We should have known there was something nefarious happening when all three older kids were quiet for a full ten minutes. My parental radar was thrown off, however, by how much I was enjoying standing in the kitchen having a glass of champagne with our dear friends (we’ll call them Sheila and Rob). Their lovely daughter (we’ll call her Anya) and our two older boys had been playing happily albeit noisily, and the sudden hush came as a welcome respite until we realized just how long it had gone on.

We found them all in the master bedroom, where they had locked the door. Danny talked Stephen into opening the door, and we were immediately assailed with nail polish fumes. Which makes sense, since it was EVERYWHERE. The kids had decided to play “princess and princes,” which apparently involves painting toenails. And fingernails. And the soles of their feet. And the curtains, the bedside table, and the bathroom floor. Anya, who was wise enough to realize the situation was not going to end well, had climbed into our bed and pulled the covers up, presumably to hide the evidence, so there was also nail polish on our sheets. Stephen (the one responsible for locking the door in the first place) was wearing a classic deer-in-the-headlights look, and Nathaniel (the least culpable of all of them, being only 2 and unable to reach the nail polish or lock the door) looked slightly confused and apprehensive.

My normal reaction to such a scene, particularly since it happened at the end of a day in which the two older boys were fighting nearly nonstop, would definitely have involved a raised voice and a lot of angry words, throwing the kids into time outs in separate rooms, crying, and maybe throwing the cotton pads I was using to clean the polish off the tile floors into the trash with more force than was necessary. Probably all of those. This time, however, Sheila was there, and I really didn’t want to throw an adult temper tantrum in front of her. Sheila is one of the kindest people I know, always gentle with her words. I would be ashamed to lose it in front of her, and I was pretty sure it would freak Anya out. I took several deep breaths, and purposefully made my voice as quiet and controlled as I could while I scrubbed as much of the nail polish off of Stephen and Nathaniel’s skin as I could.

What stuck with me from that incident was not the anger at Stephen’s disobedience (I had told him, repeatedly and recently, that anything on those bathroom shelves was off limits) or the irritation about the red nail polish on the curtains that aren’t ours. It was the realization about how much leeway I give myself to lose it with my kids because most of the time there’s no one around to see it happen. Sometimes I tell myself I’m doing it so that they’ll really understand that what they did was wrong, sometimes I justify it because I “just can’t take any more” or I’m “so tired,” but the fact is I wasn’t any less tired the night of the Great Nail Polish Debacle, and the kids had been just as exhausting that day as they were any other day. They understood that what they did was wrong.

I wish I could say that since that day I’ve never raised my voice or lost my temper with the kids. I’d like to think it’s been less frequently than it could have been. What is certainly true is that I can’t stop thinking about that moment when I almost lost it and stopped, the realization that I would be embarrassed for someone else to see what has become my normal reaction. I’m trying to take a deep breath or three before I open my mouth. If I can do it for Sheila’s sake, shouldn’t I be able to do it for theirs?