the smell of my desperation has become a stench

On bribery and bravery

This post is sponsored by Target.


When Marlo was three years old and started preschool for the first time she attended two half days a week, Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 to noon. I was optimistic that her attitude would be different about this milestone from Leta’s who for about a year thought preschool was the place where we all line up to die. Which, when you think about it, isn’t very far from the truth: first preschool, then elementary and middle school, high school, possibly college, and then on to a job that slowly kills you until you’re dead or at least wish you were. The end.

Listen. Leta and I, we’re working on seeing the glass as half full. But you have to understand that the way our brains work? THE GLASS DOES NOT EVEN EXIST. We first have to invest in some barware!

Marlo’s brain? There are glasses everywhere, and they are overflowing. I was right that her reaction would be different, but she took it a step further like she always does and would wipe the goodbye kiss I’d give her off of her face. She’d shoo me away. She made it very apparent that my only job was to deliver her to this wonderland and then be gone as my presence was killing the mood. Fine, I’d think. I’ll leave. Go ahead and have fun and don’t miss me, I’ll be over here browsing drinking glasses that I’m sure will break into a thousand pieces during shipment.

This year, however, Marlo is attending full-time preschool. That’s five days a week, all day. This change is hardly negligible, and when my cousin had her baby and could no longer be with us every day, Marlo exhibited difficulty adapting to the change like any normal kid would. At drop offs she would cling to my leg instead of skipping inside to the toy kitchen or stacks of blocks. She’d cry and plead with me not to leave much like her sister used to do. When I’d pick her up she’d run and jump up to reach my neck, squeezing me so hard that I couldn’t breathe, hiding her head on my shoulder until we had left the building.

We are nearing the end of this school year, and over the months I’ve had various talks and conferences with her teacher to try to alleviate this adjustment. We’ve dissected her relationships with peers, her interaction in class, lunches, naps, and everything in between. I’ve consulted with a child counselor about techniques Marlo could use to feel safer with the change, to feel more empowered in that classroom.

All of this work has had varying degrees of success. Some days are much better than others. In fact, most days are really good. But here on this end of the school year she is still consistently having a horrible time saying goodbye when I drop her off in the morning. Her teacher and I have tried a few techniques to shift her thinking or make the transition easier. Sometimes she’ll go to the window to give me a final wave goodbye as I stand on the other side in the parking lot. Sometimes she’ll give me a comical shove out the door to make it seem like she’s the one making the decision for me to leave. Those methods were working up until a month ago when absolutely nothing would ease her anxiety. Every time I dropped her off she’d be bawling, a total mess, her arms outstretched for me, and I’d then have to hide my own pain behind my sunglasses as I walked to my car.

I’ve tried bribing her with cookies, trips to Grandmommy’s house, movies. I’ve lingered in her classroom longer than normal thinking a little extra time would do the trick, but that made things even worse. Every morning the heartbreak continued. Every morning my leg would grow an appendage in the form of my four-year-old daughter, clutching and crying.

The week before spring break she and I were having our usual dinner at Whole Fruits while her sister was in her weekly piano lesson. I thought I’d again engage her in a conversation about school since she and I were having this one-on-one time.

“Marlo,” I said as she finished a bite of rice. “Can you talk to me about drop offs at preschool?”

She didn’t hesitate for a second. “I don’t want you to leave.” This was the exact same answer her sister gave me when I had this conversation six years ago.

“I know you don’t,” I responded, my heart in my throat. “But I’m always there when you get home. Every day. I drop you off and then I see you again just a few hours later. I’m always there.”

“But I don’t want you to leave,” she insisted and then took another bite of rice.

I know her well enough that I could approach this topic a hundred different ways and she’d still repeat the same sentence each time. So that’s what I did to see if she was paying attention.

“What if Coco drops you off? What if I had Coco drive you to school?”

“But I don’t want you to leave.”

“What if we go to school in a bathing suit and a cape?”

“But I don’t want you to leave.”

“What if I packed your lunch full of frogs?”

“But I don’t want you to leave.”

This continued until she was almost done with her rice.

