I was driving home in our mini-van with a baby screaming in the backseat. My wife, Mel, was sitting next to me. She was looking out the window, her left hand gripping her pant leg, right hand leaning against the armrest, face seated in her palm. Behind me, Tristan, age 7, and Norah, age 5, both had their ears covered. We were ten minutes from home, but I knew it would feel like an eternity. Aspen, our five-month-old, was hungry, or poopy, or just plain-out moody, and wanted us all to know about it. She switched between her normal cry, and a deep panicking cry that she only did when her needs weren’t being immediately met.
It was October, and an hour earlier, we had tried to go to a pumpkin patch for a family activity, but it was closed on Mondays. Mel searched online for another, but found out that most pumpkin patches in small town Oregon closed at 6PM, which seemed crazy considering how many parents are at work during that time.
When I told Norah and Tristan that we couldn’t go, both kids let out a long agonizing moan that made me feel like I should do something. Made me feel like I should climb over a fence, or break down a gate, to get at the pumpkin patch. I don’t know what it is about parenting and feeling the need to please my children. Most of the time I resist this urge, but there is something inside of me, my default setting, that the moment my kids cry I want to do anything for them to make it stop.
Ultimately, I told them that the pumpkin patch was closed, and they took the news like it was a great tragedy. Target was nearby, so Mel wanted to make a stop before we went home. And as we drove, Norah became angrier, and louder, about the pumpkin patch not being open. She kicked her little legs, and slammed her little fists, and gnashed her little teeth, and by the time we made it into the store, I was nominated to stay in the car with her until she calmed down.
While in the car, she went through a few stages. First she screamed. Then she told me I was a mean daddy. She threw a few things. She was, over all, being a huge brat. Lastly, she negotiated. We went back and forth, and eventually, I got her to agree to be quiet for five minutes and I would unbuckle her.
As Norah sat quietly, I wondered what could be worse than hanging out in a minivan with a screaming 5-year-old? At the time, I couldn’t think of much. It really is agonizing when my children throw fits. I want to be there for them. I want to let them know that they are loved. It really doesn’t come down to this or that. Helping a child understand how to handle disappointment is really difficult, and it’s easy to react with emotion. To get angry, or take things personally. It’s easy just to give in, give them what they want, and move on. But then there is the sinking feeling that I am making them worse. Turning them into a bad person, which makes me a bad parent, and I that’s the last thing that I want. However, never giving in, well… that’s a whole other thing. That makes me into a brute. A demanding militant father, and I don’t want to be that either. Parenting isn’t black and white. It doesn’t come in clearly defined binaries, but rather in shades of a million colors that change depending on age and situation.
After five minutes, Norah calmed down. And shortly after, Mel came back with the baby. It was after 8PM now, and all I could think about was the work I needed to finish for my online class before I could go to bed. I was irritated myself about the pumpkin patch. I had been looking forward to it. I was also irritated about having to sit in a car with a fit-throwing 5-year-old. Mel suggested that we feed the baby, but she looked content, and I had things to do, so I asked that she not.
“We should be able to make it home. It’s only 20 minutes,” I said.
Then we strapped Aspen in, and although she was content for the first half of the drive, the last half she started crying. And then wailing. And as I drove, listing to a crying baby, I thought about my daughter’s fit. I thought about all the work I had to do, and how I was going to be up late, again. I wondered why I was in all this. I wondered why I was trying so hard to be a parent. When in the thick of a bad parenting day, it’s easy to feel picked on and angry. I wanted to pull the van over to the side of the road, step out, and wander into the woods, never to be seen again. I wanted to be done with all of it. I wanted some quiet. I wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to, really, be anywhere but in that van with a crying baby.
We made it home, got the baby calm, and the kids to bed. I did my work, and went to bed myself.
The next morning, I didn’t feel right. I was edgy. Usually an evening like that wears off, but this time it didn’t. I chatted with a co-worker about the night before. She was in her mid 40s and has one child in college and one in high school. We often talk about family stuff, and she always gives me a great perspective. I told her about my night, and she laughed and said, “That’s cute. Someday you will look back on nights like that and smile. I don’t know why, but you will. I do it all the time.”
At the time I didn’t feel like smiling. But there was a confidence in her voice that made me wonder if she was right. Made me think about rough times in my past that in the moment seemed horrible, but now are almost comical. Suddenly I felt better about all of it. Hopeful. Optimistic.
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