Every morning in my house starts with an argument. My son refuses to eat breakfast, unless it’s pasta with butter. Or he blames me when he forgets to brush his teeth, can’t find his favorite green shirt or misplaces his shoes. He can’t get out of the house and begin his day, it seems, without arguing with me.
My wife and I wonder whether these flare-ups are a sign that he is going through puberty, but he can’t be, can he? He’s only 10.
“Mommy, leave me alone! You don’t get it and you never understand anything,” he laments when my response to a question annoys him. All of this exhausts me. His arguing, combined with my need to get his twin sisters dressed and off to day care, and get myself ready for work, leaves me spent. I want to crawl back into bed, but I can’t.
Most mornings, my wife intervenes. “Jonathan, you are being unkind and you need to apologize. Think about how you would feel if someone said the same words to you,” she says, as he rolls his big brown eyes and contemplates his next move. I silently hold my breath and avert my eyes, wondering how my wife always finds the right words, when I’m the one with a degree in counseling. I busy myself in the kitchen, barely avoiding having a tantrum of my own. My wife waits for our son’s response, and silence fills our house.
He begins to speak and I interrupt, “Don’t apologize if you don’t mean it,” I yell from the kitchen. And there we are, back in a cycle of confrontation.
“See, she doesn’t even let me talk. She always does this,” he complains.
I remain silent, but the anger is bubbling inside me.
This is what I asked for, these children, our children. I need to have more patience with them. I worry I don’t have enough energy for them, myself, or for my wife. It’s not even 7 a.m., and I feel like I’ve worked an entire shift. We pull up to my son’s school, just before the doors close and the 8:15 a.m. bell rings. I then race to drop his sisters off at day care and head off to work. Before I start my day, though, I pull over and take a deep breath, or four.
I call upon anyone who will listen to me in that moment — usually God — and say: “Please help me get through this day. I am strong. I am capable. I can do this.” I wallow in this for a moment longer, eyes closed. When I open them, I take a sip of my now-cold coffee and look at myself in my rearview mirror. After taking a few minutes to breathe, I feel proud and accomplished, with so many items checked off my long to-do list before 8:30 a.m. And, to boot, everyone is in one piece.
Ultimately, I think I do a pretty good job of balancing it all. But when I really look into my own brown eyes, and see myself for who I am, I don’t always like myself. I don’t like how impatient I can be with our tween son. Or how thin my skin is. Sometimes his words hurt my feelings. Or I take it personally when he rolls his eyes or stomps up the stairs.
He is straddling the line between young boy and teenager, yet has the maturity of a 5-year-old. He also has special needs: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism. So I feel guilty when I admit he exhausts me. I feel angry when I can’t reason with him. I’m at a loss: How do I help him when I am too worn out to figure out the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand?
To be fair, I don’t always think about his special needs. I refuse to let him use those as a crutch. But there is a fine line, I’ve come to realize, between not expecting enough from him and pushing him too hard to reach unreasonable expectations. It isn’t always easy to know where that line is, exactly. I have the same high expectations for myself, and for my ability to parent him.
On my way to get him after school, before he gets in the car, I make another commitment. I promise to model the behavior I want to see in him. It’s something I learned in counseling classes, and now it’s time to put it into practice at home. What I want from him is simple: respect. But maybe I don’t respect him enough, or show him the same patience I have for his younger sisters. My requests need to be worded in a way that he can understand and process, and I need to change my reaction to him when things are tense. I can’t take it personally. Then, maybe, he can be the person I know lives in his heart, and we can shed our anger.
He is not perfect and never will be. I, too, am imperfect. But I can change for the better, for him. I can commit to doing that even on the hardest days, and it will start with our morning routine.
Nikkya Hargrove is a wife, mother and writer based in Connecticut. Find her on Twitter @Nikkya1128.