I smile as I sit down at the table with a cup of tea and scattered, half-assembled Lego limbs. Our latest Netflix obsession is playing, the boys are asleep, and I’m about to play with some toys.
I think back to my husband’s original, somewhat desperate, promise to Harley. “If you poop on the potty, we’ll get you a toy. What kind do you want? Bionicle? Do you want a Bionicle toy?”
“YES!” cried Harley, with all the enthusiasm an almost-3-year-old kid can muster. A lot. They can muster a lot. “BIONICLE! BIONICLE!”
Bionicle is a Netflix show for older kids. I had attempted to curb his watching of this show, with as much success as any other kid show I tried to limit. Which is to say, no success at all. I’d also tried to avoid bribery in our quest to get our firstborn out of diapers, and it had worked fairly well – to a point. We’d passed that point by a few days. I’ve learned that sticking to my guns on every single issue is an exercise in futility when it comes to toddlers. Try everything, and find the thing that works. That’s my new motto.
It worked – the very next day. Clearly, he was very motivated by the toy. When I picked him up after work, I wanted to do anything but go to the toy section of Target in 5pm rush hour traffic with a three month old and a two year old. But I couldn’t renegotiate now. We had bribed him, he had held up his end, and now I was bound to hold up ours. (And there was NO WAY he was about to forget our promise.)
I was laser-focused once we finally reached the store after sitting in stopped traffic with a screaming baby and whining two year old for twenty minutes. “OK, buddy,” I said as I held Harley’s face in my hands. “In and out. We’re going to grab the toy and check out.”
“Check out what?”
“Pay for it, I mean. We have to pay for it.”
“OK,” said Harley. The baby looked up innocently, as if a moment before he hadn’t been screaming bloody murder in the exact same seat.
When we reached the Bionicle toys, they were all Legos. All the boxes indicated Ages 8-14, or Ages 6-12. I gave Harley a sidelong glance to see if I might be able to distract him with something more age-appropriate, but I knew from his eyes that this would end badly for everyone. It was very important to keep this positive – it was his reward, and he had earned it. He zeroed in on the $50-100 packs, of course. I found a nice cheap one on clearance and showed it to him. “It’s the jungle guy,” I said. “You like him, right?”
“Yes, the jungle hunter!”
“OK, we’ll get that one.”
In my defense, I never received Legos as a kid, so I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
We checked out and sat in traffic to get home. Once we finally parked, I swooped in and rescued the baby, for whom sitting in a car seat in an air-conditioned car with dangly toys was clearly torture, helped Harley out of the car, and schlepped inside. Once we were all settled and the baby asleep, Harley asked me – for the 400th time since choosing the toy – to open the box. And so it came to pass that, finally, I did.
I sucked in air. There were three bags of pieces. Tiny, tiny pieces. A hundred thousand pieces, it seemed. I looked up at Harley. He looked confused. “Oh,” I said, in a fake-calm voice. I felt panic rising in my throat.
“We have to…put him together.” This just seems unnecessarily cruel.
“Oh, OK,” he replied.
“Huh,” I said. “Hmmmmm.” I took some deep breaths. “Oh boy.”
“Why oh boy?”
“It’s just…it’s a lot of pieces. A real puzzle. It’s a big boy toy.”
“I’m a big boy!”
“Yes, a big boy toy for my big boy.” I looked in his eyes. I sighed again and braced myself. “Mommy will put it together for you. You can help.”
I was all nerves as I carefully opened each bag onto the table and began sorting delicately through the minuscule pieces. I breathed out slowly as little green circles stuck to my sweaty fingertips. Harley started reaching for pieces immediately, as I knew he would – do you know toddlers? They grab indiscriminately. I gave him strict instructions to keep all the pieces on the table and kept breathing as I flipped open the instruction booklet. “OK, OK,” I muttered, as I began searching for the first piece.
I was surprised at my outer calm, and I was surprised at Harley’s ability to follow my instructions. He started echoing my mutters, and it eventually cut through my fugue of careful focus. “Looks like we need this guy,” I heard him say thoughtfully as he picked up the mask piece. “It’s his mask! It goes on his face!”
I smiled. “We have to build the face.”
“Can we build it?”
So I began to make slow progress, alternating between assembling pieces and rearranging the pieces that Harley picked up and moved. Harley found the head piece and put the mask on it. He picked up the part that I had built – I wasn’t sure what it was yet – and started trying to put the head onto it. “I don’t think that -” I looked up at him in surprise. “You’re right! That’s the neck!”
“Yeah, can you help me put it on?”
I have never seen him so focused and happy for so long. He watched me build and picked up various pieces to study closely, occasionally fitting them together with varying levels of success.
An hour later, we had built a leg, the body, and Harley had disassembled and reassembled the head and neck several times. Most importantly, my nerves had subsided. Somehow, despite my initial doubts, we had kept our hundred thousand pieces straight. One piece was missing, which I circled and marked to order later. This impossible project – assembling a complicated Lego set accompanied by a very enthusiastic two year old – it had turned out to be manageable, and I found myself enjoying the process of putting the pieces together and watching the toy begin to take form.
The baby awoke with a fussy squeak. Harley darted over. “Don’t be scared!” he chirped. “It’s OK!” He looked up at me. “He is so cute!” Somehow, despite all the possible points of failure, he was still happy.
Even though there were just too many pieces. Even though it looked too hard.
We survived (even if my hair did not).