“What about a princess blanket for your bed, to match the pillow you already sleep with?”

That’s when a very audible record scratch deafened nearly every person in that food court.

“A princess blanket?!” she asked in total disbelief as if it had never occurred to her that if you could put one on a pillow, you could put one on something as big as a blanket. NO ONE TELL HER ABOUT THE BILLBOARDS IN LA. She’ll want one for Christmas.

“Well, it would be more of a comforter. Probably a duvet. Something to keep you warm while you’re slee—”

“A PRINCESS BLANKET?!” She then stood up on her chair and placed both hands on my face.

I gripped her hands with mine, smiled and nodded. “You have to have a good drop off at school. And you also need to sit down.”

“I’LL HAVE A GREAT DROP OFF AT SCHOOL!” she yelled jumping up and down in the chair. One out of two isn’t bad.

A couple with a baby sitting at a table near ours was watching all the commotion so I looked them both directly in the face, pointed at my eyes with two fingers as if to signal that they should take me very seriously and warned: “PRINCESSES.”

That night after bedtime stories I wanted to reinforce our plan, so we went over what a good drop off looks like. I talked about walking into the classroom, washing her hands, writing her name on the clipboard, and sitting down to practice the alphabet.

“When you sit down to write in your notebook I’ll give you a great big hug goodbye, and then I’ll leave, okay?”

“Yes!” she said. “You’ll leave and I’ll write a P and a Q and an R! And and M for Marlo!”

“An M for Marlo, yes. And if you’re brave when I leave we can go get some princess bedding.”

“YES! WITH PRINCESSES ON IT!” Um, no. I meant the princess bedding with a pattern of the periodic table on it. Get it straight.

I’m going to go ahead and be the “glass does not exist” person that I am and admit that I did not have high hopes for the following morning. I have tried bribes before. Like I said, I even tried the Grandmommy bribe, the bribe that trumps all bribes. No government would ever resort to water boarding if they’d just say, “Give us what we want and you can go out to eat with the Avon World Sales Leader.” Military secrets would go flying, and prisoners everywhere would be bloated on inhuman servings of French fries and ice cream.

After dropping Leta off, Marlo and I drove to her school listening to some of her favorite music. I didn’t mention anything about the drop off thinking that it might give her performance anxiety. I didn’t want her stressing about the fact that if she did cry, if she did express sadness then NO PRINCESS BEDDING FOR HER.

So we walked inside, and unlike most mornings she ran out of my arms straight to her cubby to store her backpack and coat. Then she headed over to wash her hands. I watched in total amazement as she did each morning task without any prodding or step-by-step help on my part. My leg had lost its daily appendage. I did my own morning sign in and then stood to the side to gaze at her, a very rare indulgence. Had I ever had the time to stand back and notice before that at school as she washes her hands she wipes the hair out of her face with her shoulders? Even when her hair isn’t hanging in her face?

She finally sat down at the writing table, the location where her breakdowns usually begin, and pulled out her notebook to begin her letters. After writing for a minute or two she looked up and began craning her neck frantically.

Oh no.

Oh. No.

I held my hand up to indicate where I was standing. She waved me over, and when I got to her side I fully expected her to pull me down and hang from my neck. Instead she stood up and gave me an unexpected kiss on my my cheek.

“GOODBYE!” she shouted.

“Oh!” I said. “Goodbye! Okay! Yes! Well then! Goodbye!”

I looked around to see if I was being videotaped, dusted myself off, and then headed toward the door, a grin so wide on my face that I almost started to laugh. What a surprise. Just before I walked out of the room I turned to check on her one last time, and at that exact moment her right arm shot up and she held her index finger out. She didn’t turn to look at me or up at anyone else, but somehow she sensed I was still standing there.

Suddenly she whipped her head around, pointed that index finger directly at me and yelled, “BLANKET!

And then just as quickly she put her hand back down and resumed writing.

Just like that.




This post is sponsored by Target. More Princesses, More Sparkle: Blur the lines of fantasy and reality with your favorite Disney princesses at Target.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/04/24 at 10:02 am

    Bribery the number one item in a parents arsenal. The Icee’s at target are great for bribes, FYI.

