At 6.30am I’m woken up with a headbutt in the face.
I then receive an octopus sucker kiss on the mouth, which threatens to end up as a teeth clamp of the lips. I gently remove my 21-month-old assailant, and in doing so, wake up the 3.5-year-old.
They’re both awake now. Miko is done with rolling around and trying to kiss/smash my face, and does his speedy crawl to the edge of the bed. He turns around in a pole vault kind of way to dismount. I leap up as I always do, to make sure he doesn’t fall and go headfirst onto the wooden floor. Though I hate to admit it, he’s bigger and stronger now, and can manage to get down safely by himself. He turns around and shouts, “Mama!” I groan. I’m too tired, I can’t move. I hope he’ll do what he done most mornings until now, and plod, plod, plod out of the room, stand at the door and say a cute, “baiiee-baiiee”, and go play with some toys in his darkened bedroom (the place I put him to bed but where he never wakes up).
“MAMA!” he continues, still at the end of the bed. I’ve had it. Michael’s sick and I only see his resolutely unmoving back (though I suspect he’s awake). I consider my options. “MAMMMAAAA!” Miko is still standing at the end of the bed. He must be hungry, I think. I have to get up.
I pull back the covers, and in doing so, remind Charlie that I’m awake and that I’m about to leave the bed. He also ends up in our bed every night.
“Mama! I want to sleep!” he cries. I know that this means he wants to me to sleep beside him. He’s wanted us with him at all times ever since he was a baby. He’s always been a paradox. Independent, fearless dare devil, and sensitive, frightened rabbit. Constant explorer and climber and playground escapee, but can’t be in a room without company. He’s never played alone in his cot. He doesn’t go to the toilet by himself. He doesn’t sleep by himself. I know that kids need their parents with them and this desire for closeness is normal. I’m fully with that and am there for him, and love being so, but from talking to other parents, Charlie is quiet extreme in his need for human contact. It’s lovely though.
Of course, falling asleep beside Charlie again would be my first choice of things to do in this moment, but it’s hard not to notice the tiny being at the end of the bed, holding onto my toes and shouting more urgently, “MAMMMAAAAA! OUT!” That’s a first. Good word combining, almost a sentence. And now I can’t ignore you any more. I have to get up.
I inch to move again, and Charlie starts, “MAMMAAA! I WANT TO SLEEEEP!” He’s ramping up, and I can tell by the urgency in the voice where this is going to end up. Michael’s sick. I so want him to get up and keep Miko entertained, but I have to tell my selfish sleep-craving brain that he needs a rest.
I’m trapped in a MAMA tug of war and I alone am responsible for its outcome. I have to think fast.
I have to get up.
I get up: “Charlie, wanna come for breakfast with me?” Surprisingly, though I know he needs more sleep, Charlie groggily gets up. Miko turns around and toddles off, content now that I’m making my way out of the bedroom, and I hold Charlie’s hand on the way to the kitchen. I used to carry him, but he’s getting a bit heavy, and now holding his hand has to suffice.
In the kitchen, Charlie’s mood deteriorates. There are no rules for which direction it will go, and this time we’ve lost the lottery. “Mama! Are you going to sit beside me?” “No darling, I need to make breakfast first.” I’m worried. I can feel my patience is thin, and at these times I tend to clamp down on our unwritten and inconsistent rules for some reason: “And I’m going to sit in my chair. Papa will sit next to you.” I also feel a duty to give Miko some priority sometimes too: “I need to sit near Miko so I can feed him.” Miko doesn’t really need feeding. Less than Charlie actually. But I want Miko to know that he’s important too.
This upsets Charlie further. He’s starting to melt down. I can’t hold his hand because I’m getting breakfast ready. I won’t sit beside him because that’s not where I sit. I’m there to comfort him, and I do, and I tell him I’ll sit beside him tomorrow, or that I’ll hold his hand when breakfast is ready and I sit down at the table, but this is now not enough. He’s wailing loudly now. We’ve lost him.
