It was a typical morning spent rushing to get my older kids out the door for school. There were breakfasts to be made, homework to finish and lunches to pack. It wasn’t a particularly memorable morning. We’d just gotten back from a trip overseas to visit my husband’s family in Scotland. I remember feeling jetlagged and cranky. My husband was out of town for work, so his usual helpfulness was absent. I have so many excuses.
Our son, who recently turned 4, had been sick with an ear infection. The pharmacy had forgotten to flavor his medication, so I had been trying—and failing—to get him to swallow his antibiotic. I bribed, cajoled and begged him. Finally, after an hour of tears, he reluctantly drank the yogurt and strawberry-laced concoction. It was to be his first day back at Pre-K in two weeks.
I noticed the time. I had a conference call starting in 30 minutes. We made our way to his bedroom to get him dressed. He’d begun wearing a uniform to school right before we’d left on vacation. That morning, I realized quickly its novelty had worn off. I set out his shirt and was met with immediate tears. “I no want to wear this shirt, Mama,” he proclaimed, fists tightly balled. I tried to keep my cool. I explained, as best as one can do with a toddler, that everyone in his class had to wear the same shirt. I told him it was the teacher’s rules—happy to throw her under the bus and save myself. The tears started to flow, and no amount of reasoning mattered. Every time I inched near him to put on the shirt, he would thrash and flail about.
I sat on the floor for what seemed like hours. I consulted the clock. With just minutes left to get him in the shirt and to school before I was late for my call, I attempted to hold him between my legs and force the shirt over his head. He arched back, and his head slammed into my nose. And I lost it. In that moment of pain and surprise, I smacked him clean in the middle of his tiny back. Hard. The sound was deafening. His big brown eyes met mine, and he started to wail. I sat, dumbfounded, equal parts surprised and disgusted.
I pushed the shirt the rest of the way over his head and hauled him crying into the car. On the short trip to school, I tried to talk my way out of what happened. “I’m sorry, Buddy, but Mommy is late for work. If I don’t go to work, I will be in trouble. Do you want Mommy to get in trouble?” Not only had I violated his trust, now I was also giving the impression that it was somehow his fault.
By the time we arrived at school, his tears had subsided. We walked silently to his classroom. As we turned the corner, his fat little fingers intertwined with mine. I lost my breath. What had I done?
I made it back to the car before collapsing into sobs. What kind of person was I? Would he ever look at me the same? Should I blow off work and spend the day making it up to him? But that wasn’t possible. I had violated a code. I am meant to be his protector. It is impossible to undo what I’d done.
When my husband called to check in, I could not tell him what had happened. I was too ashamed to admit what I had done. What kind of mother slaps her child? It was a mistake a thousand apologies could not erase. I am not a violent person. I don’t behave like this. This isn’t how a mother is supposed to behave.
At the end of the day, I went to pick him up from school. He was on the playground racing down a plastic slide. He spotted me and came barreling toward me, leaping into my arms. I felt elation and crushing guilt all at once. There is no amount of logic or explanation that can rationalize this event.
I know it is impossible to be a parent and not lose your temper. Having three children, there have been hundreds of times I was in similar situations, and I never laid a hand on them. Parenting is full of a million choices. But on that day, in that moment, I made the wrong choice. One I will never forgive myself for.