My first born turned two on July 9th, 2009. She turned three, not surprisingly, exactly one year later. For the duration of that year she was absolutely, without a doubt, every inch of ‘two.’
I’ve heard many different stories since. As she approached her third birthday, people started to say, “Oh, you thought two was rough, just wait till you see three!” But for our girl, it was like clockwork. From birthday to birthday, she fulfilled her 2yo duties. She raged at life. She could scream, like a banshee, like her life was ending, for forty-five motherfucking minutes, throwing her little body around with surprising strength. As with every other part of mothering, I had had no idea what a fit could be like.
They don’t call it a ‘fit’ for nothing. Like in an epileptic fit, she seemed to all but disappear. She became almost possessed, I don’t mean demonically, but in the sense that once she got going, all you could do was stand back, protect her from harm and let the thing take it’s course. They always lasted for at least 20 minutes, 30 was average. During her peak phases, of which there were a few over the course of that year, she had one to two fits per day. During the ‘lulls’ she would average probably 3/week.
I thought I would maybe die.
I want to write this post because I want to expose the possibilities of the two year old. Like everything else, I went into it completely unprepared. I suspect most of us do, removed as we are in this country from small children. I had heard about the ‘terrible twos,’ of course, but I thought screaming fits were a sign of bad parenting. A discipline problem that just required firm, consistent parenting.
I want to write this post, not to scare anyone with an approaching-2yo, every kid is different and what we went through was not necessarily normal, but to reassure anyone entering this difficult phase with a particularly stormy child that these intense fits are also not abnormal.
I don’t have any tips, don’t bother scrolling down for an acronymed ‘fit response system.’ After all that whole year I still have no idea if I could or should have done anything different. Instead of advice, as is my way, I want to offer solace, solidarity. Voicing of what typically goes unsaid.
You are not alone.
Your kid is not a demonic freak.
You are not failing as a parent.
Here’s one thing I did figure out. Parents with dramatic 2yos don’t go out in public. They are too afraid of the public shaming. The people you see, out and about, are the people with the naturally ‘well-behaved’ kids (there are a few in the world). The moms who can actually manage to pull it together to say, brush their hair. Who are relatively confident that their kid will not pitch a fit on them. And when kids do pitch a fit, they are taken kicking and screaming to the car. Out of sight, out of mind.
Because I don’t usually drive, we did have a handful of fits on street corners, and I am talking sitting on the side of the road, trying to contain a screaming, flailing kid for 20-40 minutes (don’t forget newborn in Ergo carrier!) One such occasion was extremely insightful.
We were having the classic, ‘I don’t want to walk home, carry me!’ fight, where I have 20 pounds of newborn strapped on, no stroller because it was such a short walk I wouldn’t need one, right? and I refuse to carry her two and a half blocks, on the principle of the matter. Because she’s throwing a fit about it, and I think I shouldn’t give in to her fits. So, we sit there on the side of the road for 25 minutes. She is screaming like I’m stabbing her heart out, picking up rocks from someone’s driveway and throwing them into the road. A car pulls up.
Fuck me, it’s the person who lives here. Shit. Son-of-a-bitch.
A well put together woman in her 50s gets out of the car. I am trying to physically pull my girl away from the driveway when the inevitable question comes.
“Is everything okay?”
I let out an enormous breath and force a smile. “We’re alright,” I say, “She doesn’t want to walk.” I give that knowing adult look that condescends the child.
The woman kneels down next to my wailing banshee and starts to talk to her. About the walk, the day, what it’s like to have a new baby in the house. At one point she looks up at me and says kindly, “I’m a child psychologist.”
Are you fucking kidding me? Great. Just what I need right now.
But she is just so gentle and understanding, reiterating several times about how hard it is to accept a new sibling, and how hard it is to be two. Eventually the tears dry up and we manage to walk the 2 1/2 blocks back to our own house. Me feeling humbled. My girl completely exhausted.
I want to tell you how you are not alone, but I also want to do what a good friend did for me– I want to give you license to feel empathy for your little person. I had judged so harshly before I had kids. Thinking that fits were to get something. That parents were being manipulated. I have no doubt that this happens, and no doubt it happened to us many times. But it is only one part of the story.
When her fits first started I remember thinking with surprise that they didn’t seem like an attempt to manipulate. Instead it seemed like just so much unbelievably intense emotion had built up that her little body couldn’t contain it and it exploded in one engulfing physical storm. Nevertheless, I thought I was supposed to not give an inch. That this was some kind of trial by fire, I needed to show her that those explosions didn’t get her anything. Not whatever it was she had been refused that had sparked the fit, but also not any kind of special attention that might make her think fits=attention.