It’s so hard to explain this to people sometimes. Even people with children. How it can be when it gets hard. Charlie gets to a point where nothing or no one will get through to him anymore. You will attempt to solve one problem (for example, by sitting beside him) and he will find another (needing to hold hands). You will hold his hand, and he will want a car that Miko has. You will give him the car (now Miko’s crying) and he will want a straw in his milk. It will go on and there will be no solution. But both of you will end up as a confused mess.
I’ve learned over several years of this (what Google tells me is sensory meltdown as opposed to tantrum) that the best response I can give is to do nothing. When he gears up, I shut down. I am there for him, always, I will give him hugs and love, but I can no longer meet him in his wavelength, or combat the irrational with my adult logic.
In the past, I would try and calm him, try and reason with him. I would start off caring, motherly, wanting to help him yet set boundaries, soothe him yet be strong. He would cry and scream for half an hour or more, his face twisted and red. He would force his way between me and the kitchen cupboards with I cooked, he would try and climb up to the changing table while I changed Miko’s nappy, he would demand that I carry him on my hip, and refused to sit on my knee. Anything to disrupt what I was doing – and most of the time I really did need to keep doing it.
Then, too often than I care to think about, I would reach my own limit. It would happen quickly. I’d be consoling him, or offering another solution, and I’d suddenly snap. “Argh, just stop! Stop crying! I’ve had enough! Enough! What do you want??? Stop! Stop! Stop!” He would get more upset, I would get more upset. We’d feed off each other and both end up emotional car crashes. I may, at times, have threatened to walk out of the room and close the door. I may, at times, have walked out of the room and closed the door. I’m not proud of doing that. This is the worst thing you can do to Charlie. But that’s only happened once or twice when I needed a quick breath and a reset. Mostly, I’d do something like pick him up and walk outside the house for the shock of the cold air, or put on a YouTube video, or tickle him… anything out of the ordinary to derail the train as it puffed towards its own destruction. Every time, he’d bounce back pretty quickly and start laughing again over something stupid, and I’d be left staring at the wall, wondering did I imagine what just happened, and ridden with guilt for the rest of the evening after shouting at a small vulnerable creature.
So retreating into an emotionless place, disengaging, is the safest place for me, and us, when Charlie goes to that high-drama, unreachable place. I don’t want any more situations where we’re both upset at the same time, and I don’t want to taint his childhood memories with my anger. By engaging with his demands, as they spiral out of control and become more and more unreasonable and unsolvable, I become increasingly frustrated, and end up joining Charlie in his wild emotional ride.
It seems cruel to outsiders, and to myself too, as I mentally rise above the situation and look on in horror at my behaviour. But I have to keep reminding myself that this is the only way for me to get through this. I’ve had other mothers trying to talk to Charlie as he’s ramping up: “Hey Charlie, it’s OK, we’ll be home soon, here’s a car, I love your T-shirt, isn’t that a nice dog?” But I know where it’s going, and have already disengaged. I walk on in silence. I just want to get home, close the door, and sit on the couch reading a long-winded article on my phone while he rages. They must think I’m so cold. And I feel like this too. But I tell myself, this is the only way. I am preserving both of us.
This morning, Charlie went to that place again. I lost him. There was nothing I could do anymore. As always happens, there was no logic to his shouting anymore. I could never give him what he wanted. He didn’t know what he wanted. I needed to sit it out and then be there for him when the storm calmed.
But I was upset. I could feel my own temperature rising. I was tired, and this makes things so much worse. Still, I sat there, reading an article about something I didn’t need to know on my phone. I sometimes resent so much how he takes all the attention away from Miko. Miko, who sits there eating his breakfast, wordless but calm and content while Charlie’s fire burns.
Eventually Charlie is shouting: “Mama, are you happy? Mama, you didn’t say you’re happy?” He has started to say this quite a lot lately. It’s so hard to reply, “Yes, Charlie, I’m happy” when I’m seething. Mostly I just say “yes” and that’s enough for him, but sometimes, when my fuse is short, I say “no” and this makes him more upset. Sometimes I think he should know that I’m not happy every second of the day. It’s not like he doesn’t know from my body language/tone of voice sometimes. Poor Charlie, he’s so sensitive, and I wonder often if he will need a lot of care from someone when he’s older.
