If I had to pick one word to describe my kid at this point in time, it would be ‘emotional’. There are other applicable adjectives: he’s clumsy and nimble in fairly equal measures, he’s noisy, he’s ridiculously cute, he’s messy and charming and sticky and frequently smelly. But for me, his most remarkable feature at the moment is how he seems to be constantly riding a roller-coaster of feelings, plunging from the heights of glee to the depths of despair within the space of few seconds. While his gross and fine motor skills are advanced and honed on almost an hourly basis, his limbic system is a mess.
His baseline seems to be ‘ecstatic’. He’s thrilled that the cats are still here every morning. He is delighted that it’s breakfast time. He squeaks and shrieks in excitement every time we open any kind of a door: the back door to go for a walk in the alley, the front door to welcome guests, the dishwasher door to unpack the crockery. He runs delirious circles around us if we sit on a lawn, at the park he dashes from jungle gym to swing to slide to see-saw, too excited to know where to start. It’s like there’s molly in the tea he drinks three times a day. The world is amazing, full of light and colour and textures and smells, it is one where people really don’t know where he is if he covers his head with a towel and where rubber ducks really quack. All people are wonderful, and he waves and blows kisses at everyone he sees. Every day is the best day ever.
But this general ecstasy is punctuated by periods of extreme and intolerable despair. Something will happen, or not happen, and he’ll go from a friendly, beaming boy, beloved by everyone, to the kind of screaming, snotting creature that makes people roll their eyes in shopping centres and pass summary judgement on your parenting skills. I always thought temper tantrums were a reaction to some kind of discipline, a revolt against a parent denying a toddler a sweet or stopping them from eating fertilizer or painting the dog, but I find them so much more random than that. Sometimes there is some kind of trigger — a cell phone moved out of reach, a bowl of meatballs and peas rather chocolate-coated strawberries — but often not, and even if there is, the reaction is without fail disproportional to the disappointment. Moreover, the entire sequence of events is irreversible. The losing of shit over the denial of chocolate-coated strawberries cannot be resolved by the offering of chocolate-coated strawberries. Once the Snowball of Despair is rolling, there is virtually no way to stop it gaining momentum. You just have to kind of watch it plunge down the hill, crushing trees and small animals as it goes, perhaps finally squashing somebody’s house before it reaches the bottom of the valley and comes to a halt. I realise I have switched metaphors here, but I feel my original roller-coaster analogy, implying something scary but thrilling and ultimately lots of fun was not quite right. There’s nothing fun about a tantrum launched in the middle of an hour-long car drive, or during what was meant to be a peaceful family lunch.
The hurtle into the Pit of Pain is often triggered by over-tiredness, but also by frustration. As impressively as he can climb and run and assemble a basic Duplo, my kid has yet to master even the basics of speech. He has absorbed and can regurgitate a few nouns (door, (ba)nana, shoes), but is unable to use these in any kind of practical sense. His only useful word is ‘no’, which he employs in combination with finger pointing to eliminate everything he really doesn’t want. No, he doesn’t want bread or the toaster or tea or salt or pepper or today’s paper or the utility bill or a spoon. The only thing left in the area he is pointing to is a banana. Why doesn’t he just say ‘nana’? Who knows. But by the time we understand that he wants a banana he is beside himself with rage and frustration, unable to contemplate co-ordinating his hands and jaw and pharynx to eat a banana. He thrashes the fruit away. Fat tears stream down his cheeks. He throws his rabbit at us. He screams like a Nazgul.
As I said earlier, once in full swing, tantrums cannot be stopped. One can only wait for them to self-terminate. Our kid does not consider the appalled stares of passersby a valid reason to stop screaming. A soothing tone only heightens his rage, and picking him up for a cuddle transforms him into a thrashing beast. The only thing to do is to walk away, pour oneself a glass of wine, and to return when the screams have stopped.
Then, when it’s all over, he is once again thrilled. He has dried snot on his upper lip and his face his blotchy from crying, but he is delighted by pebbles, small flowers, and the waitress who will play peek-a-boo with him. Everything is awesome. The world is his merry-go-round and he high-fives everyone he spins past. And they all go, ‘What a happy boy!’ Indeed.