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Quiet Thoughts on Parenting, Encore.

By: Jen Shoop

Today, I am republishing a modestly edited version of an essay I wrote nearly two years ago. In it, I grapple with the outsized emotions of toddlerhood, the challenges those mood swings and temper tantrums present to parents, and the way that — even though you know these tiny beings are just tiny beings doing their best to communicate without the words or emotional sophistication to clearly do so — you can feel, from time to time, as though a failure. I am sharing this strategically on the eve of the holidays because, well, there is a tang of truth in that line from “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas”: “…and mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again.”

Somewhere in the midst of my daughter’s threenager furies, one of her teachers observed that: “she has a difficult time getting ‘unstuck’ when she is upset.” The language fit. She did seem to emotionally contort herself into a fixed, tight position from which it appeared difficult for her to climb down. We sat and strategized around how to help her “unstick” herself, principally using comedy and diversion. These tactics helped on occasion. But in the end, the only thing that seemed to “unstick” her was sitting, silently, on the floor near to where she thrashed about, not saying anything at all (no matter how much she cajoled me into conversation), and waiting until the right moment to gently reach out and rub her foot, then her back. Then run my fingers through her hair, then take her into my arms. “Everything is OK,” I would whisper, and she would slowly relax. A knot undone.

I often felt incorrect in this treatment. Was I condoning the behavior by responding with such gentleness? Placating her rather than teaching her something? So many parents had urged me to ignore the tantrums. My own mother had told me, on many occasions, about an instance in which my brother had been kicking and screaming on the floor, and she walked through the room and stepped right over him, ignoring the scene. His head popped up quizzically. Then, realizing his display had not had the intended effect, he stood up and went on with his day.

We tried this — and so many other strategies. Breathwork. Counting to 10 together. Discipline. Redirection. Comedy. The only thing that seemed to help her “unstick” was my method, and it required a lot of time and patience. Was it the right way to do things? I don’t know. Would parenting experts take me to task on this “lenient” approach? Possibly. All I can say, and I say it with some quiet measure of confidence, is that it came naturally to me, that it seemed to be what she needed, and that, in my limited experience as a mother, there is a lot to be said for following your instincts.

Sitting on the other side of things, two years past the nadir of her feisty toddlerhood, I want to let you know, in case you are white-knuckling it through tantrum territory, pulling out every trick in the book: Yes. This, too, shall pass. One day, you will turn to your husband, and realize it’s been ages since you’ve had to enforce a protracted time out, or sit quietly, reciting the Hail Mary, on the steps of the Church while she kicks and screams her way through some injustice or other.

My thinking is this:

Maybe some things take time. Maybe some phases are longer than others. Maybe that was just her way. Maybe you can’t problem-solve your way out of everything as a parent. Maybe some periods of parenting are more about being consistently there, showing up with love and patience, until the chapter is done.

*******

It has been loud in our home for the past few weeks between the holidays, mini’s extended school break, and especially the unnerving set of toddler tantrums we have been muscling our way through, one of which left Mr. Magpie carrying a kicking and screaming near-four-year-old down six blocks of Central Park West, little fists pummeling and all. I called my brother the other night to unload: “We are in it. I don’t what we’re doing wrong!” After puzzling over possible sources of her tiny and unfurling fury (leading suspects: intense schedule changes owing to holidays/zoom school/in-person school and a delayed jealousy of her now-active and now-communicating younger brother who is suddenly capable of participating in many of the activities to which she alone used to lay claim), my brother, ever the sane and compassionate soul he is, concluded: “Ah, Jen. You’re great parents. You’re not doing anything wrong. You’ll get through this.” I had to focus for a moment on Tilly, idly sniffing at dubious street detritus, at the scruff on her neck and the blue gingham of her collar, to re-center myself. I felt my shoulders relax from a month-long hunch.

