Finn is sitting happily in the tub, splashing bubbles around, and I'm fuming.
"Finn, get out of the tub. NOW," I say with a dangerous edge to my voice. I've been standing here for about three minutes, holding out a towel like an idiot, waiting for him to do one more thing, Momma. He loves my irritation; it puts him firmly in control.
I can feel it welling up inside me, a tidal wave of disproportionate rage, and I tremble with the effort to keep it down.
"It's okay, Momma," he says in a singsong voice. "It's not like I'm going to stay in the tub forevah."
All day has been a series of fits and starts. This isn't different from any other day, but for whatever reason today I have been on edge, tired and cranky, my emotions slithering dangerously close to the surface.
"GET. OUT. NOW."
Finn giggles and plops a handful of bubbles onto his head.
My vision goes white with rage; I'm so tired - so damn tired - of having every simple moment be a struggle: where are your shoes, why did you take your socks off, sit still, no you can't have another snack, why did you hit your sister, put that down, pick that up, come here, go away.
"AAAGGHHHH!" I scream, throw the towel on the floor and storm out. I slump down in the hallway, put my face in my hands, and count to ten. It's such a small thing, but it's the proverbial last straw, and although I know I'm completely out of control I can't help it.
I can hear Finn laughing to himself in the tub. He's won again, I think. He invited me to a fight and I came .. hook, line and sinker.
It's no big deal if he doesn't get out of the tub right now, of course. It's just that it's so close to bedtime, so close to silence in the house, my book and a cup of tea. I can't get there fast enough.
I take deep breaths, and try to calm down. Through the bathroom door, I hear muffled singing.
"Momma's fwustawated because I won't get out of the ba -aa- aath. I just want to play wif the bubbles, they are so fuu-uu-un. Maybe if Momma played wif more bubbles she wouldn't be so maaa- aa- aad."
Despite myself, I smile. The rage evaporates in an instant, and I poke my head in the door to see his slippery little naked body covered from head to toe in bubbles. He grins up at me.
"You still mad, Momma?"
"Kinda," I reply, with a sigh. "I'm tired of you not listening to me. It's very frustrating."
"Yes," he says solemnly. "That IS fwusterwating. I'll get out now."
I rub his body down with the towel and fluff his hair into a faux-hawk like I've been doing since he was two. He peeks at his reflection in the steamy mirror and laughs like he has never seen it before. After he wriggles into his jammies he leans over and gives me a damp, warm hug.
"I want to tell you a secret, Momma," he says. He presses his lips right onto my ear and whispers, "I'm sorry."
This is what he does to me, my youngest. He takes me on a roller coaster ride of emotions, propelling me into the depths of rage and then mere seconds later melting my heart. He's a little obstinate ball of love, impish and thoughtful, testing limits and then running back into my arms. On the good days I can maintain balance and some semblance of authority, or at least consistency. Other days - like today - I'm putty in his hands, exhausted and too worn down to keep an even keel.
My daughter is so much more like me. We avoid confrontation, nurture and over-identify. Parenting a child who is exactly like you comes with its own challenges, of course, but I get her. I can read her next move, understand her reactions, empathize to a fault. I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to raise my voice to Greta, but Finn won't stop until he hears that magical decibel level; the one that tells him he's got me right where he wants me.
It's amazing, isn't it, how two children from the same genetic pool can be so different? I have to split my personality to parent them; what works for one inevitably doesn't work at all for the other. Greta, who hates confrontation of any kind, gets nervous and stressed out when Finn is in trouble, thinking somehow she's in trouble, too.
Finn needs constant discpline, needs to know where the boundaries are, and more often than not some level of irritation or anger is needed from me to get him to understand where the line is. He loves the line. He'd live there permanently if he could.
It's exhausting. And exhilerating.
And tomorrow we'll get up and do it all again.