Little Bird, Big Feelings

Today was a hard day. Parenting is never as pretty as it appears on my Facebook or Instagram feed. Most of the time it is, both literally and figuratively, quite messy. Today was one of those days, and though it would be easy to complain about how hard it is to parent a toddler (which it sometimes is), here I am 30 minutes before the ball drops for New Year’s getting teary-eyed and reflecting about how my daughter’s epic meltdowns today helped me grow as her parent.

The holidays were fun and festive but also busy. There was a lot of family time and travel and while we were very well loved, by the end of it we were all exhausted. As soon as we got home from visiting my family in Connecticut, Birdie came down with a fever and spent the better part of two days in my lap in her pajamas asking me to read every book on her shelf, or hogging most of our bed while we all tried to get some sleep. Today she was finally feeling better, or so we thought. At her routine 18-month checkup this morning we told her doctor what a delight she is, how easy going she tends to be and how she is not really prone to tantrums, then we knocked wood and joked that we should just keep quiet and be grateful about it. Ha ha ha.

Nap time came a little early as she was more tired than usual: She fell asleep easily, as she typically does, rocked to sleep in my arms until her body is heavy and peaceful, her teddy bear clutched in one hand and her baby doll in the other. I kissed her forehead and laid her down gently in her crib as I imagined all the things I might get done if she took a nice long nap. That lasted five seconds, she woke up on the transfer and wouldn't settle into her crib so we went back to rocking. Cut to an hour and so much crying later and both Birdie and I are both past the point of reasonably able to manage our feelings. Finally, as she began to buck and tantrum in my arms, we left the room and took a break. We took deep breaths, she drank some water, we snuggled and talked about feeling mad and sad and overtired. With my hopes of a productive nap time long gone, we agreed that we would take the dog for a walk and she would try to sleep in the carrier. It was more important at that point that she get a good rest than where she took that rest. Sure enough, 15 minutes into our walk she was sound asleep. She stayed asleep when we got back home and continued to nap on me in the chair for a solid hour and a half, and at some point I dozed off too. I thought the worst had passed and she would wake up rested and ready to play but I was very wrong.

She woke up and immediately remembered I told her she could have some crackers after nap. She saw the box of cheddar bunnies on the table and began sobbing. When I deducted what she wanted and she was able to ask for them "with kind words," I got her a little cup of crackers and she sat down on my lap to eat them. Only, she started to shove them in her mouth so fast without chewing and I had to stop her and tell her to slow down so she didn't choke. That was the tipping point right there.

I have never seen our little Birdie have such big, big feelings. I had to turn my head away a few times and cry because it hurt to see her so frustrated, so sad and needy but angry and pushing everyone away. As soon as she would start to regulate her breathing and look at my eyes I watched her tiny body tense up and remember how very, very mad she was and it would begin all over again; yelling, crying, inconsolable.

Around and around we went as I tried everything to try to help her and then gave her space and did nothing at all while she had a hurricane of emotions all over the dining room. After at least an hour I carried her to her room and put her down on her rug. I told her I loved her, even when she was mad and grumpy and sad and tired and sick and having such big feelings. I told her I was sorry that I got frustrated and that I would try to be more understanding. I told her I would sit down and I would be there if she needed me. I sat down as she stomped her feet and cried and yelled and waved her arms around like she was fighting the air. I started to read a book, counting the animals I saw on the page, using a calm and very quiet voice. I placed a cup of water next to her on the floor. I kept reading. She took a drink and a step closer to me. I kept reading and reached out to rub her back. She kept drinking and didn't push me away. Her breathing was in big gulps and stutters as she climbed into my lap. I kept reading until I couldn't keep from crying and we rocked like that until we both felt a little better.

The rest of the day continued to be touch and go but it never escalated again and we were able to work through the road bumps more easily. We saw that she is cutting a half dozen teeth including two or three molars, which accounts for some of her feelings. She ate some yogurt, we read several books, we danced, we played and we started to move on. It was so hard to watch my baby try so hard to express herself and fall short, it was so painful to watch her be so out of control and messy, it was sad to see her upset and hurting and not able to fix it. I watched her happily drive a toy car around her floor and I imagined her at 13 with even bigger and messier feelings. I hoped that when she is 13 and mad and sad and frustrated and needy and pushing me away and fighting the air with her arms, somewhere within her she will remember what it felt like to be one and a half and have space to be so angry and still be so loved.

Just before bed we ran a warm bath with bubbles and I turned out the lights and we lit candles. She played happily, laughing, splashing, washing her baby, and pointing to the candles, saying, “hot!” I asked her if it felt nice it felt to be relaxed and calm in the water after such a tough day, she nodded her head yes. When I told her I thought she was brave to let her big feelings out today, she smiled. I told her that sometimes I get so upset all I want to do is cry and stomp too. She patted my arm. Then we took all the mad, sad and frustrated feelings we both had and we threw them into the  tub, pulled the plug, waved goodbye and watched them wash down the drain.

Posted by Stephen Stratton

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