Mommy Needs a Time Out

Kristin Donnelly is a writer, recipe developer, and co-founder of Stewart & Claire. Her hard time with motherhood inspired her to write her forthcoming cookbook, Modern Potluck.


Few moments are lonelier than standing on a New York City street corner while your three-year-old rolls around on the sidewalk, screaming for ice cream. Looks from passersby range: there’s amused, bemused, and horrified. You receive a few nods of sympathy, but those are quickly trumped by the loud-talker on his iPhone who looks at you with disgust and yells, “C’mon, really?”

You recently read about how, in Northern Ireland, if your kid throws a tantrum in public, a stranger might gently scold the little one. American parents would see this as meddling and maybe even hostile, but you wish someone would take over and tell your kid that her behavior is out of line. You don’t blame people for walking along, though; you would do the same.

This writhing beast’s 30 pounds have become too much for your small frame to carry—you’re also carrying her seven art projects, her lunchbox, and the bag of sheets her preschool sent home for you to clean—especially when she kicks. “I know you love ice cream, but we can’t have it right now,” you say in a tone that expresses empathy but also authority. “It’s time to go home.” Then you wait for the wave of crazy to pass. 

Many books by discipline experts, including your own pediatrician, say you did everything right. By not showing anger and by calmly but firmly holding your ground, the frequency of these episodes will wane over time. 

You suspect that many of these experts have not dealt with a child who is quite so persistent—or so enamored of fighting. As her mom, you know that there will be another tantrum exactly like this one tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. If it’s not about ice cream, she’ll find something, even if that something involves denying reality.

The conversation might go like this: “Mommy, can we make pasta for dinner when we get home?” “Sure!” “Can I paint?” “Great idea!” “Can I watch a show?” “After dinner and a bath,” you say, bracing for the pushback. To your surprise, she accepts. Then she says, “Is the sky green?” You reply, “No, Silly, it’s blue! But we can pretend it’s green!” “THE SKY IS GREEN!” she screams over and over again. You say nothing.

You’re convinced that each time this happens, the neighbors think, “There goes that wailing child again. I wonder what her mother is doing wrong.”

“Maybe she’s this way because she’s an only child,” friends say. “Just have another one and she’ll learn she’s not the center of the universe.” You bristle but force a smile, and joke about your new theory that some only children are not difficult because they’re onlys, they’re onlys because they’re difficult.

They offer more advice: “Just distract her!” (The child will not be distracted.) “Make the bath fun!” (As if your tub weren’t already so full of toys that your kid can barely fit in it and you didn’t already have an elaborate game going about her friend “Jimmy, the Fish”). “Give her two choices, both of which you can handle. She’ll have the illusion of control.” (When given the choice between playing with Play-Doh or coloring, she’ll take the ice cream, thanks. And no, she doesn’t want a cheese stick or apple instead.)

You sympathize with Hilary Duff when Star magazine gives her a C- as a mom. Her crime? Walking along with her toddler, who cried for his nanny. That happened to you the week prior. Why? Because you told your daughter she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner. Yeah, worst mom ever.

Two and a half years into these regular epic tantrums, you finally start to think it’s not your fault. Sure, you may occasionally miss your kid’s dip in blood sugar or underestimate how tired she is, but many of the meltdowns are just part of who she is: a passionate, strong-willed child with a serious set of lungs.

You’ve also learned that the least helpful thing you can do is turn to the Internet for advice. 

First of all, you had a C-Section, so headlines will assure you that your bond with your child has been screwed from the start. (Never mind that you had the C-Section because your kid’s head was stuck in your rib cage, and, in an early sign of your child’s defiance, no amount of lying upside down on an ironing board or singeing your toes with burning mugwort would turn her.)

When you Google for discipline advice for toddlers, you learn that the tried-and-true time-out method is now considered deeply damaging. Many behavioral experts much prefer “time-ins.” They advocate that you sit with your child as she freaks out about the ice cream or the green sky and help her “feel the big feelings.” You’ve tried this method several times but now know that any attention during a meltdown is like oxygen on a fire. The only thing that (eventually) calms her is to tell her you’ll talk after she stops screaming, then feign disinterest and walk away. You don’t call these time-outs nor do you have a specific spot for them (she’d never stay in it anyway). Don’t worry, the Internet will assure you, you’re still giving your child an abandonment complex.

Reading about other moms’ experiences provides little solace. While the articles you find in your Facebook feed address how hard motherhood can be, they often include the same saccharine ending: “But at the end of the day, they’re so cute and fart rainbows and I know I will miss this time.” You wonder if you’re a bad mom because all you feel is defeated and abused and sure you will not miss this time. Sure, there are those rare tender moments, like when she brings you a stuffed animal from her bed for you to snuggle in the morning, but even then, you can’t help feeling she’s like a mob boss giving you a tipple of amaro right before offing you...

Instead of advice, you crave what any person going through a struggle needs: some kind words and a break. Someone to say, “That really sucks. I know you try so hard. I hope it gets better.” And maybe even, “Let me watch her for an hour.”

Funny, isn’t it, that the cure for your loneliness is alone time?

An addendum: 

You’re not a fan of parenting stories with squishy sentimental endings, but you don’t mind a little optimism here and there, and you feel it’s worth saying this: Now that your daughter is almost four years old, you’re seeing signs that she’s starting to tame herself. When she gets upset, for example, she sometimes voluntarily walks away, explaining that she needs to calm down. 

You fear the mere mention of this development will set her back, but you also want to tell people with difficult children that it just...might...get better?