chink in my armor, a flaw that makes their porcelain image of me more human. Sometimes the funny story is more important than hearing both sides.
I called Brendan back into his bedroom. I hadn’t moved the mound of scattered plastic dinosaurs yet, but I did want to ask him one question.
“Do you think we’ll always be Pachycephalosauruses, bub?” I asked as he stared at me quizzically. He was clearly in another world and had moved on past our tiff, though I hadn’t just yet.
“No mama, we won’t. After we butt heads and share our mad thoughts and say sorry, we turn into Maiasauruses,” he said, with an air of certainty that this was fact as much as he was sure that the sky is blue. “Why Maiasaurs?” I pried, leaning forward and squinting my eyes. You can tell that I’m truly focused on what you have to say if I’m laser-focused and looking you directly in the eye. It’s my best listening pose.
“Well, mama Maiasauruses take care of babies for a long time. They sit with baby Maiasaurus-es-es-es, even when they’re mad,” he replied. His hands were clasped behind his back, swaying back and forth. He seemed a little uncomfortable, admitting a truth he didn’t like but knew needed to be said.
“And what do the mama Maiasaurs do when they’re mad?” I asked.
“They roar a little bit, but then they give good hugs,” he replied, staring deep into my eyes, searching for me to see him as he was, standing there strong and vulnerable.
I stretched out my arms wide as he leaped into my lap. “Wanna read a book?” I asked, pulling my old Berenstain Bears book off the shelf. His smile lit up the room as he crawled in my lap, settling into the nest I made with my crossed legs.