As we pull into the parking lot of the grocery store, I take a deep breath not really sure I can deal with another battle of wills, no matter how small. It’s been only six months since moving out and separating from my husband of seven years and I am exhausted. Wasted from the constant bickering and argument infused conversations that swirl in a circle of anger, frustration and non-resolution.
Though I try to keep the turmoil from affecting our children, I’ve noticed that they are becoming increasingly unruly at home as well as in school. Everything seems to be falling apart. Working three jobs while parenting two kids, I don’t seem to have enough hands to catch myself let alone anything else. But today I have a plan, something I’ve read in a magazine while waiting for a Doctor to tell me I need to minimize my stress “or else!!!”
I turn to my two boys, Phoenix, age three and Justice, age eight. “Okay, we are going into the store so please, please do not touch, punch or eat anything. No running, fighting, loud screaming, spiting, talking back or driving wildly with the cart. I ask that you please follow these rules so that our trip for groceries is easy and painless. Step one: I will give you one warning. Step two: if the action doesn’t stop, I will give a second warning and a consequence, which would be us leaving the store immediately. Step three: If the behavior has not stopped at this point, I will follow through on the consequence. We will leave the store, get in the car and go home. Do you understand?”
The eight year old, already accustomed to the power of pouting and tween indignation, barely looks up. “Yeah, ok mom,” he says, but what I hear is “Mom, you’re totally full of shit!”
The three year old on the other hand, looks at me and smiles, cute as a button, the perfect cherub strapped into a car seat. “Yes Mommm-eee, I will listen to you, I will do what you say…I promise!”
My eyebrow rises just a bit; the “promise” is what worries me most. The “promise” is usually followed by extreme apologies precisely because the “promise” is rarely kept. I wonder if I should just skip the grocery store, order pizza and pick it up on the way home. But then what about breakfast, what about dinner tomorrow? What about the fact that my single parent dollars only stretch so far and though I’m exhausted and really hate doing it these days, I must start cooking again before constant take-out and deli bagels put my meager budget into the red. The real question in my mind is: What about getting this train back on track?
“I’m serious guys,” I say into the review mirror, looking as serious as possible, but feeling a pit in my stomach nonetheless. I can’t help but wonder at what point parenting stopped being fun and started feeling like one big punishment for all involved, me included. I stare at them harder, stalling for a little more time before I have to actually test the whole thing out. Why did I give THAT consequence? Couldn’t I have said something less drastic, something that didn’t mean we’d be hungry tonight or wouldn’t mean me not being able to buy my double fudge brownie ice-cream, the only thing that seems to get me through to the next day. Ugh! But it’s been said, so with a deep breath I turn off the car, and open the door.
We step into the store; the cool crisp breeze and the scent of fresh produce clears the million and one thoughts from my head. My focus is now on planning the week’s meals so that leftovers are rare and nutrition plenty and not losing my cool in this store.
Phoenix has decided to sit in the cart. He’s asked very politely, very carefully, watching me as if I’m a lion ready to pounce. Justice has asked equally as politely to push the cart. I eye them suspiciously. So all it really took was setting boundaries ahead of time. Hmm, okay, great!!! I mentally pat myself on the back and the first real unforced smile in weeks, bubbles up to my face.
This moment of pure peace and unified tranquility lasts for all of two minutes. As I turn to put carefully picked spinach and carrots into the cart I notice that Phoenix has begun to pull the plastic wrap off of a half sliced watermelon. Before I can stop him, he plunges his little fingers into the fleshy red meat. “Phoenix, please do not touch any of the fruits or vegetables…that’s one!” I make eye contact and show him my finger. “ONE” I quickly remove his hand and turn to fix the wrap as best as I can.
Justice bumps the cart into a row of Pork and Beans.
“Please be careful honey.”
“Is that a warning mom?”
“Well, did you do it on purpose?”
“Ummm not really…”
Inhale, exhale, breath, breath, breath.
