When my 17-month-old son slapped me in the face, I knew it was time to search the Internet for some parenting help.

And when Google pointed me to the "Terrible Twos Calculator," I just couldn't curb my curiosity enough to browse past it.

But it didn't give me good news.

In exactly 592 days, 0 hours, 38 minutes and 9 seconds, my son will begin to act like a compassionate, even-tempered, patient human being. So the calculator says.

As all good moms do, I posted my troubles on Facebook. Within minutes, I received half a dozen responses — some encouraging, some reminding me that the "Terrible Twos" just turns into the "Terrible Teens."

One man responded this way: "How is that possible? The terrible twos occur over the days the child is 2 years old. There are 365 days in a year or 366 in a leap year. There is no way your child could be in the terrible twos for more than 366 days. I'd get a new calculator if I were you."

Oh sweet, innocent, free, childless man. I guess we first-time parents all have to learn the hard way: The "Terrible Twos" begin long before that second birthday. And, as I feared, it's possible the stage never ends.

As I continued to read "expert" Web sites, blog posts and forum rants by parents who were also fed up with their caveman children, I found little advice other than "grin and bear it" and "it'll be over someday." And though I learned a lot about the evils of spanking your toddler, the soft-spoken, lighthearted soliloquies of psychologists offered no solutions for curbing the behavior.

And at that moment, I began to feel like a parent.

Sure, feeding and clothing a child are responsibilities of a parent, and they aren't always no-brainers — remember when I fed teeny-tiny Brody a raw apple, and he screamed for two days?

But it's the responsibility of forming a child's character that has scared me from the beginning. With Brody's personality developing right in front of my eyes, I'm paranoid that my every decision will have a lasting impact.

It's irrational, of course. Parents make mistakes every day, because we have that same human nature that causes our children to throw themselves on the floor in dramatic agony. And, somehow, our parents taught us to rein in our inner beasts.

But when I'm stern, I worry that I've been too stern. When I'm gentle, I worry that I've been too gentle. And, in between, I worry that I'm not being consistent enough.

So I know I'm a real parent, now. Feeding, clothing, playing, loving, that's all straightforward. I never sit up at night concerned that I haven't properly spoon-fed Brody's mashed potatoes. And I'm quite sure he won't carry memories of a particularly embarrassing outfit.

But will he be an aggressive little boy because of the way I punish him? Will he continue in defiance because I struggle to be consistent?

Parenting books, DVDs and Internet articles can't answer those questions for me. Friends, relatives and even my own mom don't have the answers. As Brody's mom, I have to figure it out myself, and then try not to carry the guilt when my trials breed error.

It's a burden that has yielded a special brand of emotionalism in me. In fact, I had my very first "Everybody Loves Raymond" Debra moment last week, when I indulged in a good cry over nothing in particular.

Although it was shortly after the computer told me I had 592 days left in "Terrible Twos" hell.

Duane was a bit alarmed, of course, and then amused, when I explained that I just needed to cleanse my spirit. The emotional highs and lows that even a kid as small as Brody can cause are too fierce to squash.

And that may be what has surprised me the most.

I don't care if other people think I'm a "good mom."

I don't want Brody to behave so that I'm not embarrassed.

I want his happiness. And I want those 592 days to pass as quickly as possible.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.