Tantrum-making

Just so we’re clear, I am an adult. But every now and then, I throw a child-sized tantrum complete with tears and drama, sometimes screaming into a pillow. I have even kicked a tree.

I am grown, but frustrated. And yes, I completely understand that I’ve allowed my unmet needs to overwhelm me without addressing them at earlier, easier stages. Yes. In the interest of honesty, however, I’m going to disclose my latest tantrum.

After the dearth of activity during the pandemic, we needed a way to leap back into our outdoor routines. I coaxed the kids to take on this 1000 Hours Outside challenge in January, printed a bunch of their cool tracking pages, and we began. Slooooowly.

“Camping will boost the numbers,” I kept (and keep) saying, and it did (and will).

But the outdoors habit I reached for never materialized. Instead, we sort-of lingered around the table, post-breakfast, without any real goals. And it began to get hot. Rather than “getting ready for the day,” as we phrase that period of time where habitual stuff gets done, the kids went off to play for 15 minutes before asking for iPad time.

Last week, I asked them whether we could try going every day by 10 o’clock and they agreed to try. By the time we finished organizing food and tidying the kitchen on Monday, it was 90º. We headed out to play by a mountain stream for three hours. It was so lovely. We came home when they asked – because I’m not breaking a good thing by forcing it.

Tuesday morning, I asked, “Where should we go?” My husband had left for an office day, one of two per week now, and the kids gathered for breakfast with tired eyes. Our bedtime had roamed all the way to 10pm, going down with the sun, and mornings shifted later as the kids were groggier, sleeping in a bit. We were eating at 9 o’clock.

“Nowhere,” Wilder said with furrowed eyebrows. “I’m not leaving today.”

“But we agreed to go outside every morning for a week, remember?” I coaxed.

He snapped headphones in place, listening to an audiobook, and stalked off to his bedroom. His sister, who also declined with a shrug, retreated to her own space to play.

I felt powerless and sad. I’d wanted so much from this day. I’d hurt my toe and walking ached. I wanted to shove my swollen foot in snow-melt creek water. I wanted to repeat the day before with the happy, playing siblings, the long shade of cottonwood branches waving over us while we ate lunch. There was still time!

And so, despite knowing better, I pushed. Also: I yelled. Their resolve firmed tremendously. They listened to separate books in separate rooms, unified in ignoring me, but separately unhappy. They did not feel safe coming to our shared space, where I waited to badger them.

“I need a rest day,” Wilder told me after yet another interchange, my fourth try.

I should know better than to push, but I needed to go. I want my kids to listen to their bodies, even when it’s uncomfortable for me. But my toe kept me from a morning walk, which reduced some of the need to inflict the outdoors on my kids like a punishment. Walks bolster me, and the kids kept urging me to “just go.” But it was now 100º outside, and I felt hot and ragey.*

I lay on the floor in the hallway, tears streaming down my face. Wilder walked over me to use the bathroom, his face tense. I knew I could pull it all together, cram it back in and pretend I felt just fine. This is where my kids will get their idea of a dramatic emotional response, and pin it to menopause or whatever, I told myself. I got up and walked to my room to “handle” it, screaming loudly into my pillow and throwing myself on the bed.

Instead of asking, “why do I need this so badly?” or any helpful question, I wallowed in my sadness. Eventually I found things to clean, because then I can sidestep emotions, and before I knew it much of the morning evaporated. By lunch it felt like the sun was trying to kill us with intensity, and I lured children to the table with food. It worked. I did not apologize. I wasn’t ready. I was still too angry. The kids fought, calling names, and we ate miserably and nobody agreed to walk our short dog loop either. We lived the day separately.

When we finally headed to the pool with my sister at 4 o’clock, after a full – and in my opinion, wasted – day inside, they shifted into play mode. We all quite enjoyed our evening reset.

Calm and tired on the car ride home, I sidestepped apologizing again – just hubris this time – and asked whether we could plan our outside time for the following day. “We don’t seem energized enough in the morning to decide where to go,” I said. “Maybe if we did it the day before, it would be easier?”

“Oh that’s a good idea,” Wilder said immediately. “I don’t have a lot of mental space in the morning because my brain is full of other stuff, like the Minecraft thing I want to try next.”

OMG – my brain exploded – yes, of course, they have brains full of their own agendas! I know this. What is wrong with me?

“I’m sorry I yelled this morning,” I said into the rearview. Both kids nodded. “And tried to force everybody to do my thing. It wasn’t fair.”

After a minute, Wilder said, “It’s okay, Mom. I yelled too.”

I laughed. We planned the next day’s outing. It did not go smoothly the next morning – because the truth is that it’s still hard to coordinate three people. But Wednesday night, we planned for Thursday, and by Friday it was slightly easier. I am not sure what happens after the weekend “break” we also agreed on, but I will broach it Sunday evening, in the name of planning.

Sometimes I will catch myself when the red flare pulses through my core, and pause to reflect. Mostly I will ask my kids, instead of telling and yelling, and I will hear their needs too. We all deserve that. But honestly, I will likely throw a tantrum again in the future, because… life. I will apologize and hear the ways my actions hurt them too. We’re being people together, and I am no less human than anyone in my care.

*To be clear, my kids are old enough to stay home while I walk the neighborhood. Leaving your kids to walk is not a form of negligence.

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