When I was three months pregnant with my second child, I moved from New York City to Los Angeles. I had a three-year-old daughter and was preparing for “siblings,” and everywhere I went in my new community, I heard moms parroting the wisdom of a mysterious child-wrangling guru named Marla.
They would say, “Marla says to take away the pacifier by two,” and “Marla says the older sibling needs a special job with the baby,” and “Marla says never to use food as a reward.” I wondered, Who is this sage-like Marla?
Marla turned out to be a veteran “Mommy and Me” facilitator whose class took place in a wooded valley with a creek, mini petting zoo, and tree-lined playground. Apparently, Marla was a genius with siblings, and I was thrilled about the idea of doing Mommy and Me classes with my second child. Her class was always full with a waiting list so I called from the hospital the day after my delivery. I felt lucky to snag a spot for my newborn son and myself — even if it didn’t start for over a year.
Eighteen months later, Boy and I arrived for our first Mommy and Me class at the little cottage in the woods. Marla’s reputation promised a warm demeanor and grandma-like wisdom. But after a few weeks, I could tell Marla didn’t like me. She didn’t smile at me or talk to me or ask how things were going. I couldn’t figure out why.
“I think Marla hates me,” I told my husband one morning while squeezing into a pair of maternity jeans. “You’re nuts,” he said, patting me on the belly. “You’re imagining it.” But I didn’t think so.
I watched Becky cry about the impact of baby number two on her marriage, big, blotchy tears rolling down her cheeks into Marla’s waiting Kleenex. Rachel got a shoulder rub every Monday over the 20 pounds she couldn’t lose. I had troubles, too. I was already pregnant again with number three, and a week earlier, my oldest had stuck a stuffed elephant on top of her brother’s sleeping face. Was this an early sign of sibling rivalry? I hoped Marla could figure it out.
The next class, I arrived early. No one was there yet. Boy toddled up to the Play-Doh area. Marla walked around filling up colored cups with crayons and pouring goldfish crackers into plastic bowls. I followed her around the room, waiting for the right moment to seek her guidance on sibling suffocation by stuffed elephant. Suddenly, she turned to face me.
“There have been complaints,” she said, “about your son.” She listed his offenses: grabbing, hitting, pushing. “I realize you are pregnant, but if you want to stay in this class, you have to shadow him like a hawk.” I bit my lip and said how sorry I was. She turned toward the other mother-toddler duos tumbling in the door and smiled. I managed to make it through the good morning song, macaroni painting, and outdoor playtime before I got to my minivan and the tears began to flow.
Boy had been an easy infant. When he was six months old, we took him on a camping trip with a group of families. He spent the weekend sitting in his bouncy chair on top of a picnic table, sucking his toes and eating cheerios. In those days, his nightly routine consisted of nursing hungrily, farting loudly, burping, and rolling over and falling asleep. We called him “a man’s man,” and I was content believing that raising Mr. Mellow would be easy. But that was not to be.
At first, I thought this was normal boy behavior. After Marla’s warning, I understood that it was bad. My son was bad. And I was a bad mother.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realized that not only was Boy not easy, he was particularly sensitive and emotional. At about 15 months, he loved to run around and crash into other kids. If someone had a toy he wanted, he snatched it. He pushed, he grabbed, he ran around. A lot. Having had a girl first, I thought this was normal boy behavior. After Marla’s warning, I understood it was not normal. It was bad. My son was bad. And I was a bad mother.
The next Monday before class, I parked my minivan, opened Boy’s door, and unstrapped him from his car seat so we could have a heart-to-heart talk.
“Boy, now remember, you have to use your words.” I looked into his dark brown eyes, pleading.
Affirmative head nod.
“And keep your hands to yourself. No hitting, remember?”
Affirmative head nod.
“If you want something, ask Mommy, okay?”
“Yes, Mama… want out,” he said, stretching toward the door.
That was right before we were kicked out of class. Boy ran into the tiny kitchen, grabbed a pink plastic broom away from another little guy, and knocked him down as he dashed past. After his mother recovered from the shock, she turned to her son and said, loud enough for all the other mothers to hear, “That boy is not a nice boy!”
Not a nice boy? Part of me felt like: He’s 18 freaking months old! But the other part of me felt like I sucked as a mom. Boy wasn’t behaving nicely because I obviously wasn’t parenting him properly. A good mother would make him behave.
After class, Marla told me that the other mothers were concerned about my son’s sniffles. I didn’t mention his asthma and his nebulizer and his rescue inhalers. I was pregnant and tired and the stress of Mommy and Me was too much. I loved leaving the house and taking Boy to feed carrots to the donkey. I loved getting dressed, even in old maternity clothes, and going somewhere other than Target. I had wanted so much to make mommy friends in my new community. But that wasn’t to be.
Years later, well after Boy was diagnosed with severe hyperactivity, I would remember that day as the first day I believed something might be wrong. I also believed that fixing him was my job as his mother. But, in reality, there was nothing to fix. My boy was not broken. I just didn’t understand that yet.