Some days go from bad to worse, and there’s not much you can do about it
Summer vacation. It’s that glorious time of year when you cram everything you might possibly need into a suitcase that will inevitably weigh 51.5 pounds, causing you to hold everyone up at the airline check-in counter while you try to squeeze three pairs of shoes and the white-noise machine into your backpack that is already bulging at the seams so you don’t have to pay the penalty for having a bag that weighs more than 50 pounds.
It’s spiriting your child away from his home and friends and toys, and destroying the militant routine you’ve spent the last 11 months expertly crafting to reduce stress and encourage household harmony.
We’d been looking forward to it for months.
When my son and I moved nearly three years ago from New York City to New Orleans, I made a promise to myself that we would spend part of every summer in New York City. The city for me isn’t just a vacation destination, it’s fuel for my soul. It’s my happy place. It’s the place where all my dreams came true.
My now three-and-a-half-year-old son has always loved it almost as much as I do. Both of our rooms have framed maps of the subway. He’s got a miniature glow-in-the-dark city skyline set up on a shelf and dozens of toy FDNY and NYPD vehicles, yellow cabs, and NYC subway trains that get played with in regular rotation.
We are city people.
My son has been a fabulous travel companion. I’ve been flying him all over the country since he was eight months old. He adapts well, loves the adventure, and is generally really good company.
But now he’s three—a threenager—and these tiny humans come with their own set of rules that we, as parents, aren’t often told about ahead of time.
About four days into our three-week trip to New York City and my native Connecticut, it happened—the nightmare day to end all nightmare days.
Before you become a parent, moms and dads in the trenches will tell you that three-year-olds are a force.
Like all other starry-eyed parents-to-be, I dismissed the warnings. That sucks their kid is so difficult, I’d think. My kid will never be allowed to get away with that.
Do not dismiss the warnings. Your kid will do stuff like that. Promise.
Here’s how it went:
The day started on a good note. We were on our way to Brooklyn to the New York Transit Museum, a mecca of old subways, buses, and trolleys that is always teeming with two- to six-year-old boys.
It is my son’s favorite place in New York City, and he’d been asking and asking when we could go to the museum. (Can we stop here for a moment? How fabulous is it that my son’s favorite place in the city is a museum? He’s awesome like that.)
I should note that he was in the very early stages of being potty trained, which meant he was in underwear, but we had to rush to the bathroom at any given moment. Think Walmart during Black Friday sales.
He bounded over to a life-sized city bus and hopped into the driver’s seat. I was trying to take his picture, but instead of giving me his best “cheesy face,” he was staring at the ground.
Then I hear the tiny voice, “Moooooommmmmy.”
I rushed over and saw what he was staring at: a hazmat situation on board the bus. His little tummy had not been given ample warning of the volcanic eruption that was about to spew forth from his backside.
The pairing of diarrhea with boxer briefs was also not helpful as all it did was compress it a little further down his legs before splattering. “Oh, shit,” I muttered, before speaking up. “Oh, OK. It’s OK, buddy. Don’t worry, Momma’s got it.”
“There’s poop on the floor!” he whined.
Oh yes, my son. Yes there is. Technically, it’s in the bus, which means my son had quite literally shit on a museum exhibit.
I quickly got out baby wipes and the plastic bag that I had been using to store a clean change of clothes and started furiously cleaning the floor before anyone came over to use the bus.
Then I scooped him up and ran with him lying horizontally across my arms. I rushed into the family bathroom, hissing “No” at a lady who was about to open the door for herself. Once locked into the bathroom, I went to town with baby wipes, water and soap, and paper towels.
I had to ditch his muffin that he’d eaten two bites out of before declaring it unworthy because I needed the extra bag. Underwear and socks tossed. Shoes and kid cleaned up. New clothes on . . . back to the museum we go. And we had a delightful time.
“Mommy, I want my muffin back.”
Drained of snacks and still high from the museum gift shop, we hopped back on the subway and clattered back to Manhattan.
“Mommy, I’m so hungry.”
“I know, baby—me, too. As soon as we get back to the apartment, we will eat lunch.”
Then the conductor pipes in whilst the train is smack in between 72nd Street and 81st Street that we would be running express to Harlem at 125th Street. No stops in between.
The apartment was at 96th Street. Crap.
“Mommy, I’m so hungry.”
We get off the uptown train at 125th Street. I am carrying my son, the backpack, and the unwieldy bag from the museum gift shop through the throngs of grumbling passengers as we go up a flight of stairs and then back down a flight of stairs to the downtown train.
We are crammed into the train car. It’s hot. And then it begins. The tantrum. But it wasn’t a regular tantrum. No, this was the stuff from which fables are made. I bet there is another person from that train scaring a new parent with this story at this very moment.
There was screaming and hitting and kicking. There was flailing and crying and pinching. I think I got bit a couple of times.
I get it. My kid isn’t a monster. He was an overtired, overstimulated, starving tiny person in a sea of grumbling adults. He lost his shit (though, thankfully, not quite as literally as before).
