My daughter’s defiance simmers between us, and irritation creeps up my spine. She is sitting on the floor of our kitchen, having a tea party with her Elsa doll and ignoring my pleas to eat dinner.
The kitchen is stuffy, a combination of the warm temperatures outside and the oven being on for an hour. Sweat trickles down my temples, my shirt sticks to my back and my feet ache from being on them all day.
I dig deep to find patience and offer a compromise, “I know you’re in the middle of a game with Elsa, but it’s late and you need to come to the table for dinner. You’ll finish playing after you eat.”
She sighs, exasperated by my interruptions. “Fine, Mom,” she relents.
After arranging her doll to sit next to her, she deposits herself in a wooden kitchen chair in front of her lukewarm dinner. I try to ignore the glint in her eyes and hope that she'll settle down and eat.
When I turn my back to wash the dishes in the sink, she giggles while throwing her food onto the floor. “Mommy look!” she taunts as she drops a cucumber into her water. The dark hardwood is littered with small pieces of chicken and broccoli. Water pools in the middle of her brown placemat, slowly inching its way towards the edge of the table.
“Why are you throwing your dinner on the floor?” I ask calmly. “Please stop doing that and act like a big girl. You’re three now.” She ignores the bait that I dangle in front of her, acknowledging her recent birthday. Sometimes the fact that she's three years old influences her behavior. Tonight, it does not.
“Look Mommy, I’m eating Silly Putty instead of dinner!” She shrieks with laughter while putting Silly Putty on her fork and into her mouth. When I rush to her and try to pry it out of her lips, she pulls my hair, sending pain through my scalp. Anger rises through my body and spills out of my mouth.
I'm tired from a day of chasing after her, carrying her, looking for her toys, and begging her to eat. My bones ache with the weariness from being on since 7 A.M., I am out of patience and I cannot help myself.
I yell at her.
“Why won’t you eat this dinner that I cooked just for you? Is it really so hard to sit in a chair for 10 minutes? How could you pull my hair when you know how much it hurts?” My voice rises with each question. I speak quickly, not allowing her the chance to answer.
She looks down at her plate and continues to play with her food. Anger moves through my body, tingling my fingertips until I snap. I threaten to take away TV, to take away dessert, to not go to the park the next morning. My voice is deafening but I cannot stop.
The silence is heavy in the kitchen when I finish my tirade. Tears fall down her flushed cheeks and my heart sinks as I watch her. Did I really just scream at her because she didn’t want to eat dinner? I ask myself. My face is hot with embarrassment and I taste regret, bitter in my mouth. I close my eyes and count to ten, willing my heartbeat to slow down and my breathing to deepen.
I am horrified at the angry words that came out of my mouth, but desperate for the day to end. There is nothing more I want than a hot shower and to lay under the soft covers of my bed, but this seems impossibly far away.
When I open my eyes, I see her hunched in the wooden kitchen chair, looking at me with a hurt expression. My heart cracks in my chest and I am overcome with the desire to hold her.
I scoop her up and we sink into the sofa. A plastic princess pushes into my back, a remnant from her earlier playtime, but I don’t want to move. Instead, I pull her deeper onto my lap, and lean onto the brown leather.
“I’m sorry for yelling,” I whisper into her ear. “I always love you, even if I sometimes yell.”
She turns her small face up to mine, and our eyes meet. “Mommy, please don’t yell like that again,” she asks. Her voice cracks.
I nod. “I’ll try my best,” I answer, “but I need you to try to listen to me and show me what a big girl you are. And no more pulling Mommy’s hair and throwing food.” She nods.
She pushes her head into my shoulder, burying her face into my shirt, and we sit there, intertwined. I wrap my arms around her and pull her closer to me.
Our promises float in the air around us, between us. I wonder if we will be able to keep them. I wonder how I will find the patience to mother her through the challenges of being three.
My struggles have less to do with her behavior and more to do with my own reactions. Every time I lose my temper and yell, the words pouring out of my mouth twist my heart. I can’t believe I am saying these things to her when all I want to do is hold her in my lap, feel her skin against mine, and breathe in her scent.
For me, the biggest challenge is finding my daughter’s big eyes in the midst of the chaos and anger and holding her gaze. I need her to know I love her even when I lose my patience, even when I desperately need a break, even when I am so angry at her defiance that it is difficult for me to stay in the room.
After the storm, I hold her closer to me and whisper phrases of love into her small ear:
I am sorry I yelled, but you made me angry.
I am always right here for you, even when I am upset.
I love you sweet girl.
We are both spent and the hurt feelings linger in the air. I give up on dinner. “Ready for bed?” I ask after a few minutes. She nods, and we walk upstairs hand in hand, leaving the messy kitchen behind.
Once I tuck her in under her princess blanket, I apologize again for the words I said and how I raised my voice, but she has already forgiven me.
“I love you, Mommy,” she whispers and reaches her arms out. I gratefully fall into them.
I lay on the soft, carpeted floor next to her toddler bed, my hand wrapped around hers. “Today was a rough day for us. I’ll try to be more patient tomorrow and I know we’ll have a better day,” I suggest.
“Ok Mommy,” she responds, sounding hopeful. We rest side by side in silence. I close my eyes, looking for patience and empathy within.
I don’t know if this will be enough, but it’s all I can do for my daughter: to try to have better days while mothering through the mayhem of three.