O holy cow

It is time now to speak of the COW which our girlie had a week or two back. It was a full-blown, veins popping out of her neck, two-tone heterodyne scream-filled, wee fists wailing on inanimate objects, spittle coming out with bursts of speech, fifteen-minute-long COW. A COW of such generous proportions that I was half expecting her head to spin ‘round 360 degrees and spew split pea soup, à la Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The little guy would have been alarmed, I’m sure, but I’d have just ducked and covered his head.

Everyone who’s tended a toddler knows whereof I speak, to one degree or another. And we just got a peek at tantrum in the first degree. Even if you’ve conveniently forgotten these concentrated hits of uncut, unregulated emotion, I assure you your kid did something along these lines. Heck, we all did something along these lines, back when we were hacking our way through the underbrush of our as-yet untamed prefrontal cortexes, or what have you. You know, back in the frontier days, when the still-clumsy frontal lobe (reason! self control!) was trying to get a leg up on the fully-intact, robust amygdala (fight! flight!).

The lil’ monkey’s COW began with the flip of a switch. (Here’s how I picture the switch, by the way.) No warm-up, no warning. Mama had to leave to go to work – a factoid which does not always rattle, and which continues to be true, week in and week out. We had even amply anticipated it – as we always do any notable transition in the kiddles’ realities. The good-bye was cheery, but when the door shut behind Mama, our otherwise calm and recognizable toddler went mental. Instantaneously wanted Mama NOT to go to work, wanted her to come back RRIGHT NOW, etc. The little brother was in my arms, and I had no choice but to keep holding him, since he was sick, and would commence to wail whenever I attempted to deposit him anywhere safe. Even if he could survive his own wailing for the length of time it would take us to get through the tantrum, I wasn’t sure I could.

His sister began to rush the door and rattle at the handle, conveniently undermining her effectiveness by announcing just what she was about to do (e.g., “I’m gonna go out this door and go get her RRIGHT NOW!”). Later she will be all wily and concealing, like a cat. But right now she’s a dog: every feeling on display, no subterfuge. All’s I could do was position myself in some way as to keep her from pawing or chewing her way out. And then, shielding her little brother from whatever flailing limbs came in our general direction, I channeled Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey : “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”*

To my amazement, she remained herself at some essential level throughout the whole fit. She wanted Mama “Right this very INSTANT!” I have no clue where she heard that phrase (her invisible friend Sally, whence she plucked the F-word?), but danged if she didn’t employ it with surgical precision. Also, at one point she staggered over to her Mama’s diaper bag, produced a packet of tissue, staggered back to me, and in a slightly less manic, slightly less two-tone guttural scream, allowed as to the fact that she needed “a blow,” which I administered to her ever-reddening nose. Once suitably wiped, she returned to the zigging and zagging and ranting and raving.

When she cycled through everything and had nothing more to demand verbally, she simply stood in the middle in the room and primally screamed.

And then, a longer than long fifteen minutes later, she had nothing left to scream, or perhaps nothing left with which to scream it. Over the course of the same sentence she blended from “I want Mama to come home RIGHT NOW“ to a staccato, gasp-punctuated “I wa-ant (gasp) I wa-ant (gasp) I want bo-oks and milk (gasp) I want to cu-uddle.” At which point I left my post at the door and galvanized into action. Moments later we were all on the couch with A.A. Milne. A careful observer would find only the merest hint of the drama that led up to this placid scene, in the puffy-lidded, red-rimmed eyes on the girlchilld, and her especially tight tuck under my arm.

“It is hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

Poor lil’ critter. Face to face (yet again) with what the Buddha called “viparinama-dukkha” – suffering due to change (the Wikipedia entry on dukkha includes a bit on viparinama-dukkha, which pretty much sums up the lil’ monkey’s complaint: “1. violated expectations; 2. the failure of happy moments to last.”) And it’s not an easy job, trying to figure out how to regulate your emotions — how to assume control of your so-called “executive functions” when you still can’t even spell “executive,” or pick one out of a line-up. Sometimes the feelings just come too fast and furious for her to assume any control whatsoever, executive or otherwise. (I think of the Ashleigh Brilliant post card, with the quip: “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.”) Sometimes all the lil’ monkey can do is spit her emotions rat-a-tat-tat around the room, or ram them into objects in a desperate, protracted attempt to make them to go away. She may think they’ll go away when she gets whatever thing she wanted (in the case of the COW the other week: for Mama not to leave and go to work). But since Baba is not quite so nutty as to concede a thing in these moments, even if she could, the lil’ monkey gets her emotions to go away by simply burning through them all, ‘til what’s left are the fumes they leave behind, and a feeble, wet kitten-ish desire to cuddle and drink some milk and read some books. A cuddle with milk n’ books being, for her, the apogee of comfort.

My mother spoke to me often of “the mauvaise quart d’heure.” To her, it was that period of dread that would precede some worrisome event (I’ve seen it also described as the period of embarrassment or discomfort following a gaffe of some sort). She would tell me that if only I would just breathe, be patient, and persevere through those fifteen minutes of discomfort, I would find that they are transient. I would find that coping with the thing itself as it is happening is a very different project than dreading it. The more I observed this in action, the truer it seemed to be. Without knowing it my mom was in league with Buddhists, who point out that while suffering may well be an elemental part of life, we might consider resisting the temptation to suffer about the suffering. I’m working now on not dreading the next tantrum, which I hope might pass through in fifteen minutes. I figure this hurricane season will pass, too, eventually.