Oh, the wild emotional fracas of parenting! Of trying your hardest and yet windmilling out of control on an unsuspecting Sunday evening after a meticulously planned day, in advance of which I sat on the edge of my bed staring out into the white of a January dawn and marshaled all the positive and motivating thoughts I could muster. Things like: “Love your way through it” and “you can do this” and “She does not know how to control her emotions — she needs my help regulating them.” But somewhere around 4 p.m., after making my way through several meltdowns and skirmishes with a practiced calm, she stared straight at me as she pelted little balls of play-doh at the ceiling, at her brother, at the wall, at the carpet in direct defiance of my carefully-worded reminders that “play-doh stays on the table, please.” Writing this out now, I think to myself: “Good God, Jen, just let her play. You should have let it go.” But you know — you know! — when you have been delicately snow-shoeing your way through the day, careful to avoid her triggers, aiming to tamp down on the commands and just let her be, and suddenly your foot gets stuck in an unexpectedly deep drift of snow and —

Oh! I can just feel my teeth grinding in frustration. I took the play-doh from her. “Well, the play-doh goes away now,” I said matter-of-factly, prying it out of her hands, placing it and all of its accessories into the bin and clicking the lid shut with a satisfying snap snap snap snap on all four sides, as she barreled into hysterics, snatching at my dress.

Oh, the outrage! The sobs! The protestations that “I won’t do ANYTHING ANYMORE”! The little red face and little red eyes puffy with tears. Then the just-as-sudden denouement, the click-off, the quiet, as her eyes traced the outlines of the displaced dog figurines that she had been hunting for earlier hiding under her bed, distractions in shadow.

“There they are, mama,” she said, with excitement, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Mama, look!” Crouching down, retrieving them. The intensity of the previous five minutes nothing but a cloud quickly retreating behind us.

And what to do then but embrace the mercurialness? To squat at her side and tinker with toys, to brush the hair out of her eyes (but not insist on re-tying her hair — no, no, that would be too much and too precarious at this moment), to sigh inwardly, to study that perfect little face and peer into those expressive little eyes and wonder at what is going on inside and what measure of it belongs to my own skill as a parent.

Mr. Magpie and I put our heads together at night, strategizing, hypothesizing, commiserating, forgiving one another for the not-sins that feel like them. “It felt horrible carrying her home like that,” he says, and I remind him that he is a good dad, and that we will get through this, parroting back my brother’s more seasoned wisdom as a father to two with children two years older than our own.

Just to say —

Sitting here with you mamas who are in it right now, whether grappling with sleep regressions or breastfeeding woes or tantrums or sibling rivalries or recalcitrances or parenting troubles of any kind.

Sitting here, thinking quiet thoughts, reminding you that you are doing your best.

Post-Scripts.

+My daughter is my other heartbeat.

+Sitting here remembering how hard it was to watch my son go off to school.

+The magic and mayhem of traveling with young children.

Shopping Break.

+Wait. I absolutely love this under $50 holiday dress. Gives me major Spacey Kacey vibes — looks like something Saloni would make?

+A fabulous trove of deeply discounted statement shoes from Alexandre Birman just landed at The Outnet: these are SO fun. Not on sale, but these ABs have my heart.

+Adore these clover-shaped everyday earrings.

+Mr. Magpie’s favorite joggers are 30% off — so many dudes we know have become huge fans of these thanks to him!

+Obsessing over the unexpected color of this sweater — pair with metallics and/or hot pink for the holidays!

+This $8 gizmo makes my life so much easier every morning when tying my daughter’s hair back. I fill with water and put a tiny bit of conditioner in to create my own conditioning spray and it makes quick work of unsnarling her long hair.

+Still my favorite running shoe.

+I LOVE the smell of Davines’ Oi hair products (esp their hair milk), and I just noticed they offer the scent in a hand balm! Ordered!

+Into this metallic puffer.

+The prettiest cards.

+I did end up buying mini some beautiful doll accessories from Copenhagend-based brand Konges Slojd for Christmas.

+Great gift for an NYC fam.

+These also make a great family gift — they are such high quality puzzles and come in so many great designs.

+Love the look of these coupes for festive holiday drinks!

+These kitschy incense smokers are so adorable!

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2 thoughts on “Quiet Thoughts on Parenting, Encore.

  1. Oh Jen! Solidarity with you and other parents going through this. It is SO hard to stay calm in moments like that, and I wish I could’ve handled a similar experience as beautifully as you did! It sounds like your loving presence is exactly what she needed in that moment.

    I agree that sometimes we’re not meant to/we don’t have to solve their problem/meltdown etc… she must have learned so much just by feeling (and eventually sharing in) your calm.

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement and generous words!! It is really hard to keep the calm during those moments. It requires an insane amount of reserve and energy on my part…not always successful.

      Anyway, thanks for chiming in with solidarity!

      xx

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