About temper tantrums.
I owe apologies to both of my sisters and about a thousand other parents of children between the ages of 2 and 5 right about now. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it at all. In my typical way, I had the idea that if I did everything right––in this case, if I were the perfect mother, kept my kid away from television, plastic toys and sugar and exposed her to wholesome folk music, and stayed at home with her most of the time, and affirmed her experience, and wore her on my body, and breastfed her, and let her co-sleep, and crushed her baby food in a baby food mill (or chewed on it myself and then regurgitated it for her) (not really) ––that she would never be sad, and that she would certainly never have a temper tantrum like the ones I witnessed other kids having.
And experience seemed to back up my theories––for awhile. She was a delightful baby and a lovable, easy toddler. In my many judgments of other parents and children, I failed to notice that their tantrumming kids were all over the age of two.
“When and if we get to that stage, we simply won’t tolerate it,” my husband and I said to each other. “We will never give in to the tantrum, so therefore, she will try it and quickly give it up.” As though tantrumming were some nasty habit, like chewing tobacco.
Today I was Skyping with my parents who were visiting my aunt Laura, mother of five.
“Laura, did your kids have tantrums?” I asked, as Lila and Johnny both vied to be in the front of the picture.
Laura had to think about it, which I took as a bad sign. “Sure,” she said doubtfully after awhile. “All kids have tantrums.” Later, after Lila and Johnny were scooped up and taken outside to enjoy the warm spring morning, I asked just my mother, “Did I have tantrums?”
“No,” she said right away, which I also did not take as a good sign. My kid is the only one on earth having tantrums this bad! “You didn’t. But then, maybe you did and I just chalked it up to development.”
How I want to do that! Just chalk it up to development! And it’s very likely that she is just going through a phase. But when I read up on tantrums, I find that some kids just don’t have them. I was so sure Lila would be one of those kids, and she clearly is not. But why? She was such an easy baby and toddler! Is it because I had Johnny? Is it because I am such a disaster around potty training? Does it have anything to do with me at all?
Tonight, after a really long day, I gave Johnny a bath. Tom took him and I asked Lila if she wanted one too. “No,” she said, and if it hadn’t been for a recent diaper incident, I would have let her go without. But before I could suggest that, she said, “Actually, I do want a bath.”
But she didn’t really. She pouted and refused to sit down once in the tub. I forgot that I was dealing with a very ambitious little person and not my compliant 7-month-old, or the compliant 16-month-old she once was. I took advantage of my 100 pounds on her and lay her down on my lap to wash her hair. That’s when the kicking began. I was not about to have a fight in the bathtub, so I lifted her out, wrapped each of us in a towel and carried her, kicking and screaming into her bedroom. (When I say screaming, I mean ear-piercing, gut-wrenching, lung-rattling screaming.) I held her tightly and shhhed her the way I did when she was an infant. I told her I loved her, and just kept holding her even though she wanted to run out of the room and find her dad. I said, “You can be with Daddy, but first I want you to calm down. It’s okay, it’s okay.” After about seven minutes, she did calm down. I said, “Are you so mad at Mama? Or are you sad? Or both?” And she burst into tears again, but this time it was definitely sad, not mad. She clung to me, weeping.
“Do you want to play with the dollhouse?” I said.
“Yes,” she answered in a tiny little voice. So we sat down and two of the dolls had a fight over who got to wear the purple socks (Johnny’s socks.)
I let Tom read her a book and put her in her crib and I sat on the couch in the family room, letting the sadness come. Tom joined me after a few minutes; Lila had gone down peacefully.
“I just don’t know if this is normal development or if there’s something I should be doing better,” I said. “I feel like this is all my fault.”
“What about my part in it?” Tom said. “What about that tantrum she had Monday morning?”
I vaguely remembered it. “I just figured she was having a tantrum,” I said. “I didn’t think it had anything to do with you. But when it’s me, I think it’s all my fault.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Tom said. We sat together in the dark.
I keep reading that the best thing you can do for kids who tantrum is to try to prevent them in the first place. So maybe we shouldn’t have gone over to our friends’ house for dinner tonight. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought my kids to Meltdown, the festival we played this afternoon.
Tomorrow, we are supposed to go to church. But we are also supposed to be welcoming George Harrison into our home at 2:30. Johnny has just recently started crawling in earnest, and church will surely be a wriggle fest for one of us. I just told Tom that he can go with Lila and I will stay home so that Johnny can take his morning nap at the time he’s accustomed to take it. So many times we drag both kids around with us to maintain the lifestyle we had before having children. Before this month, it seemed like an unconscious compulsion; now it seems selfish. Yes, I want to go to church. I miss it. I haven’t gone in a month or more. But church will be there in the future when Johnny is no longer napping in the morning and when he’s old enough to go to Kids’ Church with his sister. For now––for tomorrow, at least–– we’re going to choose what’s best out of all our delicious options, and that may mean there will be some disappointment. I will be giving up doing a family thing all together and giving up my own connection with my spiritual community. But Lila will be getting some much needed Daddy time, plus she loves Kid’s Church. Tom will get the church hit he craves. Johnny will get his nap and some alone time with Mama. And I will get to breathe easier, knowing my family members are being taken care of.
Plus I will read all my old copies of the New Yorker during Johnny’s nap. And maybe even paint my toenails.