By Amy Challenger
“Get that kid OUT OF HERE!” yelled Cindy the music teacher, swatting at the air with one hand while holding up a basket of CDs with the other. She elevated the gifts she had promised to the toddlers, high above their chubby grabbing hands. Her torso twisted, pulling at the seams of a tight, bright-colored jacket. One fuzzy-haired 3-year-old grabbed at her polyester pants. Determined to get to the CDs first, he had already leapt across the room to get to her, like a mini ninja warrior, ignoring her request to stay seated. The other toddlers had followed—a drooling sea of arms and “gimmees.” Now Cindy toppled onto herself, tripping on her awkward feet, before regaining her balance. Her round nose wrinkled beneath her eyes bulging downward, glaring at the lead ninja.
Did she really just yell that in front of all of these moms and kids? I thought, glancing at the horrified faces of the women standing along the rim of the scene.
My face flushed. I felt like I might pee my pants. I was helplessly on the far side of the mass of little bodies, and now my arms reached out, paddling through the toddler current to get to my boy. Must. Get. There. Before he tantrums! I thought, panting, trying not to fall on top of my seven-week-old baby girl, who was sucking from my breast, beneath a white cotton sling attached to me.
As music class had ended, Cindy announced that she’d give gifts to all children who remained seated, waiting for their names to be called. The gifts were CDs packaged in colorful cases. I had calculated that these “flingable” objects handed around could trigger my boy’s impulse to chase and grab. And surely the word “gift” would zap his impulse control. The excitement could inhibit his ability to consider other bodies, recognize sounds, or follow commands. As I had considered the impending doom, my infant started to cry. Surely this additional shrill sound would only make my boy’s sensitivity worse. I quickly looked down to quiet the baby, latching her on to my nipple beneath the white cotton fabric of my sling. And then my boy disappeared.
Now Cindy’s perfectly manicured fingers were attempting to detach him from her thigh. “Let go!”
While still clinging to the polyester, he screeched back, “Gimee. Gimee da CD!”
He had been diagnosed with ADHD and symptoms of sensory processing disorder. He had anxiety, maybe PTSD, possibly from his open-heart surgery during infancy and the hospitalization and medications he had received for a life-threatening arrhythmia.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” I said nervously, knowing loud noises, chaotic motion, and prizes yanked AWAY would ensure a complete meltdown.
Weeks before that morning, I had explained to Cindy that my boy had special needs. He’d been kicked out of preschool on the first day for no specific reason while I was in the hospital having my third C-section. “He just doesn’t fit here. Can’t return tomorrow,” his preschool teacher had said through the phone by my hospital bed. Since that morning, I had called all sorts of classes, therapy groups, and preschools, searching for help while caring for my two toddlers and infant, all born in less than three years. When I found Cindy, the music teacher, I had explained that my boy sometimes became “over-stimulated,” particularly during transitions; but a calm music class could provide therapeutic benefits if lead by a patient instructor. She had assured me that, with her numerous years of experience teaching in Tiburon, California, she was fully capable of teaching every kind of child—even a boy like mine.
But there we were. Commanded to GET OUT.
“We have to go, honey! Come on!” I tried, when I finally reached my boy. He kept jumping and pulling on Cindy, so I lifted him with my free arm and pulled him away hollering, kicking, and hitting me. Once close to the doorway where our shoes waited, I lowered myself to the floor, with him on the opposite side of the baby still nursing in the sling. I groped for his shoes with my free, shaky hand. “We have to go,” I said, using my feet to slide our bottoms toward the door while my clumsy swinging arm attempted to land a blue crock onto his wild foot. It was hopeless. My boy hated shoes—they itched his skin—they confined him.
Meanwhile, Cindy handed out the CDs, smiling to the other moms and children, compensating for her earlier outburst. She dropped a plastic case next to me with a grimace, reminding me that I needed to leave.
“I’m trying!” I yelped in disbelief as my boy grabbed for his prize.
“Lemme go!” he screamed kicking at the air, scratching my arm. My infant girl finally became irritated, belting out a cry from below. It was all so ridiculous—opposite of how I had imagined motherhood to be. I sucked cracker-smelling air inward, as I tried to imagine a way out of my humiliation. The tears forced their way out with the exhale, exploding down my red cheeks. My sobs jerked uncontrollably, revealing the truth. I was so tired. So lost. So lonely.
I’m a terrible mom, I thought. Pathetic. I couldn’t even get out of the damned classroom. Worse, I was partially blocking the door, like a wet, ugly mat. The other moms’ white sneakers stepped across our sobbing heap on their way out of the classroom, yanking children behind them, tripping and bumping our legs. They did not speak to me. They did not look down at me. They just left. The children stared a little, peering back, as they were pulled out the door.
After most mothers had disappeared, I finally dragged my shrieking boy outside by the legs, into the dry fall breeze. As soon as we reached the pavement, he jumped up and ran barefoot through the busy parking lot. I chased him, seeing Cindy through my tears. She watched through an open window. “I told you about him… I told you,” I cried.
“This was your fault. Not his. Your infant, your breastfeeding was disruptive,” she called like an angry crow. (I had seen many other moms come with infants, so her comment made little sense to me. But nothing did that day.)
Six years later, after thousands more difficult days of parenting, I reflect back on that episode, and I feel sad. I needed kindness. I needed help. But believe it or not, I think that flailing on the floor of a classroom was one of my early motherhood gifts in disguise. That day, I was forced to learn about parenting from down on the floor where part of my pride fell away in a stream of tears. I had to learn to stop seeking approval from Moms. In order to embark on my mothering journey, I had to find my reward in loving, understanding, and advocating for my struggling boy and his siblings. I needed to focus on my family.
And later, as my mama feet became steadier, that lonely low-down perspective taught me to watch closely for the mothers who might need me. Because I know that a hand lowered, a nod, or even one kind word can make all the difference to a mom.
I hope that my lessons from the floor can become another Mom’s bench to rest on—perhaps a sturdy platform to reach out from, finding at last another mother’s welcoming hand to hold.
Amy Challenger is an artist and writer working in Fairfield, CT on her first novel about a boy’s struggles and triumphs growing up “different.” This year her work relating to parenting has been published in the Washington Post, Mamalode and on her two blogs specialneedsblessings.blogspot.com and thefruitofmotherhood.blogspot.com.