My daughter’s fourth-biggest tantrum to date was the one when things started to get real. It was the one when an ambulance stopped to help us.
She was about eighteen months old, and new to tantrumming, so her performances then made up in raw feeling what they lacked in polish. The tantrum sparked off when she wanted to carry the changing bag. Because she was only three feet tall, the bag when hung over her shoulder still dragged along the pavement beside the main road where we were walking. The Bird didn’t like this. She started crying, then screaming, then folded herself in half backwards at the waist and hurled herself at the ground. The pavement was wet, and I was new to being on the receiving end of tantrums, so I commenced valiant efforts to stop her from doing this. (Now I just roll with it; sometimes literally.) I was pretty absorbed in grappling with her when I became dimly aware of someone approaching. “Are you all right?” asked a male voice. “Do you need any help?”
“Oh, no, thank you,” I said, without even looking up at the speaker, still pretty focused on trying to keep The Bird from concussing herself on the concrete. She had splayed all four limbs and was thrashing backwards like a freshly-landed tuna. “She gets like this.”
“Sure?” asked the man.
“Yes, thanks,” I said, in a tone that sounded perhaps a little bitten-off. The Bird’s feet flailed at my jawline. Getting a grip on my daughter steady enough to lift her up, I breathed in for long enough to look up and realize that the man, now walking away from us, was dressed head to toe in forest green. And the vehicle that had pulled in to the layby ahead of us, to which he was returning, I saw, was bright neon yellow with a checkerboard pattern down the side. We passed it as I hauled The Bird, still convulsing away, on up the road toward the supermarket. The paramedic waved as we passed, then the ambulance pulled away. With hindsight, I think he must have thought The Bird was having a fit, not simply pitching a fit. My hat is off to him for the way he lived the job.
Anyway. I mention all this by way of illustrating that it wasn’t becoming a big sister that made The Bird dramatic. A few weeks back one of my friends said, rather gently, that “[The Bird]’s tantrums aren’t, you know, normal tantrums.” I nearly cried with relief that someone else thought so too. It’s nice, when you’re going through hell, to get some acknowledgement that you’re not merely going through Bedfordshire. But underlying disposition or none, it’s quite clear that the first few months of having a new baby at home corresponded with more and bigger sads than we’d ever had out of this little girl. The Ridiculous Thing about all this is that I made basically no concessions to it whatsoever, and bludgeoned on with an attempt at normality when clearly she was needing a bit of quiet time to adjust to suddenly being one of a set, instead of the centre of the universe. That’s how we ended up with our (then) twin biggest tantrums yet.
One occurred when The Bee was five weeks old, and we were on our way to a (planned, booked) civilized cultural activity with an incomprehensibly serene mum-of-two friend. For forty minutes of time when we should’ve been looking at masterpieces in a world-renowned art gallery and creating our own artworks inspired by them, The Bird and The Bee and I stood stranded in a nearby muddy park while she screamed and wept and rolled in the mud screaming “I WANT TO ROLL IN THE MUD.” Many, many passersby passed by. I have never avoided so much eye contact in my life. And that tantrum was eclipsed the following week, when I took the kids to music group.
We go to music group every Monday morning. It’s a little circle of toddlers shaking shakers, clapping hands, and dancing and singing their little hearts out. In fact, of course, the toddlers do barely any singing. The toddlers do their own thing, while their accompanying parents gamely impersonate Old Macdonald’s menagerie and pop assorted weasels. We’ve been going for over a year now, and The Bird has not once joined in with a song while at group. She likes to sit in the circle and regard all other comers with a baleful stare. Periodically the group leader calls on the children to suggest an animal to appear in I Went To Visit A Farm One Day, or a colour for the imaginary tractor they are going to ride on, or a hand gesture for the group to mimic. The Bird never answers if she is called on, and often looks like she has one or two hand gestures that only good manners are keeping her from suggesting. Then all the way home she will joyfully sing all the songs she’s just been pretending not to know, and tell me “I do like music group,” and ask when we can go again.
