I park the car, ready to meet some friends for dinner. Looking forward to a pleasant evening, I get out and shut the door. But when I look inside the car my husband is still in his seat, glowering at his shoes.
“C’mon, honey, we’re going to be late,” I say through the glass.
“I won’t get out,” he says, stomping his foot.
I walk around to his side and open his door to help him undo his seatbelt. He tries to hit me and bite my arm.
After ten minutes of cajoling, I finally manage to get him out of the car. We walk a few paces together and he sits down on the sidewalk.
“I don’t want to go,” he says, undoing his shoes and hurling them into the street.
Quietly and patiently, I crouch down and ask, “What’s wrong?”
He screams in my ear. I sigh and wonder how much more of this I can take.
Every detail of this story — my anticipation of a visit with friends, the glowering, the hurled shoes — is true, except one. If my husband really acted like this, I wouldn’t put up with it day after day. I would seek counseling for him immediately and have him evaluated for a psychiatric disorder. But this story isn’t about him. It’s about my three-year-old.
Like many women I know, I last spent time with toddlers when I was one myself. Now, as a parent of young children, I’m expected to deal with this kind of scenario almost daily.
Back in the days when girls grew up surrounded by women immersed in all stages of child-rearing, this classic child stubbornness must not have come as such a shock. If I had spent my childhood caring for younger siblings and neighbor children, my own toddler’s behavior might have seemed familiar. These days, many women grow up like me, with little or no contact with young children until we find ourselves taking care of our own.
I furiously typed the first draft of this while my almost four-year-old daughter, Naomi, raged upstairs because, for some mysterious reason, she didn’t want to brush her teeth. She was trapped in a cycle of two options overwhelming to her — should she put the toothpaste on her toothbrush or should I? After a futile effort to meet her needs I retreated to a downstairs room and slammed the door.
She was the world’s sweetest baby until the age of eleven months, when she turned herself stiff as a board on the kitchen floor rather than be picked up. Once, crying, I called the advice nurse for help after Naomi hurled her antibiotic at the wall, staining it Amoxicillin pink. “I know this is small consolation now,” said the nurse, “but you’ll be glad she’s got this will when she’s older.” I suppose she’s right; when some teenage boy is pressuring Naomi to go all the way, I will be glad of her ferocity. But now her concrete will infuriates and defeats me.
Before having kids, I would never have described myself as quick to anger or yell. Since having children, however, I too often scream, slam things down loudly, and drag my children roughly into their rooms. It feels awful. I wonder what the neighbors hear during the summer when the windows are open wide. I worry that my children are sometimes frightened of me. No one ever prepared me for their constant, unfounded obstinacy.
From an early age I was schooled in cooperation, learning that if someone flat out refuses a reasonable request, they are at odds with society’s expectations and should not be indulged. If someone persists in destroying my property — scraping metal across my newly finished floor, picking flowers from my garden, drawing on my walls, smashing hard objects into my glass tables — I get to file an official complaint. Not so with the contrary child. There is no complaint office, no ombudsman. I have to suffer through the behavior and wearily refer to it as a developmental stage. I am expected to handle the fourth tantrum of the day patiently, intelligently, and elegantly.
But let’s face it. Kids can be a royal pain in the ass. And patient and elegant are pretty hard to achieve.
When Naomi was two, I parked my minivan alongside the city playground where we had come to meet some friends for a pleasant morning of two-year-old play and grownup chat. “Okay, Naomi,” I said brightly, looking forward to some adult contact. “Let’s go to the park.”
“C’mon, sweetheart. Look! Rachel and Nicholas are already here.”
“I want to open the door myself!”
My easy morning at the park already poisoned, I did my absolute adult best to control my temper. But I also raised my voice some and tossed some books and toys furiously around the car. I waited alone on the sidewalk to give Naomi the chance to open the door. But by then, she was too far gone.
And since her full-force tantrums usually took about twenty minutes to subside, I decided to carry her to the enclosed kiddie park. It was safer to let her rage there than on the sidewalk.
I picked her up, no mean feat, and placed her into my tantrum carry mode. Perfected after countless previous scenes like this one, this method involved holding her around the middle, face down horizontally, so that her legs kicked behind me and her arms waved in front of me, allowing me to remain wound-free.
We set out like a loud two-headed writhing serpent. About halfway to the park I heard someone yell, “Hey lady! You’re hurting her!”
A homeless man, just waking up in his sleeping bag under a nearby tree, was yelling at me. A woman rose, disheveled, from her bag and shouted, “Yeah, she’s just a little kid!”
By this time, everyone in the kiddie park was staring at us.
“I’m just carrying her this way so she won’t hurt me!” I yelled back. “Oh,” they said and settled back into their bags.
Naomi’s powerful will has always been impressive. She once wore nothing but her underwear in the car on the drive to preschool because she had refused to get dressed. Once we reached the school, she realized her predicament and hurriedly dressed in the van. Fighting with her, which I don’t do very gracefully, gets me nowhere. She once went without chocolate cake, her favorite dessert, rather than eat a single green pea.
Two years later, the tantrums have greatly diminished. They still erupt now and then in their familiar fury, but things are not as hard as they once were. My kids get in and out of the car pretty easily, and it’s been a long time since Naomi sat down on the sidewalk and refused to continue. But her willfulness is part of her DNA and my husband and I are resigned to living with it forever. I have also grown familiar with my reactions, and recognize that anger can seethe inside me as well. We have developed an auto-tantrum response mode, a list of firm tactics that work for us: counting to one hundred in a separate room, never negotiating, giving her space to rage.
Yesterday, I asked Naomi, now six, to stand up so I could brush her hair.
“No,” she said from the floor.
“C’mon Naomi, please stand up,” I tried, my voice already rising.
“No,” she repeated, not looking up.
“Oh, come on, Naomi! Why do you have to be so difficult about everything?” I hurled the brush into her lap.
I stormed out. She slammed the door. And so it continues – our eternal push and pull.
After eight years of practice, I can switch more easily between what I can expect as a courteous, well-behaved adult and what I can expect as a parent — but casting aside a lifetime of learned social behavior has been difficult. I still wish there were a warning we could give future parents, a sign reading, “Beware. Leave behind all you know of social convention. This is a different land.” Our children will not always be kind to us. The best we can do is to give other parents a chance at redemption amid the tumult of parenting, and let them know they are not alone.
Whenever I see a parent, usually a mother, faced with a defiant three-year-old in the grocery store, I am filled with sympathy. It takes enormous energy to deal politely with the cashier and the unsocialized raging beast that has replaced your child. If I can catch the mother’s eye, I flash her what I hope is a knowing and empathetic smile, willing her strength and grace.