Angels, Assholes and Emotional Development

“The mommies on the plane say ‘pass the vodka’.”

This week, I am teaching a lesson on different modes of air transportation.  I asked the moms in my group for suggestions to transition “The Wheels on the Bus” song to “The Wings on the Airplane.”  One mommy came back with this joke(sort of) suggestion.  I was reminded of the special kind of stress that comes from travelling with a child.

After having kids, I recall one of my friends complaining about a crying baby on a flight she had taken.  The exact comment was something along the lines of “The pacifier is right there!  Do something!” As egotistical as I now find this comment, at the time, it just filled me with panic.  I NEVER wanted to be THAT lady- the one that everyone is whispering about, judging, and watching with mild to aggressive annoyance.  How could I avoid this pitfall?

I can’t.  Neither can you.  These kids we have- they’re all good kids.  They’re all angels.  They’re also assholes.

A few months back, my father-in-law, E, told me a story about Liam.  He had taken Liam to the park, and Liam had fallen down.  E proudly described how Liam did not cry, he simply got up and kept playing.  In his estimation,  Liam had assessed that he wasn’t really hurt and didn’t need to cry.  I have no doubt this is how the scene played out.  But I am also privy to the knowledge that I have kissed and bandaged hundreds if not thousands of non-existent cuts in the four short years since Liam’s arrival.  When I see him fall, there is a reflexive moment of holding my breath, waiting to see if he’s going to cry or keep playing.   It’s a crapshoot.

As parents, we do our absolute best to teach our children good manners and appropriate outlets for emotion.  But they are still learning to navigate this world of emotions.  From the time they are born, it is their natural instinct to cry when they are upset or in need of something.  Just because they start walking and talking does not mean they understand how to properly vocalize their feelings.  There are countless times throughout the day that I go sprinting when I hear one of my children screaming.  In the two seconds it takes me to reach one of their bedrooms, flashes of possible scenarios rush through my overactive imagination.  Has a scorpion found its’ way into the house and stung one of them?  Has a finger got wedged into a doorway?  Have they happened upon sharp objects and managed to lodge them into their eyes or ears?

“I can’t find my bear.”  Nope.  Just misplaced a favorite toy.  With as much serenity as I can muster, I reiterate that they do not need to scream or cry in this scenario.  They simply need to say “Mommy, I need help finding my bear.”  The instinct is to scream.  They have to be taught to remain calm.

This morning, I ate a bagel while I watched an episode of Girls.  I LOVE bagels, yet I rarely eat them.  They are pretty high in calories without a great deal of nutrition.  If I eat one, I inevitably want more, so I usually just abstain altogether.

When I bit into the bagel, I felt a burst of elation as I tasted the first bite, followed by a rush of decadence in enjoying something usually forbidden.  This gave way to a feeling of defiance, as if to say “fuck it.  I know I am chubby.  I accept it and roll with it.  I am going to enjoy life and do what I want to do.”  Which of course immediately led to guilt over buying the bagel in the first place and fear that I would see its presence on the scale the following morning.  As I ate the last bite, I continued to beat myself for being so weak, yet I contemplated making cupcakes later in the day.  I felt ALL OF THAT over a piece of BREAD.  What hope do my children possibly have of negotiating emotional development with grace and ease?

Emotions are messy, complex, often irrational, and sometimes uncontrollable.  During the episode of Girls that I was watching, Hannah finds out her exboyfriend is gay.  She tries to tell him how happy she is that he has discovered his authentic self, but ends up bursting into tears instead.  Through her sobs she says “I’m having an inappropriate physical reaction to my complete joy for you.”  That’s often how it is.  Sometimes the brain and the heart just come to fisticuffs.

The thing I really love about children is their honesty in expressing their emotions.  It is not uncommon for Kellen to climb into my lap and say “I need you to hold me.”  Can you imagine how much healthier adult relationships would be if we simply asked for what we wanted?  No silent treatment, no snide comments, no little tiffs over laundry and television shows to avoid talking about the big things that matter.  As adults, we learn to view that kind of honesty as needy or weak or immature.

Every kid is going to have good days and bad days. Sometimes he is going to be so nice and thoughtful, it almost breaks your heart.  Then you are going to witness him rip a toy out of another child’s hand and walk away oblivious to the tears and screams he has produced.  In those moments, we just do our best to remain calm, correct the situation, and reiterate the values we hope to instill.  If that fails we can always say “pass the vodka.”

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