Leading with your head

The toddler looks like he’s been in a bar fight. He has a huge black bruise on one cheek where he fell down onto the 2×2 piece of kindling he was carrying around the yard. Then, he insisted on accompanying me to do yard work, and I accidentally hit him in the face with a dead pokeberry branch. So opposite the black bruise he has two bloody claw scratches that look like he got in a fight with a two-toed cat. Then somehow he got some scratches on top of the kindling bruise. And then when his big brother was swinging him around, per his request, his mouth somehow ran into his brother’s knee and is now bleeding. He points to it “bum.” This is what he says when he gets hurt. Unfazed, like he’s commenting on the weather. The kid is a rock. In the day it took me to tap out these lines, we’ve added a quasi-black eye. After an hour and a half running in the yard with no mishaps, he tripped on his wheel barrow on the way inside and the edge hit him under the eye.

My mother the retired pediatrician tells me no, no one will think I am abusing my kid. At least no professionals. They learn what to look for. Like that time I caught him by the arm when he was about to fall out of the carseat? That one looked like child abuse, she explains. Thanks.

This never happened with our elder child (except the time when he was 4 and tried to run and jump teeth first onto a pillow on our concrete floor and missed, which was dramatic). But the toddler leads with his head. The number of busted lips, broken glasses, and near concussions my partner and I have suffered at his hands–well head–are too many to count.

All parenting hubris comes back to bite you in the tuchus, people. I would coo in wonder at how our active (by active I mean barely-containable-nuclear-reaction level energy) first child never seemed to get injured. Well, he was so wild I always harped at him about being careful. As far as I can tell my words are now like the muted buzzing of a bee in his ear, but he had some instinct of his own for spacial awareness. Neither the toddler nor the 5 year old get parented that way much anymore. The elder because keeping the toddler alive means I’m just not paying much attention. The toddler because he’s a second child and did I really used to worry about a little blood? The human race would not survive a world of only children (and not just for the obvious reason).

I’m pretty sure my parenting makes little sense to the casual observer. I let my kids take what the American mamasphere probably considers excessive personal risk. My toddler in particular causes gasps of disapproval on a regular basis. I take my cues from him now and find he’s more aware and in control of his experience than I ever would have expected. But stray into the world of respect for the personhood of others (or the cat) or consent around physical space and I’m a regular helicopter mom of the first degree. Because I’m raising some unavoidably privileged white boys. Sure, they are just kids. But when he answers your inquiry as to why he didn’t stop whatever it was when he could tell his sibling was hurt with “I stopped once he started screaming”…well. It’s normal, yes, and it also needs to be met with a consistent message about what is and isn’t ok, and how it would feel to be on the other end of it.

My parenting makes sense to me, and seems to work pretty well most of the time. So when faced with an actual emergency situation yesterday (tornadoes, in February, in North Carolina), and having to hang out in a bathroom (with the cat litter, but no tub) with a 5 year old and 20 month old for nearly an hour, several things took me by surprise.

First, I thought I would be more together, since I’m a pretty together person and actual odds of us getting hurt seemed low. But that was before the wind was throwing down branches and the news showed actual tornadoes close to us. I am pretty good with blood and staying calm when something bad happens, but my adrenals were pumping and I did not feel ok. I started down the rabbit hole…”how can I protect them both at once? ” What if…what if…I had cushions to cover our heads, shoes to cover our feet, and blankets for shelter from breaking glass. I tried to keep it light.

But as soon as everyone was in there they were hungry. Like some visceral evolutionary response to danger. Like they thought maybe there would be no more food soon. I had to ask my elder child to hold on to the toddler while I quickly went out to get pirate’s booty and bananas as branches crashed on our roof. It’s very dramatic on a tin roof, where the daily squirrel circus sounds like machine gun fire. I hadn’t brought in food, hadn’t brought a flashlight. I called my husband who, because his office wasn’t in the warning zone had received no alerts and didn’t even know what was happening. I was even more at loose ends realizing how big the gap was between how prepared I had thought I was and the reality of the moment. And I thought being in an emergency would make me not disgusted watching my children eat sitting next to the kitty litter, but no. And then, what kind of mother is thinking about cat poop at a time like this?

Second, for some bizarre reason I thought my children would be different people in an emergency. I am betting this is a common mistake. At least I hope it’s not just me. So you think your headstrong 5 year old who never does anything you ask without questioning it and won’t do it at all if it doesn’t suit him will behave differently if you declare it an emergency? Buahahahahhahaaa. Wait, let me get my breath.


“Honey, if your brother wants to hide under the blanket with you, this is a time where we have to share.” And doesn’t everyone need an abacus in an emergency? It’s the only toy I brought in. It just seemed right.

We read all the preparatory instructions the day before so that he’d be ready to help and cooperate when the time came. He promised he would cooperate. When the time came, we were outside playing in the yard and my sister in law’s phone bleeped an alert. Mine didn’t. Why didn’t my phone do its job? Clearly I am deficient. We headed inside to seek cover and I asked my dawdling child to please move just a tad quicker. He ignored me. He did announce that he was scared, but he still moved at a snail’s pace, while the toddler got fidgety in my arms as I waited for his older brother to catch up. It was the very first post-emergency-declaration-request I had made and I was 0 for 1. Surely it wouldn’t continue this way?

Basically, it was just like our normal life. He listens half the time but because he so thoroughly disregards me the rest, I feel like he didn’t listen at all. He was thrilled to be put in charge of his brother a couple of times, which I never do, and that went about as well as could be expected. And I tell you what, when there are no good windows and you can’t see, it’s really hard to judge outside conditions for yourself. And no, you can’t sneak out to look out the window because there is no way they will let you walk away from them.

My lesson from all this was that preparing for a natural disaster means assuming that my children will be their normal selves and I will not be. I may think I am an organized and capable mama who leads with her head, but that’s for the day to day of normal routine. My gut was in charge today and it was not nearly as well prepared as I had hoped. Luckily everyone is fine, not just here but in our community. I would kindly request that there be no more tornadoes until my children are older, thanks.


“But why doesn’t anything happen when I swipe?” Enjoying the play by play at Grandma and Grandpa’s house while mommy decompresses.


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