Elie Mae is about 83 percent happy. Most of the time, she shuffles around with her head held high, belly poked out, and hips switching. It’s like she’s rushing to catch a bus at the end of a catwalk. Give her a white dog and some shades, and she’s Zach Galifianakis in Due Date.
She has a certain swagger, and it’s called optimism. I wonder if she wakes up each morning thinking we’ll go somewhere new, like a cool children’s museum or a warehouse filled with pink cake pops. Maybe she thinks today will be the day when I let her climb our leaning bookcase. Or that I’ll deactivate the code on my iPhone so she can email my contacts with this very important Subject: $$iopu=0apdjlzz.
Really, we are doing these things: We are keeping Tophs’s head from growing too flat on one side by putting him on his tummy until he screams. This takes thirty seconds. We are handing him the natural wood teether, the one void of toxins, knowing he prefers the plastic $4.99 one with chemicals. We are mixing food coloring in plastic tubs of water to make mystery brown broth again. And my personal favorite—we are unloading tampons, lining them up in a sort of Playtex log roll, and then loading them back into the box. On great days, we let Tophs pose with the pink box on his lap.
I can do this day in and day out because I am strong. That’s not true. I drink overpriced lattes laced with crack. My dealer is a Seattle-based mermaid.
At 22 months, poor Elie Mae can’t drink coffee (she should be at least two). So in those 17-percent moments, when her energy wanes after a missed nap or she can’t figure out the exact words to say, “I hate your face today,” she does what her people do best:
It all happens so fast, but in my mind, I can slow the tantrum down and view it page-by-page like a flip book:
Kick | Arch Back | Kick | Open Mouth | Whine | Head Butt | Pause | Fill Diaphragm | Grow Molars | Screeeeeam | Reveal Seven New Molars | Draw Crowd | Start Over | Squash Optimism | Grab Paci | Whimper | Glare At Tophs for Smiling That Dumb Baby Smile
That’s all. It’s really simple. And developmentally appropriate. Like ear hair for the elderly.
The other day, a psychologist on NPR said that when a child is going through a “’no’ period,” the parent should just reflect the child’s feelings. The parent should say to little Johnny, “Oh, I see that you really didn’t want to do that.”
SPOILER ALERT: Black people don’t talk to their kids like that.
I could try it, but I’d end up saying the wrong thing, like, “Elie, I see that you are making me want to forgo Excedrin and instead drive an ax directly into my frontal lobe.”
So that’s that. But I’m also not a fan of, “Johnny, you better get your butt over here before I give you a reason to crick up your neck!”
Paul and I have chosen something in between called Secure and Ignore. You keep the kid from herniating a disc but let her cry it out while you finish dinner, pay the bills, or watch Roots. We eventually give Elie her pacifier, but we are trying to wean her, so we don’t whip it out right away.
We have no evidence that this method is effective. But something about the thought of giving her tranquilizers doesn’t quite settle with us.
Sometimes pushing the ignore button means standing next to Elie Mae as she rolls on the ground in public. Forget the Myers-Briggs; I’ve learned you can tell a lot about a person by how he reacts to a tantrum. The child’s personality remains a mystery; she could generally be sweet or annoying, loud or clingy, and you won’t know until the convulsing stops. But adult bystanders are a different story.
Take the local Target employees. Love them. Elie can run rampant in every department, and they still don’t judge. She knocks down cake mix boxes like they’re dominos and runs with XXL granny panties like they’re kites. When I finally tell her we have to go, she self-destructs, pulling my hair and kicking my mom pouch. The same cashier who watched one of Elie’s meltdowns from afar barely mentioned it the next time we saw her, and when she did, she smiled. “You’re not gonna put my baby on one of those child leashes,” she said.
What a far cry from the women at the bookstore. I don’t know what it is about this particular bookstore, but everyone there looks shriveled, like they’ve got craisins for eyes. Elie doesn’t even have to fall out on the floor there; she can just squeal or run or poop and we get attention. I imagine that the woman who gives us the side-eye, as though to say, “This is a bookstore!” uses that same sentence structure day in and day out with anyone she encounters:
This is a fresh lobster buffet!
This [points to eye] is a chocolate-covered craisin!
This is a Build-A-Bear Workshop, and you’ve made a cat!
Her husband left after 30 years of hearing, “This is a marriage!”
The reactions of students (mainly variations of panic) on Grounds don’t comfort or annoy me; they make me nervous. To be honest, I didn’t think they would care. Say “college” and I envision an academic Times Square where self-absorbed kids bustle about in cute boots, selling Krispy Kremes for this cause, signing a petition for that one—all of them so busy they wouldn’t notice if a giant cat in harem pants did “The Wobble” on the quad.
That might be so. But if the cat were a baby, these kids would stop and dance.
A few weeks ago, Elie Mae broke down in front of the dining hall—legs went limp, bottom hit pavement, and bats flew out of her ears. Naturally, I walked away. Okay, I took just a few steps toward home, but it put me behind a wall so that she couldn’t see me. Students leaving dinner couldn’t see me either, and within seconds, I heard a girl say, “Who would do this to a baby?!” I came around the corner like a cool mall cop. Nothing to see here, ladies. She’s not an abandoned baby; she’s just two.
“Ohmygod! I didn’t see you… awww, she is so cute! Look at her little Uggs! Ohmygod, Can I have your daughter?”
“Like this?” I asked. Elie’s cries had stopped, but she was deep in the involuntary sniffle-snort post-tantrum phase of recovery. White balls of snot tied to the ends of snot strings were likely to slide toward her top lip at any moment.
But these girls were already gone, lost in the Elie Adoration Zone. As they walk backward away from us, they waved and held out their arms to Elie Mae. She stared at them, blankly. “I feel the same way about you!” one cried out. “I’ll be thinking of you!”
Another student throwing her trash in the dumpster below our dorm one day heard Elie scream and ran up the stairs. When she found Elie instead of baby rabbit in a lion’s mouth, she looked only partially relieved. “Oh!” she put her hand over her chest. “I was scared.” I smiled to assure her things were out of control in an under-control-kind-of-way, and she walked back toward her dorm, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she might use one of those blue phones to alert the cops to suspicious parenting.
I’ve gotten so used to seeing toddlers throw fits that I can’t remember what it might have felt like to happen upon Elie Mae as a college kid. I probably would have tried to scoop her up and fix her like a baby bird. Or maybe I’d have criticized the deadbeat mom who let her child’s frustration escalate to that point. Most of these students don’t know anymore about parenthood than I did ten years ago, and, yet, I still feel the urge to explain myself to them:
Do you know that tantrums happen? That we are at least average-to-okay parents? Have you taken Child Psych? Have you or a loved one experienced a younger sibling in exaggerated distress?
A friend suggested I stick up signs around Elie Mae during a fit: Tantrum in Progress. Please Proceed Normally. I’m thinking I would need flares. One thing is certain—I can’t rush to pick Elie up every time she cries for fear of what students might think of my parenting techniques. That would not be developmentally appropriate for me. This, after all, is adulthood.