Drawing the line – where?

Hell’s parking lot (a representation)

After getting away on my own for a fantabulous gal pal weekend, I had a lovely night with Lily (and Joe) at a winter-themed library storytime on a recent Monday night. We all danced to songs, made marshmallow/pretzel/chocolate chip snowmen, cut out paper snowflakes, and made snowy pictures with glue and instant potato flakes. We all enjoyed ourselves, and Lily couldn’t have been happier as we headed back down the block, through the snow, to our house.

So here I was, thinking, “Wow, things are really going great.” And when Joe reminded me that I’d be flying solo with Lily the following night, because he needed to go to an evening board meeting for the brass band he used to play for. No problem, right? He’d just been on his own with Lily all weekend, and she’d been an angel throughout. This should be a cake walk.

By now, when I think such things, I should automatically assume the worst. Yet I never do. Despite my generally cynical persona, I have an irrepressible optimistic streak when it comes to my own life. So I couldn’t possibly see the dark night of the parenting soul that lay before me.

I got to daycare, and Lily wanted to hang out longer and play. No problem. She used to do this every day, so the fact that she wants to do it every once in a while now hardly throws me. But then, as occasionally happens when the caretakers are turning out the lights and giving us the “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” vibe, Lily insisted she didn’t want to go home – something every parent wants to hear. But I never take this too seriously. In the morning, she often says she doesn’t want to go to daycare, though once we’re there and comfortable, she’s happy as could be. Little ones just generally dislike transitions. Despite their energetic, sometimes manic behavior, they’re generally creatures of inertia.

But I finally convinced her that we needed to leave. But rather than wait by my car door while I opened it up (I have a two door Escort), she started walking behind the car, around to the passenger door. She pulled up on the handle, but it was locked, and she said, “I want to do it.” I stuck my key in the lock, turned, then pulled it out and stepped away. And then the fit began.

“NO! I want to do it!” wailed Lily.

“You can do it. I just unlocked it so you could open it. Try it again,” I said, trying to reason with her. (Silly Mommy.) “Pull up on the handle.”

“No! I want to do it!” And with that, she ran off into the dark, freezing cold parking lot, while I chased after her like a sheepdog, trying to herd her to a safer, no-traffic area. There, she stopped helplessly and wailed.

“Sweetie, it’s really cold, and I’d like to go home.”

“NO! I don’t want to go home!”

“Tell you what. We could go to the smoothie house (i.e., Panera) for dinner if you want.”

“No! I want to stay here!”

“There’s no here, here, kiddo. The lights are out, the place is locked, everyone’s gone home.”

“I want to stay here! I don’t want to go home!”

I sighed, shrugged, cleared some snow off a large log lying on the ground nearby, and took a seat. I was determined to calmly ride out this tantrum, to let my patience outlast Lily’s anger, no matter how long it took. But then, looking at Lily’s lunch bag in my hand, I thought, maybe I can lure her into calmness by way of a favorite snack. (Food often acts as an antidote to toddler rage, but the trick is getting one calm enough to eat something.) So I pulled out the Veggie Straws, opened the bag, and started crunching away on a couple.

Lily’s rage escalated. “I wanted that one!”

“There’s a whole bag. I just ate two.”

“I wanted that one!”

The taste of the snack lingered in my mouth, but it was simply too late. I shrugged. “I can’t get them back, Lily. But you have a whole bag you can eat here.”

She obsessed and screamed, and she pulled at my coat at my midsection, as if she could simply reach into my stomach and retrieve the two Veggie Straws I’d just eaten. Initially, I let her pursue this doomed venture, while repeatedly telling her it was no use.

Frustrated beyond belief, she backed up, nearly hoarse from screaming and wailing. I tried to keep my cool, telling myself that I didn’t want to scream back. That no good was served by both of us losing it. And, I reasoned with myself, eventually she’d tire, realize how cold and miserable and hungry she was, and want to go home. (Why I thought logic would rule a toddler, no matter what the circumstances, is beyond me.)

No such luck.

I called Joe on my cell phone, keeping my voice calm while relaying the fact that we were in the parking lot, with Lily refusing to get in my car or go home, and that she was futilely struggling to remove two Veggie Straws from my stomach. Naturally, he didn’t have the magic answer – since there isn’t one – and Lily wouldn’t come to the phone, so I said, “Well, I don’t know why I called you. I know there’s nothing you can do, and you’re headed to this meeting now. But I may need you to come home earlier than you planned.”

We hung up, and after a few more failed attempts at accessing the interior of my tummy, Lily backed up and ran across the parking lot from me, telling me not to follow her. I was to stay where I was, while she ran willy-nilly around a dark parking lot. Obviously, I couldn’t do that, so I chased after her, occasionally grabbing her coat’s hood. “You stay there!” she screamed, pointing back to the log.

