Asher’s been having what most people refer to as “temper tantrums” lately. I’ve never liked this term as it implies that the child is attempting to manipulate or control the parents with his behavior and, contrary to popular “expert” opinion, I don’t believe that my barely one year old is trying to control me. The term also invalidates the authenticity of the emotion being expressed: namely, frustration.
I remember my therapist in my twenties once telling me that frustration is one of the most difficult emotions for parents to accept in their children. Consequently, we label it with terms like “temper tantrums” and attempt to move the kid through their feelings as quickly as possible. Popular parenting experts advise parents to give their child a “time out” if he’s throwing a temper tantrum. And we wonder why, as adults, so many of us have a difficult time expressing frustration or anger.
In any case, Asher’s been melting down a lot lately. True to what my therapist said, I’ve been at a loss at how to handle it. One would think that I would be somewhat adept at handling these paroxysms of frustration since I’ve witnessed plenty of them with my older child. But, strangely, Everest never melted down quite like this as a baby or toddler. Given that the emotional life of a five year old is very different from that of a one year old, this experience has been completely new to me and has thrown me into my own state of frustration.
The frustration crescendoed on Friday night. My husband and were at odds, Asher had melted down at least three times during the day and melted down again in the middle of dinner. As I was attempting to keep him physically safe while he writhed around in my arms and screamed at the top of his lungs, he suddenly threw himself off my lap. I caught him just before his head hit the floor, bending my wrist back in the process. It was the last straw for my internal threshold of patience. I handed Asher to my husband, walked out, and sequestered myself in our bedroom.
In a heap of grief, I reached for the phone and called my Carrie. I cried and cried and she held my tears with silent compassion. Finally I said, “I don’t know how to handle this.” I described what had been happening and she asked what I felt during his meltdowns. “Helpless,” I responded. “With Everest, I always knew how to soothe him. I was exquisitely attuned to his emotional needs and even when no one else knew what he was trying to say, I always knew. That aspect of mothering was effortless with Everest. With Asher, I’m lost. I don’t know what he wants or needs. I don’t know why he’s melting down so much. I don’t know how to comfort him.”
“Maybe he’s not needing comfort. Maybe he just needs you to be with him and let him express his frustration.”
“I feel like I’m not a good mother to Asher in those moments,” I said.
“It sounds like you’re learning,” she responded.
Through our conversation, I was able to see that I’m trying to fix his frustration and that I had been taking it personally in some way. I decided that the next time he melted down, I would just try to be with him with as much presence as possible. “The more grounded you are, the more easily he’ll be able to move through it,” Carrie reminded me.
Sure enough, the next afternoon, he lost it again. Everest and Daev were out for the day which relieved the added pressure of trying to restore peace to our house for Everest’s sake; in other words, with no one home I could allow Asher to scream as loudly and long as he needed.
And scream he did. I didn’t try to distract him with books or nursing or food or music. I didn’t send him the message that he was doing anything wrong. I simply breathed. I held him as best I could but when he writhed in agony out of my arms, I let him go. When he came sobbing back into my arms, I held him again. I kissed his head. I touched his leg. I communicated to him non-verbally and verbally that I was there and wasn’t going anywhere.
As I breathed, I spontaneously started practicing the Buddhist meditation called Tonglen which Carrie had introduced me to years ago. The practice, in a nutshell, is to breathe into the feeling that we habitually tend to reject and exhale the desired feeling. (I’ll explain this in more detail through a video blog in the next couple of weeks.) So I breathed in his frustration and breathed out acceptance. I breathed in my own helplessness and breathed out acceptance. Eventually, he stopped screaming. And true to the emotional life of young ones, in the next minute he was laughing.
Something shifted in me afterwards. I had been called to activate a part of myself that I hadn’t touched in a long time: namely, the meditation of Tonglen. I had accessed a resource that I rarely need to access with Everest. And then it occurred to me that under the umbrella of my identity as Mother live several different strands: mother of Everest, mother of two, and mother of Asher. In being born as a mother with Everest’s birth, I grew in ways I could have never imagined. I knew that I would grow through having a second child, but it never occurred to me that I would be challenged to grow an entirely new branch on this tree called Mother. Of course it makes sense: when each child is so different, how can we expect to mother each child in the same way?
Another example of how differently I’m mothering my kids came to mind when I was talking to Carrie. A few nights earlier, Asher had woken up in the middle of the night and screamed for the next two hours. Finally I said to him, “Enough, Asher. That’s enough.” And he stopped. A few minutes later he started to make some peeps again and I said, “Uh-uh. No more crying. It’s time to sleep.” That was it. He went to sleep. With Everest, when I so much as raise my voice the slightest bit, he starts to cry and says I’m yelling at him. As a baby and toddler, the tiniest irritation would cause him to cower like a wounded puppy. I learned early with Everest that that kind of discipline would only break him. Asher, on the other hand, seems to respond to the firmness.
I was born as a mother almost six years ago, born as a mother-of-two a year ago, and now, with the emergence of Asher’s spirited personality, realize that I was also born as Asher’s mother. This branch of my mother-tree identity is not nearly as stable as my mother-of-Everest branch, but each day it grows stronger and a new leaf flowers as I learn what it means to mother my baby with patience, compassion, and love.