Amazingly I would always become calm when these emotional storms hit. Maybe it’s the luck of personality. To me it felt like she just sucked all the air out of the room, like there wasn’t any left for me. I get plenty rageful as a mom, you know that by now, but somehow not when she was raging. One at a time I guess.
For the first few months, my tactic was to remain in the room with her, but withdraw myself emotionally. I felt that I shouldn’t ‘reward’ her ‘bad behavior’ with my attentions. This was extremely awkward, and several times felt downright wrong as she hung from my legs screaming my name in mortal agony while I did my best to ignore her. But as parents often do, I persevered because I thought it was the right thing to do. After about a month, the fits subsided a bit, and I tentatively patted myself on the back for showing her what was not an ‘appropriate’ way to behave.
Of course, that first wave was just one of many. The whole scene resurfacing several times over that year. As I watched her suffer these tremendous hurricanes of emotion, again and again, my feelings that she was trying to get something diminished. I don’t think I even once rewarded her with the original object of her fit. I can be strong that way. Whether I had in fact given her the attention I feared she might equate with acting out is harder to answer. But in the end it became a moot point for me, because I started to feel for her. I started to think how horrible if, during your moment of greatest distress, confusion, terror, your mama stopped being emotionally available to you. I had reassured myself that I had always stayed physically near to her, but have you ever had a lover who lay next to you, skin to skin, yet closed their heart? There are few things in life more isolating, few lonelinesses greater.
Then again, what can you do? Is it right to just sit there and focus on them for 40 minutes? There was nothing particularly I could do for her, she would never let me touch her once she got going. No alternatives were accepted, no derrailing or distracting ever worked. She would have turned down ice cream in the middle of a fit. Literally, all you could do was wait it out.
And what about, quite practically, siblings who need attention as well? Pots on the stove boiling over? Floors needing swept? When your kid is screaming for 20-60 minutes a day, you can’t really afford to just hang out with them throughout their many moments of need. Would it even be right for them emotionally to be the focus in that situation?
Like I said, no answers here. By the end of our year, although my routine was outwardly identical– I would stay in the same room and attempt to do something else– I had made a possibly critical change. I would try to keep my heart open to her. I would check in every few minutes with offers of a glass of water, a snack, or to snuggle on the couch and read a book. The offers were never taken until the storm was on it’s way out anyway. But I felt that offering showed I was still paying attention to the fact that she was having a hard time. I kept the line open between us.
Otherwise I would just let her rage. Which is not so easy as it sounds. She would often be hanging from my leg, screaming at the top of her lungs. I would try to pretend I was still cutting up carrots for dinner or whatever. I felt this conveyed the message that life goes on, that no matter how she felt the world was ending, I was confident that it would continue to exist. I felt like if I made too big of a deal out of her crying that it would reinforce her feeling that in fact something was horribly wrong. I wanted to keep a steady, calm anchor of regular life to her wheeling passion storm. But as I said, for me, the difference was all in my heart. I allowed myself to feel empathy. ‘I see that you are really suffering. I am confident that you will be okay. I am here for you if you need something, I’ll be be cutting these carrots up.’
I am telling you this, not because I think I have it all figured out. Maybe I ruined my kid by not sending her to her own room for these screaming sessions. Or maybe I ruined her by not sitting down to share in her rage. Hell if I know. But, in the end I did what felt right to my heart. And if I have any advice at all, it’s to do what feels right to your heart. I don’t believe as some do that our hearts always lead us the right way, sometimes hard things must be done, things that hurt. But as far as a guiding principle, I think it’s a good one.
Mostly I want you to know that things will change. Children change. Constantly. Fits at two does not mean fits forever. ‘It’s a phase’ always seemed so patronizing to me. Almost derogetory. But damn is it true! And when I take away my own baggage from that phrase, it’s so technically accurate. It’s a phase of development. Like the pupa phase. A fact of life.
I often look at my girl and find myself expecting a miniature adult. She is not an adult, she is four years old. She is a bit more than half her mature physical height and less than a quarter of what could possibly be considered a mature age. Why do I have such a hard time accepting her ‘immature’ behavior?
Your screaming banshee is going through a phase of growth. There are many things to learn, and many of them are very hard. She is becoming aware of herself as separate from you, finding out that she is master of her own self. She is struggling to learn how to wield this power. Imagine the exhilaration and absolute terror at such power!
Do not doubt that she is learning, just as fast as she possibly can. Do not doubt that she is growing and will become a 3yo, a 4yo, a 10yo, an adult. This distance perspective, so often lost to us when we are in the midst of a hurricane year, is perhaps the most important thing of all. Breathe. Open your heart. Stand up once in a while and look out over the horizon– somewhere beyond those black clouds the sky is blue.