  • pixistik13

    2014/04/24 at 10:02 am

    she’s great. I loved that story. 🙂

  • Lisa

    2014/04/24 at 10:04 am

    That is awesome! Congratulations on a successful bribe! Well done!

  • SmithShack71

    2014/04/24 at 10:11 am

    Saweet! It feels like rainbows fart glitter when you know you leave your kids and they are happy. It’s the best. Good job, momma!

  • Melissa

    2014/04/24 at 10:15 am

    It’s times like these when I wish my almost 3 year old son liked Princesses….instead, I’d have to promise to get him another lawnmower, and not just a cheap toy one like he already has. It would have to be a big lawnmower, like daddy has. This is the kid who found a new hand truck in our garage, ran over to it and pointed at himself saying “this for Cruz?!”, like we had gotten him the most amazing gift in the world. Somehow, I don’t think a lawnmower blanket would be as exciting, but I’m willing to try as the morning drop-off has been excruciating lately. Loved this post.

  • wh0oznicole

    2014/04/24 at 10:25 am

    I use fruit snacks to bribe my 4 year old.

  • Jen

    2014/04/24 at 10:30 am

    Aw. Great story, and well told!

  • lam81208

    2014/04/24 at 10:41 am

    Dude. Loved this. Welcome back!

  • Misty

    2014/04/24 at 10:59 am

    This is awesome!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 11:19 am

    A lawnmower! Ha! Like, you’re not browsing the toy section. You’re in “lawn and garden” or “power tools.” Kids are such different creatures. Maybe a lawnmower blanket would work!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 11:20 am

    I’m guessing bribery with a 17-yr-old is a tad bit more expensive.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 11:21 am

    Those are in my arsenal as well. I keep finding them in my washing machine because I carry them in my pockets everywhere I go and forget I have them in there.

  • ChickWhitt

    2014/04/24 at 11:38 am

    I love it! Let’s be honest, we bribe ourselves every day. If I go to the gym today, I can have a cupcake later. If I don’t beat the children, I won’t go to jail today. Life is just lots of bribes.

  • Laura Nagler

    2014/04/24 at 11:39 am

    Thanks for reminding me that every kid has their issues. My 2.5 year old daughter has been holding her poop. She is not constipated. I repeat, not constipated. But the girl can hold it for a week. This has been going on for 6 months and we’ve tried all sorts of things. The latest attempt was to completely ignore the issue, aside from a sticker chart in the bathroom. When she gets 5 stickers she gets to watch a movie. Holy crap! Literally! I don’t know if she was just ready or if the movie reward did it (there were other bribes along the way), but we seem to be nearing the end of this horrible phase. It felt like the most awful thing in the world to me, but everyone has their thing and it could always be worse! Glad to hear your drop-off appendage is gone, watching them cry for you is torture!

  • harugirlie

    2014/04/24 at 11:45 am

    How was the 2nd day drop off?

  • rocknrobn

    2014/04/24 at 11:59 am

    So, when I was 3-4 my mom had to physically fight my gigantic morning tantrums before school and when dropping me off at school. She and my father were divorcing at the time and he had moved out. They had explained everything to me and thought I understood, but then one morning in the middle of a tantrum I shouted to my mom that we were all getting divorced and I didn’t want her to leave. To me, I thought divorce meant everybody left each other. I didn’t understand and she had no idea. Once we got that fear out of me I improved quickly. Sometimes it seems like our children are so smart and that they understand everything, but they really don’t understand relationship complexities and emotions, which is what they develop and strengthen in school. I can’t believe how insane I was with my mom. I still remember even now that I’m 32. Good luck and thank you for this website!

  • Jen

    2014/04/24 at 12:05 pm

    Aw. Poor 3 year old you! That must have been really scary!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 12:15 pm

    I’ve endured that with both kids, and it was so awful. I know how terrible it is for you and how terrible it is that you know she’s going through it. There is SO MUCH LIGHT at the end of that tunnel, I promise! I can happily say that I have absolutely no idea when my ten-year-old goes to the bathroom. I never knew that *not* being aware of my child’s restroom habits would be so joyous.

