I started this post last week, and my children kept interrupting me, so it’s been languishing. But it’s been another day that’s probably left all of us sad and angry, so I’m finally finishing this one for a little capture-the-precious-moments escapism.
It was just a few days ago that a friend shared the Reasons My Son is Crying tumblr, and already it’s become enough of a phenomenon that Good Morning America flew them down to New York to interview them. And now I’m feeling a little bit bad, because according to The Christian Science Monitor, the dad is taken aback by the attention. He’s hearing from plenty of freaks who are trying to pathologize the whole situation as emotional abuse or undiagnosed behavioral or phlegm-oriented dysfunctions. He’d rather that we forget about him and check out Humans of New York instead. Which, okay, admittedly HONY is awesome. But I’m stuck because the bittersweet images have been bumping around in my brain since I saw them, begging for me to write a post. I loved them and I can’t resist. I’m rationalizing that most of you have already seen the tumblr anyway, but if you haven’t, it comes with a plea: look at the crying toddler, but don’t send the dad any diagnoses or advice. Use that time to peruse HONY instead.
Ah, Reasons My Son is Crying tumblr, I love this so much and for so many reasons.
First and most obvious? I wish I’d done it. Earlier, I spent way too much time checking the photo archives, and found just a single toddler crying photo:
The only reason why I have this one is that we’d wrestled M into a dress and its little matching kerchief so that we could take a photo, and she hated wearing the kerchief. So it’s not like I’m documenting day-to-day life here. Even though I stocked up on pictures of messy faces and big spills and children running around naked, I didn’t think to snap photos of my kids when they were sobbing or having a tantrum. And I regret it, because it’s a defining period of time in kids’ and parents’ lives. Maybe it’s partly the fear that the tantrums and sobbing won’t ever end that makes us so reluctant to snap a photo. Or it’s just that listening to sobbing is excruciating and we want it to stop.
But it’s worth remembering.
Seeing the tears and snot rolling is so poignant and bittersweet. It’s this fleeting time when these small humans know what they want and have so little power to communicate or execute their own desires. You know: they have opinions and preferences. Strong preferences. Juice is better than milk. I want my sister’s toy. And yet these people who are in charge of them are foiling them at every turn. Milk! Sharing! Of course it feels like a series of tremendous injustices. It just doesn’t feel fair that toddlers have no control whatsoever. I scroll the photographs and read the captions and imagine myself a toddler, the whole thought process. For example, “He can’t climb into the sea lion tank.” Well, that’s ridiculous [says my imagined toddler]. I mean, they force me to get into the water for a bath, and they let me get in the hotel pool, and then there’s finally a really awesome pool with amazing rocks to climb and friendly sea creatures and I’m not allowed? That sucks. Or, “We wouldn’t let him open the hotel door and run naked through Times Square.” Come on, that’s alarmist. Maybe I just want to investigate the nub of the carpet that is incredibly dirty in the most fascinating way or push the button to make the ice machine go. Really, what would be the harm in that? I know that the parents are making completely intelligent and rational decisions. And yet I still can’t help feeling sorry for the kid. Words that you can’t yet enunciate, the desire to take care of yourself coupled with a complete lack of capacity to do so. Day in and day out. That is a tough life.
Growing up is a struggle. One of my favorite baby postures to witness is the straining sitter. You know that one? It’s when you see a fairly young child, maybe 8 or 10 months, who has recently mastered the art of sitting up, and someone’s put her (or him) into a reclining stroller or baby seat. And that child hunches forward as far as possible, pushing against the safety straps, because that’s what they can do now. Sit up. Like someone grown. Or more grown than them. It’s a completely different perspective. Kids get to see ahead instead of lying there passive, watching the sky or worse, a canopy. Maybe they’ll grunt and point. Because they have places that they want to go. Things they want to see. That struggle, that eagerness, just hits me in the gut every single time I see it.
Recently someone said something dismissive about a 2nd grader’s rough life. Sure, we grown-ups sneer, you don’t have a mortgage, and someone puts dinner in front of you every night, what’s there to worry about? But there’s so much. Trying to understand how to tell time and friends who don’t get along with each other and older siblings who can do everything and drawing a picture that doesn’t look like the one in your brain at all. That’s stress. It might not be grown-up stress, but it’s tough stuff. And a 12-year-old who’s lost a best friend and has a pulsing red pimple and just got cut from the basketball team. . . yuck. Awful. You couldn’t pay me to go through that again. I found old diaries once and thought that I’d find it amusing, but it was awful. So much sorrow and anger and ennui, and reading it, I felt just as sad and mad and melancholy as I had decades ago. My heart was breaking for poor Puberty Katie. It’s easy for us grown-ups to counsel that all this will pass. But it’s passing through it all that’s the problem!
So all of those toddler crying photos call up the drama of growing up, but also the best and worst of parenthood. Because it’s hilarious and baffling. As parents, we’re constantly making reasonable choices and feeling like horrible people no matter what choice we make. We say “No” because we’re good parents knowing that our children will use those “Nos” as evidence of our utter malice toward them and all of their most deeply-held desires. Toddler parenting just highlights a theme that’s laced through all the parenting years: You absolutely cannot win. The other day, M was protesting because we don’t always conform to J’s bedtime, which M thinks is unfair. Not just unfair, but evidence of our greater love for J than for her. I pointed out that (1) it wasn’t really her business and (2) they’re two different personalities who will get different treatment based on their individual needs, and (3) my strongest point, that M never even had a specific bedtime until this year. If she thought about it that way, I said, then really, poor J was getting the harsh treatment, because she had an imposed bedtime three years earlier than M. At which point M argued that J needed that early bedtime and we were responding to that need because (Oh my gosh, do you see it coming? Do you? Do you? . . .) we love her more! And she believed both statements with great sincerity and conviction. There’s no way to win when you’re dealing with that. So I feel for these parents, these poor baffled parents who are shaking their heads over the booger-sodden sob-fest their toddler has launched as a direct result of their considered choices, made in order to best keep the child safe and clean. Because we’ve all been there.
Something else that I love is the documentation of this transitional time between baby and big kid. In one image he’s got a full diaper and all the little rolls and creased wrists of babyhood, and in another image from the same day he’s dressed and rolling his luggage through the airport like a little man-about-town. Children are always shifting between the baby and the grown-up, and capturing that juxtaposition, and how their development ebbs and flows, is lovely. Maturity approaches so gradually, with so may leaps forward and back, that it’s like a high tide coming in very, very slowly.
Or I guess it’s more like low tide, going out. Because if we’re doing it right, we’ll end up alone on the shore, squinting out toward the horizon as they roll out into the wide world.