It’s the rainy season in Japan. Sometimes you see the storm coming, sometimes you don’t. But you know you’re bound to get soaked at some point. That goes for tantrums, too.
This past Sunday afternoon was one of those real doozies. It was raining hard, and all 4 of us were headed home in the car when Boy announced his need to go to the potty. “We’re almost there — just hold it 5 more minutes.” A low whine ensued, which we took to mean “possible emergency,” so Koun pulled into the nearest convenience store parking lot. Boy and I jumped out and ran through the deluge for the door, rendering us wet to the skin. After he did his business, Boy wanted to hang out and play with the buttons on the high-tech Japanese toilet. I didn’t let him. He knows he’s not allowed to do this. (The last time the kids played with the buttons, Koun got sprayed in the face by a bidet. We have rules for a reason.)
Boy then flipped out. Completely.
What happened? And how many times have I asked myself this over the course of my 4 years as Somebody’s Mama?
Girl, 2, generally produces the textbook variety freak-out. It goes like this: Mama or Papa firmly says “No” in response to a request (for the supersharp paring knife that Papa is using to slice daikon and carrots, for instance) or to an action (like climbing, ninja-style, up the bookcases). Girl then shrieks like a banshee, falls to her knees and pounds forehead and fists into tatami, her face turning a perfect tomato red. If she’s really going for it, this progresses: she then rolls onto her back, and proceeds to lift legs and arms, simultaneously dropping all limbs with a thunderous thump, thump, thump. It is crazyloud and, oddly, adorable. In 5 or 10 minutes, the storm passes and out comes the sunshine.
Boy, in contrast, has exhibited a more complicated and varied tantrum style — and they do not last a mere 5 minutes. Until just before he turned 2, it all seemed to be pretty typical, but even then, there were hints of what was to come. First of all, something in the quality of Boy’s voice or posture in the morning always let us know right off that it was going to be one of those days. There would be no getting out of it.
Shortly after turning 2, his tantrums became a whole-body endeavor — hurling himself at walls, objects, people, all with zero concern for his own person. The delicate paper shoji in his room bear the mark of this time, as does my (graying) hair.
And then, not long after that, the night terrors began — Boy waking at 2 or 3 a.m. and screaming and flailing and speaking eerily to no one in particular. Though technically not a tantrum, the behavior was virtually the same. We had a hard time telling the difference, in fact, until we realized that Boy dreams in his first language, Japanese — thus nightly utterances point to whether or not he is awake. Either way, the most effective response seemed to be the same: we sat with him (but refrained from touching him), until it passed and he slumped back into sleep.
At 4, things are considerably better with Boy. But when they are not, it can be particularly hard to bear. We’ve come so far, and yet too many days end with Koun and I sitting together in the evening, re-hashing where things went awry, establishing what we should try the next time it all goes pear-shaped, and, ultimately, puzzling over our inadequacies as parents.
One thing we know for sure: Boy can smell stress or a mood on me or Koun — maybe even before we can. It’s uncanny. And he’s tuned in to slights that we can’t always grasp. He’s that barking dog before an earthquake. He’s that little yellow canary in the cave. He’s me as a sensitive young child, without a doubt, and yet I still don’t get it right.
(Not that he’s just soaking it all up, either. Boy makes his own weather all the time. And it can turn in an instant — for the worse, or for the better.)
So where did we go wrong this past weekend? In my view, those two days were all about positive family togetherness. Saturday, Boy and Girl seemed to do well enough with “sharing play” at home — toy trains, painting, and MamaPapa sumo. And Sunday, we all hung out at an indoor playground with friends. We kept it active, varied, populated, fun. What more can you want on a monsoon weekend?
To be fair, there was another layer to our weekend: ruthless clutter-reduction and cleaning. We’re leaving Japan at the start of August — moving to Nova Scotia, a world away. I’m grateful for new opportunities, and heartbroken to be leaving. It’s a complicated mix of emotions. Tossing out old, worn items feels too much like tossing out memories (it’s not, but it feels like it). When I got to his room, Boy wouldn’t let me throw away even one broken toy. So we put it all back, to be attended to when the kids are at daycare.
Sunday, after that incident at the convenience store, I made a favorite snack to lighten the mood. Girl spooned happily into her mango smoothie. Boy, meanwhile, drank the whole thing in one gulp and proceeded to pout angrily into his cup, his face darkening. Again. “I want MORE!”
“Sweetheart — ” I felt myself bracing. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to feel angry or resentful — I know, as Someone’s Mama, I’m not supposed to feel that way — but I do sometimes, and I always simultaneously feel like a horrible, horrible person.
I thought, What more can I give you, child? What will make you happy? Don’t you know that your happiness is all I want in the Whole Wide World? Then I swallowed it all, my thoughts and my anger and the last of my mango, and sat down next to Boy. “How about a walk? Should we have Mama-and-Boy time — just you and me?” Suddenly, the darkness vanished from his face. “Yes!”
It was drizzling a little as we stepped outside, but Boy didn’t want his rubber boots and raincoat. So I skipped mine, too. We bought a bottle of green tea from a vending machine to share, and hiked the nature trail next to our house as the rain soaked us for the second time that day. We stomped in a lot of puddles. We listened to water trickling through leaves beneath a canopy of bamboo. We collected stones and pieces of rotting wood. We got crazy muddy.
I don’t know if this was the best way to stop the storm. Honestly, I think it’s dumb luck, because it won’t be the right answer the next time around. It’s never that simple. But I do know Boy had a good day, in the end. And so did I.
We clearly need to get Boy and Born Dancin’ together; for us, the terrible twos are still cropping up six years later, and they sound remarkably similar to your experience in their randomness, variety, and difficulty of handling. It’s an experience, and I can say that you and the small ones will survive, and even thrive as his learning and your learning shape you both. It does get better.
As important: you are allows to feel resentment, and hurt, and frustration. You are human. You are not a robot, or a statue, or some platonic ideal of Motherhood (and even were you, I somehow doubt it would include eternal Calm). I may be missing some finer point of your spiritual discipline or meaning here, but I should think parenting is quite difficult enough without expecting perfection–any more than you expect it of your growing, learning children.
Thank you, Michael. This was much needed. No finer point of spiritual discipline here–I just want to get it right. Oh, how badly I want to get it right. I love my kiddos. Fiercely. You know how it is.
Loving them fiercely is getting it right.
I spent the first six months with our infant son trying not to make any mistakes, meditating morning and evening so I could try to insure I wouldn’t react in anger or some other suspect emotion. Then someone asked me: would you rather your kids grew up with you setting an example of perfectionism, and stuffing your emotions? Or an example of how even you can make and learn from mistakes, say sorry and make up, how you can feel and express your emotions and ask for what you need? What’s the model that will result in happier, more well adjusted adults?
As they used to say in Austin, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Took me months to stand down my vigilance and I still need reminding even now.
Amazing tiny bits and gleanings recorded gratefully- every phrase reveals a heart that throbs with passionate parental concern. Let best things await you at Nova Scotia.