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Stories, observations, and reflections from a life of raising boys

Paradise of Fear

Jenifer DeMattia

I was laid off from my job when my first son was one and a half. The grant for the non-profit I was working for was not renewed and so my husband and I decided to take a leap of faith and go for it. I was officially a stay-at-home mom. I was pumped. I joined Pinterest. I made a daily schedule of things to do. I clipped coupons. I was ready. My husband owns his own business so we didn’t know how we were going to make it work but we both wanted this for our family.

Staying at home was a little different than I had anticipated. Loving my son was the most natural feeling I have ever had. Being a full-time mom was not so natural, for several reasons. I missed my social life outside of the house. I missed the feeling of helping people and getting praise for a job well done. I missed the “me” time. I felt isolated. I was constantly second guessing my decision-making and mostly I was upset about feeling upset when I was so lucky to have this opportunity. I eventually started making more connections with other stay-at-home moms and joining activities within the community. Things were going pretty good. My son seemed happy but he was constantly on the move. Getting him to sit for any length of time was nearly impossible. That’s why I was so excited to discover Paradise of Fun, the bouncy house play land in the mall. It was ten bucks for your child to jump for an hour. The perfect way to have fun and wear the little guy out so he would actually take a nap. We would go there frequently. Sometimes for a play date and sometimes by ourselves. He loved the place so much that we booked his 3rd birthday party there.

About two months before my son’s birthday we went to Paradise of Fun. My son had a great time as usual and then our time was up. We needed to get our shoes on and hit the road. The only problem was that he did not want to leave. Here we go again I thought. “Ok buddy. I’m serious this time, you need to come get your shoes on right now”, I said in my nice mommy voice. I began following him until he ran away and disappeared into one of the moon bounces. “Come here right now and show mommy what a good boy you are.” He ran past me again, this time laughing.

Okay, that was about the time I started to get pissed. But I played it cool as the place began to get more crowded. My son completely ignored me and his behavior quickly escalated into something beyond defiance. I attempted to bribe him, I tried to get him excited about all the fun things we could do at home, and I threatened to punish him. For about the next 20 minutes I continued to try different methods of getting him to listen. I even threatened to leave without him, which resulted in me walking out the door and coming back in through the entrance realizing quickly that he didn’t care. He looked like a maniac. He was running with a strange smile on his face and he was covered in sweat. His hair was sticking straight up and he had lost a sock. He looked like one of those hyenas on the Lion King with his tongue hanging out just running around.

A few times I grabbed him and held on tight but he had this way of contorting his body just so that I was unable to keep a grasp, like he took some kind of self-defense course. I was frustrated and embarrassed. Earlier, a little girl’s father and I were talking about how cute the kids were playing together. Now, he was looking at me like I had lost control. He was right. I had put my shoes on and loaded up the stroller so I could just put him in and roll out. I grabbed him again and took him into the bathroom. I thought I would allow him to calm down and then we could go. It was going to be okay. I went for the big stall and locked us in. I finally was able to take a quick breath and when I looked up I didn’t recognize the boy looking back. He was looking right through me, like he didn’t even know who I was. He was screaming and trying to go under the stall. It was gross; he was rubbing all over the bathroom floor. I grabbed him and did what seemed like a last resort. I spanked him.

Huge mistake.

I had just poured gasoline on a huge fire, and the house was officially burning to the ground. He screamed as the tears poured down then he glared at me almost saying things were about to get worse.  His eyes weren’t lying. He ran out of the bathroom. I stood there fighting back tears. It was the first and last time I spanked my son. It just wasn’t me. I knew immediately it was the wrong thing to do. What the hell is going on with him? It soon became clear to the staff that there was a rabid boy on the loose. The girl who helped me eventually get him to the back room looked about 17. Her parents should thank me because after what she witnessed, I can guarantee she won’t be having children any time soon. We were in the hallway to the back entrance. A red carpet was rolled out for birthday guests to walk down as they enter for a party. I couldn’t help but feel so sad. My son was scheduled to have a party here. And there we were, on the red carpet trying to wrestle him into his stroller. He kicked, he screamed, and it proved impossible for me to get him in. “I’m just going to go out this door and walk around”, I told the girl. “Thanks for your help, I’m so sorry.” With one hand on the stroller, and the other arm wrapped around my son, she opened the door. It was pouring rain.

We started walking through the rain. He continued to kick me and scream. Every once in a while I would have to put him down to get a better grip. My car was completely on the other side of the mall. I was soaked. My son was soaked and wearing only one sock and no coat. We passed right by two Sears’s employees smoking out the back door on their break. They were laughing. I told them to f*ck off as I passed by. Clearly not my best moment. Okay, now I knew I had definitely reached my breaking point. It also became clear that I could no longer manage the stroller and the boy. One had to be left behind. I debated back and forth for a few minutes and decided on leaving the stroller. Then after walking for what seemed like forever, I saw it. My car. It was like I had been walking through the desert for days and had finally come across water. My life was just saved. It took me another 15 minutes to get him into the car seat. He kept bending his body so I couldn’t fasten the seatbelt. He was screaming so loud I was offended that the flashing mall security car didn’t stop when they went by. In fact I was a little disgusted. If I were witnessing a scene like that I would be 100% confident an abduction was taking place. He was in. Thank God he was strapped in his seat unable to move. His screaming was subdued when the door shut and I leaned against it. My heart started racing. I dragged myself to the driver’s side and got in. As I started to drive away I lost it. I cried so hard I couldn’t stop. I was completely soaked with a snotty red face. They say not to cry in front of your children. I didn’t cry, I sobbed. My son and I locked eyes in the rear view mirror. He was back. I recognized him again. The two of us had just been through our own battle. And like any good soldier, I was not about to leave a man behind. There it was. The stroller was completely drenched and on it’s side. I pulled up next to it and stared at it for a while trying to process what had just happened. Eventually I got out, folded it up, and put it in the car. When we got home my son went into his room and fell asleep on the floor. Clearly exhausted from being temporarily possessed by the devil. He woke up like nothing had happened. I had been watching him as he slept, wondering what was going on with my emotional son. It was the start of our search for answers. Looking back now and knowing what we know, he was clearly on sensory overload and I was ill-equipped. At the time, the devil theory seemed accurate.

Paradise of Fear.

That’s what it had become to me. Although the thought of it caused my anxiety to go through the roof, we decided to keep his birthday party there. If there’s one thing I have learned about parenting it’s that the experience does help us grow. Not just for us as parents but for our children as well. And the more I stay away because of my anxiety, the more I inhibit our chance to do just that. I imagined walking back into the building but only this time the doorway was a giant devil face. His mouth the entranceway. I could hear an evil laugh as I walked through. Scary clowns jumping on moon bounces. It was bad. But his party turned out fine. And we have continued to go back to Paradise of Fun because that’s what you do when you’re scared. You walk right through the door, look fear right in the face, and bounce like no one is watching.