In the middle of naptime he screams. One knee is twisted between two crib rails, driving him to panic. Must’ve been playing instead of sleeping.
As my wife disentangles him, she gets a whiff of another stealth activity. He is surrounded by corroborating evidence: a smear across his chest, clawmarks on his sheet, makeup applied to the face of his stuffed cow. What arrived in his diaper is now everywhere.
I am summoned. Together we adults impress upon our child the seriousness of this infraction. Do not play with poopy. Do not even touch it. We strip him of his clothes and make a pile of blankets, sheets and Mr. Cow.
We employ shame: Poopy is very dirty. Playing with poopy is very, very bad.
Fear: If you play with your poopy again I will spank you. I pantomime on his bare bottom. This is spanking. It will hurt.
Guilt: Mommy will have to wash everything. I don’t know if the poopy will come off Mr. Cow’s face. Let’s hope Mr. Cow makes it.
We pull the dirty materials from his room, then lay him down to finish his nap.
He sleeps a long time, another two and a half hours. The house is abnormally still. If I’d done that, I tell my wife, I wouldn’t want to show my face either.
Finally he wakes. The past is past; it’s time to affirm. Did you have a good nap? Would you like something to eat? He appears dazed, withdrawn – probably still groggy, but it’s unlike him. Perhaps we laid it on too thick. When he names a snack we make a show of helping him into a chair and getting it for him.
Then on the tabletop his jeep rolls out of reach, he stands and leans forward to retrieve it, his chair kicks backward …
“Honey watch it watchit!” I yell at my wife, who’s closer.
“BEN!” she screams, lurching.
It’s over; she caught him. He’s okay. In the silence ringing from our shouts, we breathe.
Honey, you can’t stand on your chair, my wife warmly admonishes. You need to stay on your bottom, like this.
But when I come around to kiss his forehead, I see it in his face. That we were concerned for his safety, that we didn’t want him to get hurt, doesn’t matter. He was wrong. Again. He is always wrong, and in a flash I remember what that was like, how it felt to be scolded for spilling the cup, for dropping the glass peanut butter jar, for not taking out the trash until there were maggots, maggots in the house! The paper deadline missed, the friendship snuffed by misspoken words, the job lost over a dumb assumption, and the girls – who knew a thing about girls? So many rules, and the only way to learn them was to get them wrong.
It’s not easy being young.