“No. This is a parking lot, there are cars that come through here, and I’m not going to let you run around when you might get hurt. I know you don’t want me around right now, but you don’t have a choice.”

“You go there!”

“No.”

And then somehow, we got back to her obsessing over the two Veggie Straws that I had eaten. She was again pulling at my coat, around my waist, and repeatedly saying, “I wanted those Veggie Straws! I want those!”

Just kill me now, I muttered repeatedly to the universe. Then I picked her up, body flailing, shrill screams in my ear, and said, “All right, maybe I just have to carry you home.” And I made some progress across the lot. But on this night, it just wasn’t an appealing option. There were patches of ice all along the sidewalks, making our route notoriously treacherous in the dark; and in that moment, rather than feeling pumped with adrenaline, I felt drained of any strength I might have.

So when she said, “No, I don’t want to go home! Put me down!” I made her say “please,” but then gave in easily.

Strangely, then, she started saying, “Take off your hat.” Bizarre-o, but whatever, I thought. If this gets her to calm down, so be it. I requested she ask me nicely, which she did through hiccuping sobs, and I took off the hat.

This was followed by requests to take off my scarf and gloves and coat, so that on this night, not quite halfway through my pregnancy, I stood in a dark, freezing cold parking lot, with snow falling and the wind blowing, and I stared down at my distraught toddler daughter, loaded down with my coat, scarf, gloves, hat, and Lily’s lunch bag in my hands. I thought, this must be what they mean when they say people will do anything for their kids – because this was just plain stupid.

“Now what?” I asked Lily. Wearing nothing but a thin maternity sweater and maternity jeans, I felt bared to the elements, as if performing an ancient, sacrificial ritual for my child.

But then she approached me, willingly for the first time since this episode began, and held up her arms, saying, “Uppy.”

“You want me to carry you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I’ll have to put on my coat. I can’t carry you and all this stuff.”

“NO! No coat! Uppy!”

So this was my test, apparently, as a mother. If you really loved me, Lily was saying, you’d drop everything away to carry me, or struggle to carry it all at once.

I so failed this test.

“No. That’s ridiculous. I can’t carry you and all this stuff.”

So while her screaming ratcheted back up to ear-bleeding levels, I calmly pulled my things back on, relieved at feeling their warmth against my body again.

And then I finally did what I should have done 45 minutes before, when the tantrum began. I scooped Lily up in my arms, kicking and wailing, and matter-of-factly walked her back to my car, where I opened the door, shoved us both into the back seat, forced her little body into the car seat, buckled her up, and drove us home.

The rage continued when we got home – but at least we were in our warm house, and I could go into another room from her. She howled and loudly demanded various, often irrational things, “Sesame Street” among them, and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve been screaming at me for an hour. No way. I don’t reward people who treat me so badly.”

Yes, eventually I lost it and yelled back at her briefly. And I called Joe again, apologizing, but telling him that I really, really needed him to come home.

Of course, in the time it took for him to make the trip, Lily had slowly but surely come back to herself, and when he arrived, she was eating dinner in the kitchen.

Ah, well.

The lesson for me in this particular experience of hell-on-earth is, the whole “crying it out” method, in a controlled, WARM environment, is one thing; but attempting this in a dark, frigid parking lot while being snowed on is just plain dumb. I’d stubbornly planned to not let her get to me, and to let her do her whole “crying in the wilderness” bit until she realized she was just hurting herself. But this doesn’t work with a two year old. And in retrospect, my night of horror would have been far shorter and less soul-killing had I, at the first sign of trouble, just forcibly shoved her into my car and dragged her home.

I thought, in the moment, that I was being more humane and respectful of her. But in the end, my so-called patience probably made the situation worse and hurt us both. I’m the adult, and despite any insecurities I might have, I DO know best, for the time being. So I need to remember that and do what has to be done.

The other thing this demonstrates is how, when a kid gets to be this age, you have to draw a line when it comes to their (often random and insane) requests. Carrying her home while lugging five items was where the line was for me that night. And since then, Lily has, at various times, irrationally demanded that I change my shirt, or refrain from purchasing a Doonesbury collection for my father-in-law’s birthday, or that I spontaneously pull kleenex from my empty robe pocket.

Yes, you’ll do almost anything for your kid. But you also have to realize that even things that you could do – like changing my shirt, or transferring milk to a different sippy cup at dinner – have to be resisted, or they get the idea that they’re running the whole show. And they’re not.

At least, they shouldn’t be.

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