On Bikes and Battles, and the Picking Thereof

“It’s a good thing I feel like I’ve been slapped with the happy stick!” I laugh, staring at the stopped Bay Bridge traffic in front of us.  “Here!” I toss my phone at my husband, who, left alone in the front of the car, is quietly obsessing over the cause of the standstill.  “Take our picture!”

My knees are the most prominent feature in the photo, wedged, as I am, in the back seat of our Subaru Impresa (a “city alternative” to a station wagon), between Babygirl’s car seat and LittleMan’s booster.  Little Man’s new bike is riding shotgun.  This is our very first family camping trip, and the bike will be a cornerstone of the experience.  I am passing grapes with my left hand to our daughter and string cheese with my left for our son, and we have embarked on this road trip during rush hour on the first day of summer vacation.  (We are organized like that.)

One of LittleMan’s very first words was “frustrated.”

I’m not exaggerating.  He was about 15 months old and his vocabulary was basically Mommy, DaddyBye-Bye, NanaLovey, and frustrated.  And maybe chocolate.  I guess we sort of figured, if you experience an emotion, oh, once every 30 minutes, you might as well have language for it.

We work very hard at picking our battles with the kids (and maybe everyone feels this way, but sometimes I think my kids give me an inordinate amount of choice).  The more time I spend with them, in my constant re-adjustment of work and childcare schedules, the more I have winnowed down my battles to the bare essentials: safety, manners, kindness.  In other words, I have been careful about frustration.  Just enough to practice managing it, not so much that our lives revolve around it.

But this whole parenting bag is a learning process, and as in any learning process, sometimes you realize you made the wrong choices, and you have to course-correct.  After all, some battles can be avoided; others, it must be admitted, can only be procrastinated, and not forever.

We chose not to battle over sunscreen, and this was a poor choice.  For at least a whole summer a couple of years ago, the application of sunscreen to our tow-headed child’s face was cause for such extreme displays of discontent that it verged on pool-theater, the screams of protest becoming louder and louder in such massive disproportion to the “crime” being committed, the flailing around on the lawn chair presenting a very real danger of falling, hard, onto concrete…We gave up, eventually, and relied heavily on long-sleeved rashguards, hats, and occasional swipes of stick sunscreen on the nose.

But LittleMan came home on Monday from his first day of sports camp sunburned to within an inch of his life.  A cursory once-over with the stick had proved inadequate for a long day on a soccer field.  To make it through the day, the kid was going to need a full-on dip in the SPF50, so on Tuesday morning I made my play.  “We’re going to do this today, LittleMan,” I said, advancing calmly towards the tall lump concealed in the bedroom curtain.


“We’re going to do this today,” I continued, unwrapping the curtain from his face.  “I’ll put sunscreen on you, and you can throw the Biggest Tantrum Ever.  You can scream your head off and kick the wall.  Today, that’s what we’ll do.  But then I’m going to put sunscreen on you every single day for the whole summer, and you will not tantrum again.”

He tried to run and I pounced, holding him in place with one arm and slathering Water Babies all over his face with the other.  The screams reverberated off the walls and my husband quietly removed Babygirl from the vicinity (lest she come to fear me, Horrible Monster Mother), and when I was done LittleMan rolled around on the floor and yowled like a dog who’d been surprised by a skunk.  I washed my hands and went back into the bedroom and gathered him up on my lap and he sobbed and sobbed (and let’s remember we’re talking about sunscreen here) and when he was done I whispered, “So.  That’s out of your system.”

Wednesday went fine.  Not a tantrum in sight.  In other words, I should have done this years ago.

So it has been with the bike.  LittleMan doesn’t like helmets, for one, and he is easily — say it with me — frustrated.  We got him a trike when he was two, and we got him a Strider when he was three, and he didn’t really seem to enjoy either, so we left them to languish in the closet until the camping invitation arrived with the assurance that in the dusty heat of the Great Outdoors the kids would “ride bikes in circles and roam like a pack of wolves.”

Now, I’m the first one to say that my boy could use a little wolfing-up.  And I have been quietly noting with some chagrin that many of his buddies are well past the Strider phase, even shedding their training wheels, opening up a whole new world of transport to their families.  The promise of windy rides on Crissy Field as the fog rolls under the bridge…There I go romancing parenthood again, but seriously: DAMMIT.  I should have picked the bike battle.

There is, they say, no time like the present, so on Tuesday after work — the same day as the sunscreen hazing incident — I left Babygirl at daycare for an extra hour and dragged LittleMan to the bike shop.  Working up a sweat in my blazer and trousers, I got on the floor and pushed his feet in the pedals until he was able to get started on his own, and then we paid and went straight to the park in North Beach, the better to stretch his bike legs.  With T-minus three days before the camping trip, the bike became a Family Priority: my husband came home early from work on Wednesday to practice in the office park adjacent to our building; on Thursday I let LittleMan ride, without the helmet, up and down the hallway while I packed.

LittleMan being like a large ship, which is to say, rather difficult to turn around, there were a few bumps in the blacktop.  “ARGH!  Stupid Bike!” he’d scream when he stalled on an incline or tipped over on a turn.  But then, as I trotted over in my high heels to right him: “Don’t touch me!  This is MY BIKE!”

I’ll take independence over quitting any day, sass or no sass.  Anyway, I asked for this.  “Change your tone and keep going, then,” I called.  “You can do this.”

Up in the front seat, the air conditioning blowing over its heavy-duty tires, the bike enjoyed the most comfortable ride of anyone on the way to Lake Del Valle, packed to the gills as were.  Soon after arrival, LittleMan scooped up his helmet and made his careful way to the pavement loop around the camp.  As the more experienced bikers bombed onto the dirt and grass, practicing off-roading, LittleMan tentatively mastered his brakes on the incline towards the lower campsites; when he stalled on the uphill drive, two of his buddies dropped their own bikes and ran back, dragging him up to the top and encouraging him to stand on the pedals for better leverage.

As it got dark on the second day, I walked a few laps next to him.  We were sticky and grimy in the 100-degree heat, the kids in damp swimsuits streaked with mud, shrieking and laughing and squabbling and roaming as promised, while the parents prepped grills and fished beers out of coolers full of melted ice.  “You did something new this week!” I said, taking a sip before boosting him up the last rise with my free hand.  “I’m proud of you for sticking with it.  It wasn’t always easy, but now you’re having so much fun…it makes my heart full.”

At the crest, LittleMan pedaled down hard and took off, his white rashguard bright in the dimming light.  “I know!” he called back into the dusk.  “And my heart is SINGING!”

The best moments in life are the ones you can’t possibly embellish.  And often, they are hard-earned.  Something worth remembering in the face of battle.

p.s. In the event that glamping is more your thing, check out my Betty Draper-inspired summer wishlist at The Eagle’s Nest this week.

Leave a Comment