There’s a boy in my house. I met him for the first time last Friday, just for a few hours. He’s back again today, out of the blue. He’s agreeable and charming – he reminds me very much of someone I used to know; someone I forgot existed. Because for months now, we’ve been on eggshells. Not all the time, but often enough that it has started to feel like that’s how it always is.
When it’s time to go to preschool, he wants to play trains. He is utterly astounded, every single morning, when I tell him we can’t play trains, because we have to go. I distract him toys and jokes and “You won’t believe this…I’ll tell you in the car” stories. And then he decides he wants more breakfast, despite spending twenty minutes ignoring his bowl of porridge and my repeated requests to eat it. Deep breaths.
As we walk the girls from parking spot to school, sometimes he cooperates and holds my hand. Sometimes he stands in the middle of the path, waiting to be carried. Sometimes he runs back to the car, because I said something wrong or didn’t listen or walked on a pavement crack. I never know which way it will go. Eggshells.
After preschool comes middletime – his name for that period in between collecting him and collecting the girls. Luncthime to you and me. This is the eggshelliest time of day. If I want to leave preschool by the front door, he insists we go out the back. If I push the door open, he makes me close it again so he can do it. He wants to walk on the wall, no matter how long it takes. He wants to pick up stones. He wants to bring giant, unwieldy branches home in the car. He wants to do up his own car seat straps. By the time we start to drive, there’s only thirty minutes left of middletime and I’m hankering after gin.
At home, I take a deep breath, and get ready for lunch. I offer him a sandwich, he says he doesn’t like sandwiches. I offer him a wrap. He checks the fridge and sees an open pack of wraps. Happy with that, he goes to the cupboard to take an unopened pack. “Yes, I want a wrap but it has to be one of these,” he says, his eyes challenging.
“Sure,” I say, well versed in reverse psychology, three kids in. “I’ll open that for you now.”
“You mean, I don’t have to take one from the open pack?”
“Nope, in fact, I really want to open a new pack for you.”
“Actually…” he says, “I want one from the fridge.” Right so. It works, but doing it forty-five times in thirty minutes is exhausting.
We argue over where lunch should be eaten, how many slices of cheese go in his wrap (he wants four), how many yogurts he can have, and not leaving a big spoon sitting in a small plastic cup because it will fall over… and yes, there it goes again. I’d be crying over spilt milk if there was time but there isn’t – the clock is ticking towards the school run. I take another deep breath and get ready to coax him into the car. Or failing that, carry him screaming into the car.
And sometimes it’s just little inconsequential things, like eating soup with a coffee scoop. But sometimes it’s non-negotiable stuff, like wanting to pour boiling water or climb up to take biscuits or throw his uneaten lunch in the bin. And then, a no means a meltdown.
But last Friday, there was a very different boy here. He took the lunch I made for him and thanked me, then ate it without quibble. And today was the same. Before eating, he came around the table to hug me, and told me he loves me. He took two yogurts out of the fridge, but one was for me. He got me a spoon, and kissed my cheek. He ate his yogurt and spilled nothing, When it was time to get into the car, he put on his shoes and walked to the door.
This has never, ever happened. Or at least, not for months.
Because I remember now, this is how he used to be – this was the real person I saw every day, before he was taken over by a contrary, hard-to-please dictator. And the changeling has been in place for so long now, I forgot all about his chilled-out predecessor. Until Friday, when I met the new boy. Or the old boy, who was always there underneath. Underneath the eggshells. I hope he’s back for good.