If Only (On Changing the Story in My Head)

It was 4:45 pm on the Friday of a week Tyson was out-of-town. The ultimate witching hour. He wasn’t due back until morning. It had been a long week. (Understatement.) It had been 45 minutes of gritting my teeth and summoning every ounce of patience left in my body. The living room had more LEGOs visible than actual floor, though that wasn’t the issue giving me dental problems. What set my teeth on edge was Nolan, once again displaying his full 2 ½ years of age as he attempted to tear apart every creation his brother and sister made.

“Don’t touch. Look with your eyes,” I said on repeat. I attempted to engage him in building his own tower over and over again. He’d been sent to time out once already for destroying Caden’s Batcave handiwork.

I had just taken a two-minute break to order dinner - take-out from our favorite Thai place for a Friday night win - when Nolan Godzilla-stomped Caden’s LEGO masterpiece yet again.

“NOPE,” I barked, and plopped him on the bottom step for another timeout. Caden and Brooklyn gathered up the pieces and continued playing. I figured a timeout would buy me the two minutes I needed to gather up my wallet, keys, and phone so we could run out the door to pick up our dinner. Nolan had other ideas. He bolted up the steps and I dashed after him, enraged. He laughed as he ran and that only made me angrier; I wasn’t playing, this was no game.

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If only he were a little older. If only his inner being weren’t so set on destruction. If only he could keep his hands to himself. If only he could play nicely for once. If only I could complete a simple two-minute task without everything falling apart.

It happened suddenly. He tripped, three steps from the top, falling and slamming his mouth into the edge of a step. Instant wail. Instant blood. Everywhere.

I picked him up and carried him to the nearby bathroom, ripped off his bloodstained shirt and set him in the sink, pants and underwear be damned. I found a washcloth and soaked it with cold water, told him to bite down on the washcloth as the blood gushing continued, which turned the white sink pink.

His wailing continued as tears sprung to my eyes. I still didn’t know what was wrong - had he knocked out a tooth? - as he sobbed and heaved up another gush of blood. With the blood running down his stomach, a bath was imminent, so I whipped around to run water in the tub behind us. This made the crime-scene that was my bathroom complete. He managed to create two tiny bloody handprints on the shower as blood ran down his arms. Water pooled around him, swirled with red, and I finally saw what happened: he’d hit the top step so hard that his front, top tooth had been noticeably shoved up into his gum, combined with a pretty good bite to the lower lip.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” I breathed as I hunched over the tub, my lower back pinched in pain as I continued to alternately sponge him off and help him bite down again on the cool washcloth. It was part prayer, part apology, part liturgy.


Failure, my mind hissed at me 15 minutes later as we all drove to get our (now probably cold) Thai food. Nolan had calmed down enough to consent to ride for the five-minute drive in the car. He was silent; his mouth was swollen and puffy. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, though I was pretty sure he didn’t need immediate medical attention. I was using this drive to think and create a plan. And in the meantime, we all needed to eat.

If only you hadn’t put him in timeout. If only you’d disciplined him in a different way. If only you’d gotten them ready to leave instead of disciplining him at all. If only you hadn’t chased him up the stairs. If only you hadn’t been so angry. If only his nice, even teeth weren’t ruined. If only. If only. If only.

My mind told me these things over and over again, these accusations all layered with the crimson stamp of GUILTY.


Tyson was out for his own dinner that night when I called to give him an update on Nolan’s tooth.

“I talked to the on-call pediatric dentist while we ate dinner,” I told him, “I remembered they had an emergency number. She was super nice and even had me text her some photos.” I went on to tell him how Nolan might be in pain for a few days but we could give him Tylenol, how glad I was to have ordered Pad Thai since he could eat the soft noodles, that the dentist said the tooth might even come back down out of the gum on its own over time, that the tooth could eventually die and discolor but it wasn’t a huge deal since it was a baby tooth.

“But I feel so bad!” I continued, those pesky tears pricking at my eyes again, “I chased after him. In anger. I was so mad and frustrated and I feel like I made him fall. It’s my fault.”

“It’s not your fault, you’re still a good mom,” Tyson assured me. “I’m so impressed. I can’t believe you did all that on your own. You got them all dinner and fed them and took care of Nolan. You thought to even call the dentist and managed to text her pictures and cleaned up the bathroom. All by yourself. That’s amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do all that.”

I paused. Huh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

The negative labels come so much quicker to my brain: failure, awful, incompetent, not good enough to be a mother, sinner. The timeout, the chase, the fall, the blood, the tears, the mess, the guilt. You chased him. You were angry. You made this happen. It’s your fault. All yours.

What about the positives? I have to dig for those. My brain is more prone to condemnation than to praise.

For 45-minutes we played with LEGOs. I was patient.
I had the foresight to order take-out to relieve the stress of what had been a long week. I practiced self-care.
I was able to console Nolan after the accident and clean his wound. I was his comfort.
I served up plates of food to all four of us and we all had full bellies. I fed my family.
I remembered the on-call dentist and was able to both make a phone call and send photos during the course of our meal. I was resourceful.
I turned the TV on after dinner so I could put away the take-out containers in the kitchen and bleach-out the bathroom while everyone took a much-needed breather. Okay, this was just a no-brainer.
I rinsed blood stains out of the sink and put Nolan’s clothes and my own stained cotton sweater to soak. We’ll call this one foresight.
We snuggled on the couch and settled into a fairly uneventful bedtime routine. I re-connected with my children.

I did all of that. Me, myself. All the things. I had a flash of anger, yes. That aside, I nailed it.


I rocked Nolan to sleep that night, giving him some extra-special attention before bed. The pitch dark of the early autumn night was tempered by the rotation of lit-up cartoon animals on the ceiling. His head curled up on my right shoulder as I walked him around the room in circles, the calming sound of waves crashed from the sound machine. I said our bedtime prayer. I began by thanking God I get to be Nolan’s mommy, as I always do. I asked for Nolan’s overabundance of energy to be channeled into good, into play, into being kind. I asked for Nolan’s mouth to be healed, for the pain to be relieved. I asked forgiveness for myself; for chasing after Nolan, for my anger, for another chance.

I stopped by the door of his room, pausing to do his favorite bounce back and forth. He sighed and turned his face into my chest and I could see a sleepy grin as he snuggled up into his favorite place in the world: my shoulder. Between the dim light and the fact that his face has remained virtually unchanged for the past two years (the current tooth situation notwithstanding), I felt like I was rocking baby Nolan again; he could have been two months old, or six, or fourteen.

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He’s okay. I’m okay. We’re okay.

If only I had told myself that all evening.