  • Casey

    2014/04/24 at 12:16 pm


  • Laynie Fingers

    2014/04/24 at 12:16 pm

    You know, THIS is what a sponsored post should be- a real post, about real stuff, that just happens to tie in to a sponsor. You did good, Dooce… and so did Marlo. 😀

    Is it bad I still think of her as Bobo?

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you so much. You know, I still call her Bobo sometimes. She always corrects me, but I do it anyway.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 12:19 pm

    A little wobbly at first, but then I reminded her of the BLANKET! Once that word came out of my mouth she perked up, hugged me, and said goodbye. We’ll see if it sticks!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/04/24 at 12:22 pm

    I’ve talked a lot about this with the child counselor. We’ve done a lot of work with Marlo around this issue, especially since my cousin “left” last year. I’m so sorry you had such a hard time. Kids are so much more in tune than we give them credit for. Much love to your three-year-old self.

  • Laynie Fingers

    2014/04/24 at 12:27 pm

    Awesome… my husband calls her Bobo too. It’s too cute to let go of.

    I also clicked through to the post on Whole Fruits, and laughed til I cried at the story of the automatic toilet. I’m having an … shall we say interesting week thanks to coming off Cymbalta, so I can use every giggle I get.

  • Laynie Fingers

    2014/04/24 at 12:29 pm

    My nephew used to be obsessed with vacuum cleaners when he was a toddler. To the point that if they went to a new person’s house, the first thing he did was ask to see their vacuum. They were in an airport heading for Disneyworld when they almost lost him- he’d spotted a vacuum and ran away from them in awe.

    Kids are weird.

  • Jennifer Wagner

    2014/04/24 at 12:33 pm

    We use the term “rewarding good behavior” instead of bribery…they are the same but it makes me feel like I’m actually parenting 😉

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/04/24 at 12:34 pm

    I call my younger brother Bobo. For real. We are 48 and 45. 😉

  • Amanda

    2014/04/24 at 12:37 pm

    We did something similar when my 4 year old girl started having horrific preschool drop-offs a few months ago. Ours was American Girl-related, and required a month of good drop-offs to earn the bribe, but it worked, and 4 months later, drop-offs are still going as smooth as can be! We reinforce it with the occassional smaller bribe too, though after the fact. Such as, hey you did great at drop-offs this week, how about we go get ice cream to celebrate? Keeps her on her toes : ) Hope the trend continues for you; it’s so painful to have to walk away from a kid that wants nothing worse than to be with you!

  • Katybeth

    2014/04/24 at 12:37 pm

    This story made me tear up. Not sure why. Maybe just a bit bittersweet. I’m glad for you and glad for Marlo. A princess blanket was a wonderful idea. My Mom gave me her sun glass case and told me she could hear me if I talked in it. I believed her, it helped ease my anxiety.

  • Jasper

    2014/04/24 at 12:44 pm

    Doesn’t her dad ever pick her up from school?

  • genoendicott

    2014/04/24 at 1:08 pm

    I don’t think this was bribery at all. You had an honest conversation about a problem and offered up a reward. Now if it had been offered up in the middle of a melt down, now that is bribery.

  • Michelle

    2014/04/24 at 1:56 pm

    Loved. This. Post. I didn’t even mind that it reminded me that I sometimes worry about the disneyprincessification of girls. I didn’t even mind that it was sponsored by Target. The glass in this post was brimming over with heart.

  • Jen

    2014/04/24 at 2:06 pm

    Oh man, we are dealing with this right now with our 5 year-old daughter. My husband was laid-off from a job last summer that allowed him to work from home. It’s all our daughter has ever known – Daddy worked at home. He was always there. Six months later, after he found a somewhat suitable job that requires him on site daily, we’ve had huge set backs with drop-offs. Anxiety so bad she wouldn’t eat or sleep. We’re seeing a counselor but I don’t feel like it’s helping yet. We’re using bribes (we like to call them rewards but hell, they’re bribes) but have yet to find THE bribe that will turn this all around. Her anxiety and huge fits are tearing me apart which I know does not help. Most days I sit in the car and cry, too. I don’t know what else to do.

