58: My Little Runaway

58: My Little Runaway

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Multitasking Mom's Survival Guide

My Little Runaway

If you haven’t time to respond to a tug at your pants leg, your schedule is too crowded.

~Robert Brault

The first child dominates your life. The second child is easier, and the third tips the family balance in favor of a child-majority, yet the workload is similar to before. A little more cooking, a little more laundry, but everyone adapts, and life moves on with a steady hum. And then, sometimes, life throws a curveball in the form of a fourth child, a bonus kid, an honest-to-goodness surprise, at least for us.

We had nine months to prepare, and my fears ebbed as the enthusiasm of the rest of the family buoyed me. No one was more excited than our youngest child, Gavin, as he had long been asking for a younger sibling. His jubilation put me at ease. Surely the whole “riding a bike” adage applied to something as biologically hardwired as motherhood. We’d muddle through.

And then reality hit.

From the first night in the hospital, Baby #4 was nothing like his older sisters or brother. He was curiously opinionated for such a tiny human. He had already developed a particular propensity for his mommy and an aversion to the hospital-issued bassinet. It was like he was morally opposed to sleep, waking from a deep slumber whenever any part of his body touched the bed. And eating? He was intense in his nursing, striking like a rattlesnake, but lacked the functional know-how to achieve the desired results. An apparatus of cylinders and tubes was needed to teach the kid how to eat. Add that to the fact that he was having difficulty regulating his body temperature — a common condition, I was assured, but one I’d never dealt with — and this was one needy kid.

And so instead of an easy transition, Baby #4 disrupted our entire household more than any parenting book could ever predict. Perhaps it was an early sign of his disposition. Perhaps it was an innate understanding that the fourth child needed to make his presence known lest he be lost in the shuffle. Regardless of his reasoning, the transition was particularly hard on Gavin. Reality did not match his expectations, shattered the moment he tried to hold his eagerly anticipated baby brother at the hospital. Instead of an instant bond, the baby wailed until we removed him from Gavin’s arms, devastating the tenderhearted little boy.

And the devastation continued when we arrived home from the hospital. Baby #4 became increasingly disruptive in Gavin’s little life. TV had to be turned down; the baby was sleeping. Mommy couldn’t take him to the park; the July heat was too much for such a little baby. Everyone needed to lie down for a nap; the baby was sleeping and Mommy was tired. The girls were handling the transition better, since changing diapers and picking out clothes for a life-sized baby doll were still a novelty. Gavin just wanted a buddy.

“I’m running away,” Gavin told me one day as I worked to nurse the baby.

I vaguely wondered where he had ever heard such a thing. Probably TV. “Where would you go?” I asked.

“I’ll go live with Luke,” he said, indicating his best friend who lived in the neighboring town twelve miles away.

Now a good mother would recognize her son’s plea for attention by dropping everything, issuing a hug and words of love and assurance, and whisking the child away on a special mother-son outing. But I wasn’t a good mother. I was a sleep-deprived mess of hormones trying to keep her head above water in the midst of unprecedented chaos.

“You can’t run away,” I said, too distracted for a longer discourse on the subject. “I’d miss you too much.”

It wasn’t the answer he sought, but it was all I could give.

Gavin announced his intention several more times, often when the baby was particularly fussy or extremely demanding. Every time I provided the same distracted response. “You can’t run away; I’ll miss you.” He was being dramatic, I reasoned. It would pass. If he was looking for the mother bunny in The Runaway Bunny, well, I wasn’t capable of that advanced level of creativity.

Several days later, running late for an appointment and flustered, I stopped in my tracks as Gavin descended the kitchen stairs, a look of determination on his face. His pillow and favorite stuffed bear were tucked under his arm, and he carried his child-sized suitcase in the other. It bulged with evidence of his intention.

“What are you doing?” I asked, my heart rising in my throat.

Tears threatened as he answered. “I’m running away.”

He finally had my undivided attention. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to live with Luke.” His jaw was set with determination, but his eyes begged me to stop him. “His parents won’t care.”

The weight of his words slammed into me. Realization dawned that he had been trying to tell me, in his own way, how neglected he had felt since the baby arrived, but I had been too distracted to listen. Even worse, I hadn’t taken his feelings seriously. “You can’t run away,” I told him. “Go put that back in your room, and we’ll talk about it when we get back.”

Though not satisfied, he obliged, recognizing that I was finally listening to him.

The baby was asleep when we returned home, and I relegated him to the care of his sisters while I went to talk to the little runaway. My heart twisted as I helped Gavin unpack the contents of his suitcase. Plagued with health problems his entire life, he’d packed all his medicines, lotions, and inhalers along with a pair of pajamas and a change of clothes. He didn’t have clean underwear or a toothbrush, but these were nonessential in his mind. Love and medicine had sustained him thus far; underwear and toothbrushes wouldn’t do much to improve his current situation.

He talked, and I finally listened. The hurt feelings and tears were easily resolved over the next few days with a few more minutes here and some undivided attention there. Gavin’s desperate act of rebellion helped me see that I needed to find a way to realign my time to meet the needs of my children — all my children. Time may not increase exponentially with each child, but love does. Dividing it equitably is up to us.

~C. E. Plante

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