I gritted my teeth and held on to his upper arm, having gotten him backed into a corner of the train. But rather than the glaring, judgmental eyes of the storied, jaded New Yorkers, I got compassion.
“You are doing the right thing, mama,” one said, as I stood firm and quiet while my child raged.
“We’ve been there,” another one said.
When we got off the subway, I hauled him up three flights of stairs and put him into a sit against a building to get his rage out and calm down. “When you stop screaming and calm down, we will go,” I told him, most definitely raising my voice by then.
“Hey!” I hear screamed from behind me. “You be nice!”
I turn around to see an older lady of about 60 glaring at me.
“I’ve got it. Please just leave us alone,” I told her.
“No, you don’t talk to him like that!” she thundered, then cooing at my screaming child, “It’s OK, honey. It’s OK.”
“You don’t know the situation. Please . . . just . . . go,” I got out, using every morsel of willpower to remain civil.
“No. He’s a baby. He’s upset!” she yelled, pointing her finger at me. “You are going to wind up in the courts!”
Waaaaaaay wrong thing to say to an adoptive mother who has already seen her fair share of court action to be legally recognized as his mother.
“Look, lady . . . ” I started.
A semicircle of New Yorkers started rubbernecking. My son was still sitting against the wall, screaming.
“Hey, leave them alone. She’s a good mother.”
It was one of my fellow passengers from the subway. And he came to my defense, telling her that I hadn’t hit him, I hadn’t raged at him, I hadn’t threatened him or done anything that would make me deserving of her wrath, that my son was tired and hungry and we’d been to the museum and that she needed to mind her own business.
Pretty soon, other people who had been on the subway with us joined the chorus. The lady left in a huff.
I turned to my son.
“Are we done now? Can we be done now?”
He nodded yes. He was whimpering and too exhausted to walk, so I carried him home—in 95-degree heat.
2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
He naps. I call my mother and cry.
With my son freshly napped and fed, we head to the playground, determined to salvage our day.
We make a friend, we play on the big-kid equipment.
And then the tummy goes on the warpath again, except this time I don’t have clean shorts because I forgot to throw a new pair into the backpack, and we are a good nine blocks away from the apartment.
But I do have a clean shirt! So he gets cleaned up again (whoever invented baby wipes should be a goddamned national hero!) and put in the stroller with his spare T-shirt covering his boy bits. And off we go, except he doesn’t want to ride in the stroller, he wants to walk.
I explain to him that he can’t walk down the street in his T-shirt with his penis hanging out for all to see. “BUT I WANNA WAAAAAAAALK.”
Suzanne Somers has nothing on my thighs of steel that powered us back to the apartment.
I put him to bed.
I put him back to bed.
8:03 p.m. to 9:52 p.m.
Now that should be the end of the story, right? We made it. We did it. And even managed to have some fun in between.
9:30 a.m., next day.
We are headed out for the day. I had a bag of trash in one hand and the keys in the other, while ushering him out the door.
“I want to press the elevator button! It’s my job,” my son said excitedly as he rushed to the bank of three elevators.
“Yes, but wait, because Mommy has to throw the trash away. Stand right there against that wall.”
The trash chute is maybe 12 feet from the elevators. I see him step back and wait.
I turned my head, pulled open the chute, launched the trash down, and looked up . . . to see the elevator doors closing—with no child in sight.
“Nooooooooooooooooo!” I yelled, running and jamming my finger into the button to get it to reopen.
“MOOOOOOOooooooooooommmmmmyyyyyyyyy” he screamed, his cries fading as the elevator went up to the 15th floor, then 20, then 22, then 24. Then it stopped and stayed on 24.
My panic-driven, former TV producer instincts kicked in. I should wait, I thought. Because if I go up there, he might come down and I’ll miss him.
But what if someone’s got him? Should I call the doorman to shut down the elevators? Should I run up the stairs and try to catch him that way?
No, I will stay right here until that elevator comes back.
And so I stand there furiously pushing the down button as if sheer willpower and brute finger strength will bring the elevator back down. I hear nothing.
Then a woman’s voice, getting louder as the elevator nears my floor: “Yes, hi. I’ve got a little boy in the elevator with me, and he’s all alone. No, his mother’s not with him. I’m just going to bring him to you.”
“I’m here! Stop on 12! Stop on 12!!” I screamed. “That’s my kid! STOP!”
And just like that the elevator doors open, and my son comes rushing into my arms. I scooped him up and fawned over him. Then I thanked the woman profusely for intercepting him and for her plan to bring him down to the doorman to wait for me.
“That was really scary, Mommy. I was so scared.”
“Me, too, baby. Mommy was scared, too.”
And just like that, all was forgotten. Because no matter how much my kid screams or kicks or hits or whatever, he’s the best part of my life. Because most of the time, he’s sweet and funny and adventurous and daring and totally full of it—in a good way.
Because he’s not going to be three forever, for better or worse. Because there are good people out there like my subway saviors and my elevator hero who have been there with their kids and are willing to lend a hand to a momma who’s in it deep now.
In 10 years, we’ll laugh about this day together.
Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy, one neurotic Italian Greyhound, and two Spanish Galgo puppies. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.