Ollie is pulling his eighteen-month-old sister’s hands. “Come on, Mae. I wanna show you. Come with me, Mae. Come with me.” She is pulling away from him. He is too strong. Keeps pulling. Mae begins to wail.
Ollie is on his hands and knees, pushing the top of his head into Mae’s belly. Not hard, but with continual, forward motion. Mae falls backwards and cries.
“Do you want this? Do you want this? Do you want this?” Ollie asks as he shoves a piece of cracker between Mae’s lips. She screams a muffled, “Nooooo!”
I stomp and clap my hands with each word, “Stop! Listen! To! Her! You’re! Not! Listening!” Or, I think fearfully, you are listening and you don’t care.
“Don’t you hear her saying ‘no’?! Don’t you hear her screaming?!” I hear the terror in my voice, all the world’s rape in my words. He is just a five-year-old boy, I tell myself.
As we arrive at school, Ollie throws his arms around a friend. “Oops, you gotta ask Pammy first if she wants a hug,” I remind him, my hand on his shoulder. Pammy’s mom and I tight-smile at each other.
Ollie pulls back to look at Pammy, arms still tightly clasped around her middle, “Do you want a hug, Pammy?” She nods. I narrate her silence. “She nodded. That’s a yes. But…” (I can’t help myself) “…You already have your arms around her. You have to ask and wait for her answer before you touch her.”
Ollie’s arms unhook. “Do you want a hug?” he asks. Pammy nods again, probably thinking, “Jesus Christ, I didn’t want this many hugs. Enough already, Ollie’s mom!” Ollie gives her a bear hug, then bends backwards arching his back and grunts, lifting Pammy off the ground.
I sigh. “A hug does not mean being picked up. If you want to pick her up also, then you need to say, ‘Do you want a pick-up hug?’” Ollie asks for a pick-up hug. Pammy nods for the third time. They repeat the pick-up hug routine.
We all pass out from exhaustion.
I know Ollie’s sensory processing disorder is at work when he touches kids in ways they don’t like. I ask him why he bonked Jojo on the head or kept hugging Zuri without asking. He doesn’t know. But I do. It’s a physiological urge. Do something. Do it now!
If I completely chalk up Ollie’s physical infractions to SPD, am I being naïve about the potential for future violence in him? Aren’t all boys being groomed towards violence?
When he hurts another kid with his body, my gentle, patient self dissolves. “Why would you want to hurt someone?!” My fear ignites his. His face breaks into redness and tears. There! He feels something! Tears and sorrow are more tangible than “I don’t know.” Regret, so much further along on the road to better future choices.
His regret ignites mine. I hug him, apologizing, both of us sobbing. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” I’m so focused on the violence of men not getting its hooks into him, I let it get a hold of me instead.
I know I need to gently stop the problematic interactions, access my empathy, and say in my kind-mommy voice, “Look at so-and-so’s face. What is her face saying? What should you do when her face looks like that?”
He needs to practice—I need to practice—a thousand times.
Minna Dubin (she/her) is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Parents, Romper, Hobart, Literary Mama, SFWP Quarterly, Longridge Review. Her chapbook Position: Mom (The Fine Print) placed in contests for Tolsun Books, Gazing Grain, and the Disquiet Literary Prize. Minna is the recipient of an artist enrichment grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is currently writing a book on mom rage (Seal Press/Hachette, 2023) in ten-minute increments when she’s not eating chocolate and texting in the bathroom, hiding from her children. You can follow her @minnadubin.