I’m banking on that for myself, that’s for sure. See, I too have a switch — labeled “the menopause” — and it can flip faster than you can say Bob’s Your Uncle. Critical mass is reached, a quorum of stressors, and SHAZAM! It’s meno-Baba. I don’t like her one little bit (see illustration), and with the help of some bartered acupuncture and some low-budget Chinese herbs, I just may be able to give meno-Baba a decent shave, at least, if not reduce her to a proper size and keep her safely tucked away in my pocket. There next to my pint-sized meno-Baba will also have to be the shame that I feel after a menopausally-induced fit, knowing that in those moments I am role modeling anger management for our hurricane-season toddler. Anger management, that is, à la the Incredible Hulk.

I can only hope there’s room enough in that pocket for forgiveness and compassion, too: from each of us, to each of us, in good time. Meanwhile, there will always be books and milk.

* (For some 2001: A Space Odyssey sound bite hi-jinx, visit Palantir’s page, here. “I’m sorry, Dave” is the second on the list.)

8 thoughts on “O holy cow”

  1. Ah, friend LD. That sounds like a challenging day, maybe illustrative of a challenging period of life. But as usual, it also sounds like you persevered and helped the Lil Monkey to persevere as well.

    We’re just climbing into the mirror-filled funhouse of two, tantrums, manipulations, snuggles, and all.

  2. Ah, may the patience of Job be with ye. It’s definitely not always with me (a whine-fest pretty much makes me want to fling myself or some inanimate object out the window). But fortunately there’s something calming about a full-on tantrum: it’s so obvious that equal parts of the same manic anger energy will help not a jot (or damage the house too much), so mercifully, meno-Baba just clambers into the backseat and watches.

    “Mirror-filled funhouse” is apt, since half the battle is keeping a clear bead on exactly which is the hyperbolic projection of your actual kid, and which is the actual kid. Who — I’ve got to believe — is nearly as horrified and exhausted by the tummult of emotion as you are.

    Here’s an interesting coda: one day, since this COW, she seemed to have a flicker of another one in her. I forget the catalyst, but she was beginning to ramp up, and I was having a bad menopause day (kind of like a bad hair day only 10,000 times worse). I could tell my wick was short. I said something like, “You know, you could have a fit, like you did the other day, but that would make everyone absolutely miserable. We could just cut to the chase and have the books and milk right away and be done with it.” I don’t know if she sensed my own mood, and was able to think better of it, or what. But that day, it worked. That day. Watch it was a fluke.

  3. Wow, LD, there’s a noirish sense of reading about these emotionally heightened episodes! I know it’s but a brief entry but as I read it I am thinking “does LM open the door? Scamper down and out into the day? Screaming down the stairs? Banging pots and pans”. Your parental tenacity will, no doubt, result in a fine adult monkey who can express her myriad of emotions as an adult. A priceless gift to the world. Additionally, it took me a few minutes to realize that meno referred to the pause, not Socrates’ meno. Oh lordy, must-drink-coffee-before-reading-blog-but-blog-is-too-damn-interesting. Finally…I love the 2001 references…I wonder if “Daisy Daisy” would have any sort of, er, soothing effect, for the next episode?

  4. Jewelgeek, that’s brilliant! And lord love us that may well be one of the little handholds we grab on to on our way up outta here. Can’t think of what this one will have to be dubbed. Am open to suggestions.

    And violetta, alas, I am the least well-read former English major you will ever meet, virtually and/or actually (!). One of my favorite parlor games, my chums will attest, is Name That Literary Classic You Think I Should Have Read, But I Actually Didn’t! Skirting the edges of the canon did great things for my spirit, from time to time, but sank my GRE scores on the subject exam in English down to near about the level of my Math scores. (Guess how many questions on the GRE about Adrienne Rich! Right! One at most! Guess how many for Black women authors! Right again! One! Bonus point: who? Right again! Toni Morrison! That’s it! Game over! Thanks for playing!).

    Ah, but I digressed. A Platonic Meno? Rings a distant bell. Wikipedia rings it louder. Will now use whatever discretionary time I have trying to write up a Socratic dialog using menopause as its theme.

  5. LD-another great, wise post.

    Later she will be all wily and concealing, like a cat. But right now she’s a dog: every feeling on display, no subterfuge. All’s I could do was position myself in some way as to keep her from pawing or chewing her way out.

    LOL – love the image. Dogs are so completely guileless.

    plus, it reminds me of an old Kids in the Hall sketch…

    My Menopause Switch usually just makes me break into tears at pretty much any provocation- the sky is blue, my dog is old, a garbage truck drives by… etc.

  6. Lovely post. You will miss these days later on. Really.

    If I could I offer a little grandmotherly advice, I would say you are on the right track by trying to head off the fits before they get to the pas(ture). Ha!

    Kids (and adults) who have fits are very difficult to reason with. When my son was little, he would wake up at night screaming and I would ask “What’s wrong?” He would respond by crying harder. It took me awhile to figure out he had to pee and didn’t want to wake up and my 30 questions was making matters worse. So I would give him lots of sympathy and invent the reason for his angst and suggest a solution. “You poor thing, you want to go potty. I’ll help you.”
    That would work, although he sometimes cried through it but he would calm down and go back to sleep while I rubbed his back and told him what a good boy he was.

    I find that even adult children who have fits want to have their concerns acknowledged rather than questioned and debated. It is good advice that I’m not so good at myself. It was so much easier to say to a 3 year old, “You really miss mommy don’t you?” than to say to a 30-something, “Your boss/husband/whatever is really mean to you, isn’t he? You were so right to quit your job/tell him to go fly a kite/whatever.”

    Enjoy the days when milk, a book and a cuddle will make everything all better.

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