Murphy’s law of parenting: Tell someone your 3-year-old is a pretty easy 3-year-old and rarely has tantrums and that easy child will unleash her inner, barbaric beast. Said 3-year-old threw a tantrum of epic proportions during a recent Target trip. About a week later she was screaming her little head off and writhing like a skilled breakdancer busting out the worm. The amazing thing is she was managing to pull of some pretty impressive dance moves while sitting in a double jogging stroller. I’d promised to take the older girls on a short jog around the neighborhood. Little sis wanted to tag along. I knew her legs would get tired, so I wisely brought along the stroller. Sure enough, her legs grew weary. Two feet from our driveway. I plopped her in, and she said she was hungry. I’d just fed her a large school of Goldfish, so I told her she could have an apple. She didn’t want an apple. She wanted a granola bar.
“Well, then you’re not truly hungry,” I insisted.
“I’m hungry! I want a bar! I don’t want an apple! ” she screeched. (If only Eve had been as adamant with the serpent.)
“C’mon. Let’s just go,” one of her big sisters suggested.
So off we went.
Within seconds of jogging, 3-year-old started screaming that she wanted an apple.
“But,” I spluttered. How do these little people leave me so utterly flummoxed?
“I want an apple now!!!” she wailed.
I started to remind her that she hadn’t wanted an apple just a moment ago, but I know by now that reasoning with a little one who is beside herself and distraught at the cruel injustices of the world is completely futile. Yet, I continually find myself trying to reason with my children.
On we ran, two big sisters huffing and puffing, and one child screaming more loudly with every step. When the screaming didn’t work, the worm gyrating started. I felt my heart begin to race, and it wasn’t because we were running at a quick clip. I was getting angry. My jaw clenched. My hands gripped the stroller so tightly my knuckles started turning white. An older woman walked by us and stared at the explosion I call a preschooler in my stroller. When my eyes met hers, she smiled and said, “You have your hands full.” Her tone suggested I was completely insane for attempting a run with a feral beastie and not to mention two little girls jogging along beside me.
At that moment, I wanted to do everything I could to Stop. The. Screaming. Right. Away. I parallel parked the stroller on the side of the road (it’s much easier for me to park the stroller in this manner than my minivan), and I was about to scream back at my daughter and demand she stop crying about the stinkin’ apple and that she was being ridiculous and unfair to the rest of us when something softened inside of me. Maybe it was the pitiful sight of her tear-streaked face and her cheeks flushed with more anger than I was even feeling.
This was not about the apple anymore. It wasn’t even about a physical hunger anymore. My sweet, irrational, and worked-up girl was emotionally famished. Her behavior was simply asking, “Do you love me even when others stare at me with fear? Do I shame you? I don’t want an apple. I want you, your love, your acceptance, and your empathy – or at least sympathy – in the wake of these big, scary feelings.”
So I looked at my sobbing girl and met her earthy, green eyes with my own and said, “It will be okay. You’ll be okay. I know you’re hungry. I know you want an apple, but I don’t have an apple right now. I love you though. Very much.”
In my mommy dreamland, she would have instantly dammed up her tears and broken into a grateful smile. The reality is she carried on for a bit longer, but she did eventually settle down. And I had no remorse as I would have had if I had acted out of fear rather than love.
Sometimes when my children behave irrationally or when I can’t control them or get them to do what I want them to do, I respond to their behavior from a place of fear. I get angry, or I bark orders. Maybe I harden my heart when a child is tantruming instead of simply ignoring it. Kids can sense the hardening. I’m afraid that their undesirable behavior is a sign that they are spoiled or that I have failed them as a mom. Or that they are going to grow up to have no impulse control. Or that they are too much like me with my big emotions and superfluous passion. I coerce. I threaten. Sometimes I’ve just cried at the despair of it all. I have no power over these children of mine.
But being a mother is not about being powerful; it’s about doling out love even when you want to be stingy with it because you’re tired or your child is driving you absolutely bonkers. Yes, children need boundaries. They need some discipline, some guidance. However, what they really need is unconditional love. They need a safe place and safe arms to fall into when they’re overrun with emotion – however irrational.
One of my children in particular needs me to acknowledge her feelings even when they’re less than desirable feelings (like being angry at her sister for simply sharing the same air she breathes) and to affirm her. I know you can make the right choice. I know you can work through this in a loving way. And she can and often does.
Sometimes I have to say the same things to myself when I feel my jaw clenching or when I’m on the verge of unleashing what we jokingly refer to as the tsu-mommy. The tsu-mommy comes out when the clutter and messes that living with several littles brings upon our house push me over the edge. Instead of gently directing and guiding cleanup time, every once in awhile the tsu-mommy sweeps her arms across a cluttered bathroom counter or play area and sends items flying. Let it go, you say. I’m working on it. Very much. But clutter gets to me, and only one of my children is showing any signs of sharing my OCD tendencies. Argh. So I remind myself to make the right choice. Anger is not a prohibited emotion, but lashing out is. Take a few deep breaths, Mama. Let it go. Or at least try to look the other way for now. And turn all that energy into something positive. Don’t fear the messes, the tantrums, the insanity. Don’t think your kids will never learn to pick up after themselves or will always need you to micromanage every little task. Moms of littles micromanage. It irks them, exhausts them. Then – and I’m only imagining here since my oldest is a mere 8 years – these same parents miss being so involved. All of a sudden they’re just consultants who are sometimes rarely consulted. Sigh.
Nearly every choice I make as a parent comes out of either a place of fear or love. I can be afraid I am failing my children, my family, everyone around me. When people let me down, when I can’t control my kids’ behavior, when I can’t protect them from bad things or even from themselves, I can be crippled with fear that I suck so badly I can’t do anything right or that my kids are personally trying to make my life more difficult because I haven’t lived up to their expectations. I can allow this fear to turn me into something rigid and cold or into someone who self-destructs. Why even bother since I keep getting things wrong? But tantrums are not proof your inferiority of a parent. Neither is any type of difficult behavior. They’re not proof of anything except that your children are children, young children who are trying to figure things out just like you are. Perfect love casts out all fear. My love may not be perfect yet but each time I choose love in the mothering trenches, each time I show a little compassion to a tired, hungry, distraught, and screeching child, I feel the fear waning and the connection between my child and me strengthening.