Anyway. That Monday, she did not want to go to music group. This happens periodically, and she’s usually delighted when we get there, so I decided to persevere. I’d reached a point, amid the maelstrom of life with two in nappies, when I was sure that only my determination would keep us from sinking into a morass of mess and wasted time. Life with small children is an endless parade of semi-predictable and short-term demands. Kids possess a non-winning combination of great tenacity and lack of a masterplan. They can’t plan, compromise, delay gratification, or drive. That meant, I concluded, that if we were to achieve anything beyond satisfying the immediate demands of the id, I’d have to run things like a drill-sergeant. So I soldiered on. A relative, Auntie Awesome, dropped round to our house first with my one-year-old niece so we could all walk over to group together. This didn’t improve The Bird’s mood any, and soon we were too late to walk and had to use the buggy. The Bird didn’t want to go in the buggy. Because Auntie Awesome was there, and I didn’t want it to look like The Bird was calling the shots, I manhandled The Bird into her buggy while she screamed. I knew she’d be fine once we got out of the door. In fact, she was still screaming as we got out the door. But I knew she’d be fine once we got to the end of our road. In fact, she was still screaming as we got to the end of our road, and as we left the neighbourhood, and in fact twenty minutes later when we reached the venue for group, a Quaker meeting-house. We were late and the other children were all already in a side room, sitting in the circle singing, so Auntie Awesome took my niece straight in to join them while I tried to park up the buggy. By now The Bee, in a sling on my front, was crying fit to burst as well. And though I “knew” The Bird would be fine once we got into the circle, she was absolutely not prepared to go in. In fact, still screaming, she kicked so hard that she toppled the buggy, in which she was still strapped, over backwards and bashed her head on the floor.
I don’t know heaps about Quaker faith, but I do know that it accords a special value to silent contemplation. I do know a little bit about libraries, which happened of course to be the specific part of the meeting-house in which we were asked to park buggies: those, too, are of course all about the silence. So being in a Quaker library for this, our then-biggest blowup ever, seemed somehow supernaturally perfect. (I don’t know, for example, whether Quakers share my belief that the universe is fundamentally ironic, but get the impression from what followed that they potentially do.) Usually the library was empty at this time, but today of course it had patrons; an older woman of supreme poise and composure was sitting at a desk right beside where The Bird had pitched herself over. Chastened by the experience with the paramedic, I’d become a bit more aware of who was around us during meltdowns: as I felt this woman’s eyes on us my skin got hot and embarrassment pinged in my guts, even as I hauled the buggy upright on autopilot, grabbing my daughter to check her poor bumped head. She wouldn’t let me unstrap her but I hugged her as tightly as I could with her brother tied onto my chest. I wiped the tear-tracks on her cheeks, trying to reassure her in a half-infuriated mutter. The panic receded enough for me to realize that the other woman was on her feet. There we were, going nuclear, and coming between this poor library user and her thoughts, her reading, and (as far as I knew) her God. I started fishing for some words of defensive apology, but she spoke first. “You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said.
I couldn’t have been more floored. Not unless I’d pitched myself over in a buggy.
“Can I help?” she offered. “See if I can distract her?”
That moment of kindness gave me what I needed to pull myself together and realize what we needed to do. “Thank you,” I said, “but I think we just need a moment’s time out.” I looked at The Bird, my poor overwrought first baby. “Baby,” I said, “would you like to sit outside in the sunshine and listen to the birds?”
The BIrd stopped crying. “Yes,” she sniffed. The Bee stopped crying too. I pushed the buggy back out of the library into the meeting-house’s little garden. The first snowdrops and a scattering of early crocuses were opening their faces to the weak sun. We sat all together, me on the cold grass, and listened. Early spring birds sang, a stream of liquid joy spilling into the cool air. Otherwise, it was silent. We contemplated.
The Bee settled warmly against my chest. The Bird’s breathing slowed down from its post-sob judders. After a few minutes, I peeped into the buggy and pulled a funny face. She smiled. I did it again, and she laughed. “Would you like to go in and sing?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
I got her out of the buggy and she toddled in, and we went inside. The older woman was still there. “Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for being kind to us.”
I hadn’t deserved the kindness. The Bird was only so wound up because I had steamrollered her. Topsy-turvy in the postpartum whirl, I had wanted normal Monday morning so much. I’d wanted fun with my two kids, had wanted peace and joy. Somehow, through that incredible storm and that gesture of kindness when I’d expected judgement, we’d reached it.
We went in to join the group, and sang. When we came back out, the woman was gone.