“Ok Justice, just be careful because those things can fall and hurt you or your brother.”
I study the prices, quickly scanning the isle for the weekly sale items. I spot spaghetti, and pasta sauce, a quick favorite with the boys. I walk fast to get the items, taking my eyes off the boys for a second to bend down to the bottom shelf. Before I can even straighten up, I hear a crash. I turn to see boxes of noodles strewn about the isle, and Justice whirling the cart around like a mad dervish. It takes every bone in my body not to scream.
“Justice! That’s ONE! Now please pick up those boxes and let me have the cart.” He picks up the boxes and just as he is about to put the last one away, Justice smacks his brother on the hand.
“Owwwwww, Mommy, he hit me!”
“Didn’t I say no hitting?”
“Justice, that’s TWO!
“But Mom, it’s different because I was stopping him.”
“Justice, if you break anymore of the rules, we will leave the store immediately!” Justice looks doubtfully at all of the groceries that I have hurriedly dumped into the cart in the last five minutes.
“But Mom, that would mean you wasted your time and then we won’t have anything to eat and then Dad will think you are starving us.” Normally I would take the bait and bite his head off with it, but I am determined to remain calm and stick to the plan of one, two, three-action. I am however astounded, oddly impressed and saddened by my son’s deft ability of serving up guilt on so many different levels. We’ve taught him well.
“Justice, let’s just finish this so we can all get home and eat.” I say this in a low voice, but my head is starting to hurt as I suppress the urge to totally loose it. We still have 4 more isles to get through, not including dairy. I am not sure any of us will make it.
As we round the corner, I notice Phoenix munching “What are you eating?”
“Open your mouth”
“Open your mouth Right Now!”
Inside I see chewed bits of orange. Phoenix, being no dummy, has taken the opportunity to gnaw into one of the raw carrots while Justice and I talked. Funny thing is, he doesn’t even eat carrots.
“Phoenix, if you break any of the rules again, we will leave the store immediately and that means no yoghurt or fruity pebbles in the morning.” I know I am not supposed to threaten the children, just warn them of the consequence, but old habits die hard and I just can’t resist.
“It’s your fault for eating those stupid carrots,” Justice says to Pheonix.
“No, mommy told you don’t go fast and you did, so it’s you, you’re stupid!”
“No, you’re the one, stupid!”
“Nooooo, it’s you stupid!”
And before I can say THREE, my children are spitting at each other. I look at the groceries in the cart and towards the frozen food isle. So much for that ice cream. Calmly and with not a word, I lift Phoenix from his seat and motioning to Justice walk down the isle towards the exit. Justice is pulling at my shirt
“Mom, mom, mommmm, where are we going?”
I stop for a moment and look at him. “We are going to the car honey…”
“But what about all the food?”
“They’ll put it back”
“But, but, but…what will we eat?”
“We’ll see what we have when we get home”
“Because, Three equals consequences, let’s go.”
At this point both boys begin to sob almost uncontrollably, pleading for me to go back into the grocery store, begging for me to give them “one more chance” It’s hard, I want to cry and run back in the store and retrieve all the groceries from the basket, this is how I normally buckle, but today I stay strong and instead of repeating what they’ve done wrong, I say over and over again, “I meant what I said, Three equals consequences.” There are sniffles and a few whimpered questions on the ride home, but for the most part the kids are pretty quiet.
After a dinner of peanut butter and jelly, Justice asks why he is getting water instead of milk.
“Because the milk was in the cart we left at the store.”
“Can we go back and get it tomorrow?”
Phoenix stops eating mid-bite and listens in.
“Of course we can, tomorrow is a new day to try things all over again,” I say smiling. And that night the boys do everything without me having to ask more than twice. I’d love for it to be only once, but as is with all things, starting fresh takes time.
Damasa Perry Doyle
Damasa Doyle, previously a columnist for Complex Magazine, is a creator, writer, and working mom. She resides in Brooklyn, New York with her two children.