No matter your intentions to never lose your temper, at some point a kid is going to push you past your limits. Sometimes as step-parents we don’t give ourselves permission to get upset with kids. We feel like it’s not our place. The truth is that our emotions rarely ask anyone’s permission.
About four months after the kids came to live with us, CC was working heavy overtime to open a new show and I was trying to fill his shoes at home. One day the youngest child exited the bathroom and locked the door as he shut it behind him. His sister came to me in the kitchen where I was attempting to make something that could be passed off as dinner.
“The bathroom’s locked but nobody’s in there,” she said.
“Fantastic,” I said.
I didn’t have time for this. I was already running late, still needed to finish dinner and take a shower before I left for work. There were six people in the house who were going to need to use this bathroom.
I asked the little one if he had locked the door; he nodded.
Because I was averaging four hours of sleep a night, was making three meals a day when I only really knew how to make toast, was faking my way through being a parent all day then working late and barely seeing CC, I made the critical error of asking a four-year-old, “Why? Why would you lock the door so no one could use the bathroom?”
He was four. There was no other answer to the question. He shrugged.
I had to leave in half an hour and had been trying all day to get a nap. Even closing my eyes for ten minutes would have been welcome. This cute little short person had just made sure that wasn’t going to happen. I firmly guided him to the bedroom he shared with two of his sisters, and growled, “Don’t come out til I get you.” I needed him away from me so I could think.
I decided to remove the doorknob but found it was not attached with screws. I had never been responsible for doorknobs before, so this surprised me. My chances of addressing any one of my own needs before I had to walk out the door were rapidly slipping away. I couldn’t believe such a cute kid would do this to me. Stupid doorknob. What the hell was it held on with, magic?
I didn’t consciously choose to break down the door; it just happened. All my frustration, all my fatigue and hunger and anger and this is so hard can’t I catch a break even from a freaking doorknob unleashed on that door in one well-placed kick, with a scream so powerful I was surprised it came out of my mouth. It wasn’t a terribly strong door to begin with and I was wearing work boots. The door-frame splintered, the doorknob bent, the door opened.
It was the best feeling I’d had in weeks.
Then I noticed the house had gone silent. No laughter floating through the air, no chattering; even the television had gone off. Tentatively, a small voice called out from downstairs, “Did something happen?”
It hit me instantly how screaming, splintering wood, and metal bending must sound to a child hearing it from another room. A child recently uprooted from everything they knew, again, in a series of seemingly never-ending uprootings. There were five such children in this house right now.
“I got the bathroom door open,” I called back.
I went into my bedroom, sat down at the part where the roof sloped the ceiling low, and put my head between my knees. I knew if I started crying I’d never make it to work, and there was no one to cover me. I didn’t really need a shower. I could grab some food in the city. A nap was just some pie-in-the-sky dream anyway.
Before you misconstrue what happened next, you should know this: I have gone to bed angry. I have completely lost it in front of the kids and not apologized for it. Sometimes I’m not wrong when I lose it, and neither are you. At times, a parent (even a step-parent) losing their cool because a child has misbehaved is a consequence that child needs to face.
But this one? The scary, screamy, kicking-down-doors reaction to the innocent mistake of a four-year old? That was all me.
I went into the little one’s room. He sat up, blinking, tears dropping quickly onto his cheeks but he made no sound. His arms half-reached and his little hands, still baby-fat, opened and closed like he wanted to grab me but didn’t know if it was okay. I sat down next to him and scooped him into a hug and he started sobbing.
I said. “I want to tell you something very important. I got mad because you locked everyone out of the bathroom. But you didn’t make me break the door. I did that myself. I’m sorry I scared you. I love you and none of this means that you’re bad.”
By then, I did love him.
“I know,” he said.
“Do me a favor, bud. Don’t lock the doors anymore, okay?”
I finished making dinner, something the sitter probably wouldn’t be able to get them to eat anyway and wasn’t going to be ready in time for me to take to work. I didn’t get a shower. I left late. It was snowing, a lot, and there was construction. I sat at the bridge crossing over to the turnpike for half an hour before I realized I wasn’t going to make the bus and would have to drive into the city. Fifteen more minutes and I conceded I was going to be late. I called my friend at the show across the street from mine and got him to check the sound system for me.
Then CC called. I explained the whole incident, embarrassed and ashamed, but hoping I’d redeemed myself by making up with the little one, and also getting the bathroom door open.
He said, “You know there’s a hole in the middle of the knob, don’t you? You just stick a paperclip in and it unlocks.”
JM Randolph became a step-mom in 2006, when her boyfriend at the time got temporary emergency custody of his five (yes, five!) children and she moved in to help out. Temporary turned permanent when they were married in 2008. She and her husband both work as stagehands and enjoy (most days) their houseful of teen girls, one 11-year-old boy and two Puggles. She blogs at accidentalstepmom.com. Facebook: https://www.