The past couple days at work have been more stressful than usual. This evening was the most stressful. I was on the phone with a friend and former colleague the whole drive home and that conversation carried over until I walked into the house at 7:30, where the girls had been waiting on me for dinner. Maly met me at the garage door with one of her cutest smiles and noticed that I was on the phone. She respectfully did not interrupt, but she put her arms up to me and I hefted her into my arms and held her until I was done with the conversation. After I got off the phone, I carried my conversation and the week’s events over into a one-sided conversation with Elise where my being adamant might have been considered an understatement.
In between my gum-flapping, Maly dispensed recollections of her day at school and the Valentine’s celebration therein. I did the best that I could to acknowledge her and respond to her wholeheartedly, but, as always, I could learn to do better. During one of her Desperate to Get Daddy’s Attention interjections, she told me about a little snack pack of gummy treats that she’d received as a Valentine. Being the gummy enthusiast that I am, I genuinely acknowledged her score, and Elise confirmed that Maly was particularly excited about the gummies and the fact that Maly was going to get to eat them after she ate her dinner. I quickly returned to my one-sided conversation. Elise obliged in listening. Maly, well, I don’t remember. In hindsight, she was probably an afterthought at that moment for me.
I don’t remember the exact details of how the next 60 seconds transpired, but I do recall the cat, Annie, the more feral of our two cats, walking toward the living area from underneath the kitchen table. And then Maly threw her little bag of gummy treats at the cat. Annie barely likes me, so she certainly doesn’t like the 37-inch human who possesses the energy and undying quench for interaction of a Chihuahua with Tourette syndrome that we call our offspring. What possessed Maly to throw the the bag of candy at the cat is nothing more than simple spite, frustration and confusion. She doesn’t understand why the cat won’t pay her any mind like our other cat, Riley does. And she probably doesn’t understand why her dad isn’t giving her his undivided attention at this moment like he normally does.
In my then-current state of emotion, I bolted up, walked straight over to the bag of candy on the living room floor and said, “And you know what? YOU JUST GAVE UP YOUR CANDY!”
I picked up the bag of candy and without pause, I turned around, walked to the pantry and put the bag of gummies in the bag of 947 pounds of Halloween candy that we’re hoarding for the day that we decide to play the age-old family fun game of Who Can Get Periodontal Disease First!
I quickly strutted back to my place at the table, picked up my fork and verbally finished the ten-mile-long thought that I’d started. I was pissed to start off with, and now I was pissed because my child threw a bag of candy at the cat. Having respect for animals is paramount in our house because, as you well know, you can never be overly prepared should you happen upon a Chihuahua with Tourette syndrome, or a feral cat with diabetes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I captured Maly’s face. It was a face that I’ve seen and that has only been stored, up until this point, in the recesses of my brain to hopefully only encounter on rare occasion. It was the face that said, “I’m hurting so badly right now and I don’t understand how to process this emotion. I am completely lost in my own body and mind at this moment and nothing can save or help me.” But this face tonight was slightly different; It was the face that said, in a deafening whisper, “Oh. My. God! My Daddy is VERY ANGRY with me right now. I did something very, very, very bad, and he’s the only person who can help me, but he’s not going to. I am helpless.”
The moment reminded me of the time when, while she was just a helpless infant, I chomped through her skin with the fingernail clippers, and have since forever retired from fingernail clipping duty. I felt that same feeling tonight. It’s an indescribable feeling, a parent-child connection, a simultaneous mutual synapse firing where we’re feeling the same exact pain and helplessness at that moment in time.
I can’t put into words the look on her face that I didn’t even have to see — I could feel it. I guess the closest word would be helpless.
Elise dutifully stood by my decision and action, and explained to Maly why I’d taken the bag of candy away. Maly’s expression didn’t change.
I was done with dinner at that point. So was Maly. Her appetite was gone. So was mine. I told Elise that there was no sense in trying to get Maly to eat her green beans as she’d been emotionally destroyed. I told Maly that if she was done, she needed to take her plate to the sink. She obliged and, with a heavy heart, slowly walked over to and pulled herself up onto the couch and assumed the fetal position in an fleeting attempt to just disappear.
I knew I had to do something, and I didn’t have a lot of time to work with. I had an idea of what I thought was the right thing to do, which was talk to her and explain why I’d taken the actions that I had. Elise confirmed my internal monologue, and reminded me that a punishment is just that, a punishment, and without explanation, the child will only remember the punishment and not the lesson within.
I walked over to my child who was still face down on the couch.
I held out my hand. She slowly got to her feet and stood at my side. I reached down and softly grabbed her hand and walked her toward Elise’s and my bedroom. She hesitantly but willfully walked with me. I picked her up at the foot of our bed and sat her down. I sat down beside her, both of our feet hanging off the edge of the bed. I put my arm around her, took a deep breath and started talking.
What I told her will be between her and me. I probably said too much because explaining the hows and whys to a 3-year-old is a daunting feat for any parent. But I talked to her, and I think that’s the important part. She knew that this situation and conversation was important to me, and that I wanted her to learn something from this experience.
I’m almost certain that what she heard was, “Blah blah blah blah blablablablabulleee blah blah…” He’s my Daddy and I KNOW he’s going to give me that candy.
But how I ended it was that she and I had to fix it. Plain and simply, we had to fix it. Ever since she could sit herself up, we’ve instilled in her that if something’s not right, it needs to be fixed. I told her that I understood that she was upset because I took the bag of candy away, and in order for her to get that candy back, she was going to have to make things right by the cat.
So I sentenced her to filling the cats’ food and water bowls. She told me that she’d already fed the cats earlier. So we walked to the cats’ bowls where we found an empty water bowl. I told her to fill the water bowl. She took the bowl, crawled up onto the counter next to the sink, filled the bowl and put it back in its place. Then she was charged with cleaning the litter box, something she’s never done in her almost four years of existence. I told her to go into the pantry and get a plastic grocery bag.
We then walked to the laundry room where we store our kitty turds for the Winter. With bag in hand, she stood at the foot of the litter box. The scoop was still outside from a recent visit by our friends’ dog. With short sleeves, jeans and a flashlight, I went out into the backyard in the 40-degree rain and hunted for the scooper.
I presented Maly with the scooper and Elise supervised the scooping of the poop. To me, at that point, Maly had done right by the cat. A punishment that fits the crime. I picked her up, kissed her forehead, told her that I was proud of her and then sat her on the kitchen counter. I got the bag of candy out of the pantry for her and let her eat them on the counter as Elise and I stood at her side with our simultaneous synapses firing, asking, “God, I hope we’re doing this right.”