  • gabrielle

    2014/04/24 at 2:11 pm

    My 4.5 year old son is also COMPLETELY into vacuums. They are, full-on, his favorite toy. To the point that my mom once brought her vacuum (affectionately named “Willy”) to visit us from 2,000 miles away. He now asks that “Willy” accompany her on every trip. Kids are so weird. (And awesome.)

  • Living The Scream

    2014/04/24 at 2:55 pm

    I can so relate to the whole bribery thing! It really gets them motivated. Also a lunch date with my Daughters Grandma is also the highest form of bribery over here! I seriously think they would choose that over a trip to Disneyland! well maybe not.

  • Emily Lopez Robinson

    2014/04/24 at 2:59 pm

    Maybe I’ve been away but now you have sponsored posts?!?!?! All day are you thinking, “product placement…”?? I know you have to pay the bills, but is this the only way? The charm of your posts was always in the supposed realness and honesty but with, “This post is sponsored by Target,” at the top, I just can’t swallow any of it as authentic.

  • Mommiebear2

    2014/04/24 at 3:52 pm

    Love her!!

  • Mamabella

    2014/04/24 at 3:54 pm

    I’m torn between being desperate for Marlo to grow up so I can see who she becomes as an adult and being desperate for her stay exactly the age she is with all the charm that entails. She never fails to make me smile.

  • Joanne z Filmlady

    2014/04/24 at 5:17 pm

    O.M.G. Best post ever. Thank you Heather!

  • Holly Waterfall

    2014/04/24 at 5:33 pm

    oh yes, I am that crazy random person who cries over posts like this! I just felt so proud that she finally got it. Good job Mama. Bribery is a very real and powerful thing 🙂

  • Caroline

    2014/04/24 at 5:58 pm

    Holding out for the perfect bribe. Well played Marlo. Well played.

  • lizandrsn

    2014/04/24 at 7:04 pm

    What you call “bribery” I call tangible encouragement. Either way, it’s gets the results but one comes with less Mommy Guilt.

  • Teal

    2014/04/24 at 7:50 pm

    I loved this post. I had that same anxiety when my mom dropped me off at preschool and kindergarten. I don’t remember what we actually did to help relieve my anxiety, but I think I just had to realize that my mom would always be there when she said she would be. She still is today.

  • Teal

    2014/04/24 at 7:52 pm

    She’s done sponsored posts for a while now. Don’t read them if you don’t like them.

  • Teal

    2014/04/24 at 7:58 pm

    Maybe I’m just being dense, (heh!) but if a person holds their poop for a week, don’t they then become constipated? That’s a long time to not go to the bathroom!

  • Teal

    2014/04/24 at 7:59 pm

    Wouldn’t they melt if you washed your load in hot water? LOL

  • RzDrmS

    2014/04/24 at 8:04 pm

    This comment made me REALLY happy.

  • RzDrms

    2014/04/24 at 8:19 pm

    I genuinely don’t see how a blogger, writing on her own personal domain for which I pay nothing, can’t occasionally relate a very real-life anecdote to a product or company she uses in real life. Heck, I used Clorox Wipes about forty times today; I’d love to have gotten paid to tell millions of readers for what I used them. I did, however, greatly prefer when the reference was at the end of the post only versus at the beginning, simply because 25% of my brain is thinking about the product and when it’ll manifest itself, versus 100% paying attention to the stellar writing. But, again, it’s free to me, and this is HER domain. That she freely welcomes us to choose to visit or not is one of the many beauties of free speech (and free will).

  • Kelly Goodell

    2014/04/25 at 6:39 am

    I don’t care that this is a sponsored post – that finger pointing (MFer don’t you forget about that Fing blanket) is some funny shit.

  • Laura Nagler

    2014/04/25 at 7:34 am

    I guess that is technically true, that she’s constipated, because of the frequency. I just always think of constipation as being too hard or painful to pass. That’s not her problem, it is completely a control issue. She may decide to go, but only let out a little or she may not go at all. Either way it sucks!

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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