Then, the worst: “Mama, are you going to talk to me? Mama, will you taaaalk to meeee?” Said quietly, sobbing. This breaks my heart in two. My mental self looks on from above, and calls social services.
I say, “what do you want to talk about?” He says, sobbing, “Light Bean the Queen” (this is how he says Lightning McQueen). I’m so upset, and sad, and tired, I can’t think of anything to say. “He’s very fast isn’t he?” “Yes.” Sobs. “What colour is he?” “Red.”
Despite a few respites, Charlie continues crying and shouting for quite a while after this. I continue to disengage. Then eventually, when I can hear a break in the breaths, I take him out of the room, and hold him, hold him, hold him, and stroke his hair. I ask him to breathe deeply. I say, “it’s OK. It’s OK. Did you get a funny feeling again? It’s OK. We all get like that sometimes. It’s OK.” He calms down. He says he’s feeling better.
Later, I’m in the kitchen, finishing up breakfast with two now happy and calm children. I’m facing away from them, washing dishes, and my face crumples. My head hangs and I start to cry. I can’t stop. My tears are streaming, for the pent-up emotions, for the unanswered questions, for the release, for the lost nights, for my lost self, for the child I can’t tame, for never knowing the right thing to do, for being forced to ignore a crying child, for having to ignore another child, for the responsibility of leading two childhoods in some kind of good direction, and the feeling that I might not make it. I’m so tired.
I go into the bathroom so the kids don’t notice. I’ve hardly talked to Michael all morning. I’ve been trying to stay strong. I’ve been concentrating so hard on my ignoring face. I’ve been spooning cereal into reluctant mouths. Pouring plastic beakers of milk. We’ve both been doing the practical things that need doing. I thought he had lost yet another cubic centimetre of respect for me. I go to him. He looks at me and his face softens. He puts my arms around me. I fall into him. I sob some more. I’m so thankful that he didn’t look at me and disapprove. He tells me he’s grateful to see me like this. I understand what he means.
That evening, we had some beautiful hours with our beautiful Charlie. We turned off the TV and found things to do. We sellotaped giant cardboard tubes together and ran cars through them, onto train track ramps that shot them in the air. We turned off the lights and shone torches at the ceiling. We made disco ball stars shoot across the walls. We made a den from blankets and chairs. We held lengthy conversations with his seagull teddy bear. We played card games. We made a zoo. We marvelled at his imagination. He found a children’s music book I had bought at a flea market, and I taught him every song, each one about a different animal, sitting at the piano together. He learned them off after only two plays, so excited to sing them, laughing and giggling, his eyes shining, coming in for a hug after every song, while I thought this might be the best moment of being a mum I’ve ever had, or will ever have. We took Miko out on his balance bike for the first time. Charlie didn’t make any attempt to take away Miko’s attention, but instead was excited about his achievements. He seemed to enjoy teaching him how to stop before going onto the road, and how to turn corners: “I learned him that!”
He said things like: “My skin is light gold.” and “I’m the youngest.” “No, Charlie, you’re the oldest.” “If I’m old, does that mean you’ll throw me away soon?”
I read him a story, I hugged him, I told him I loved him, I watched him fall asleep, I burned inside.
The next day, Charlie told me he was crying that morning because, “you sat in the wrong chair. You sat in the fixed chair, but that’s Papa’s chair. You always sit in the broken chair.”
That’s Charlie. He is full of fire, and he’s still so small, and he can’t control it. He doesn’t understand what pushes him to the edge, and we’re only a little way to understanding it. I’ve discovered there’s always something behind these sudden, uncontrollable rages. Some are fear, some, a break from routine, some, an unexplained event that happened the day before, some realisation of the world, some click of a cog. He needs us then more than ever. But in the heat of the moment, I let myself get swept away sometimes. I need to be more tolerant, to rise above, to be the parent. I’m learning. I hope.