Why leaving the room while two kids weep is sometimes the best thing you can do

Lily, Joe and Neve (and Barbie?) in a more peaceful moment…

On Wednesday, I had the kind of experience every parent fears when (s)he’s on the verge of having a second child: you’re on your own, and both kids are crying and miserable. But I lived to tell the tale, which goes like this:

I got the kids home from preschool a bit earlier than usual, and Lily asked if she might apply her 30 minutes of TV time to watching “The Little Princess.” I agreed, so I played with Neve on the floor while Lily settled into an armchair, focusing intently on the Shirley Temple movie that I also ate up as a kid.

When her time was up, she asked me to read the new books that arrived that day through her school’s book order. Neve pulled on me – wanting my attention, too – and of course, she won’t just sit and listen to the books that Lily likes at this point. So I was stuck.

“Please, Mommy,” Lily kept begging. “Please just try.” So I tried. Neve kept reaching out and grabbing the book to close it, and when I pulled it out of her reach, she screamed and cried. So I tried to find things to distract her while reading loudly from a book I held high up in the air.

Less than ideal reading conditions.

Somehow, we got through the first book, and Lily pulled the next one off the top of the small pile. “Sweetie, I can’t. I wish I could. You know I love reading to you, and I know you’re excited about your new books. But Neve isn’t old enough to enjoy these kind of books, and she’s pretty unhappy.”

“No, no, Mom, I’ll hold up the book. Like this.” Lily proceeds to turn to the first page and hold the book high in the air, as I had done.

So I tried. And Neve got frustrated again, reaching to close the book, and cried and yelled in my ear. After a few pages of this, I told Lily I couldn’t do any more.

“I’ve got to take care of both you and Nevie by myself until Daddy gets home, and Nevie’s really unhappy. So I’ll read every one of these books later, but right now isn’t a good time, sweetie.”

“But I want you to read to me,” she said, a plea I almost never reject – and she knows it. “Please, Mommy. Please!”

At this point, I stood up to physically untangle myself from the situation; Lily had flung herself across the armchair, screaming, the very picture of child-grief; and Neve sat on the floor, red-faced and crying, holding a half-empty milk cup.

So I did what any self-respecting parent would do: I called my spouse and pressed the “speaker phone” button.

When Joe answered, I let him get an earful of what was happening in our living room before asking, in an even tone, “So, are you on your way home?”

Coincidences usually seem to work negatively in these circumstances, and indeed, that day was no exception. Joe had had a big evidentiary hearing scheduled for the next morning, and he was absolutely buried trying to prepare for it. “I’m sorry I’m running late, but I’ve ordered a pizza. It should be there soon,” he said.

I kept my cool, kept the whole conversation on speaker phone – hoping that he might step on the gas a bit more if he heard what I was dealing with – and then stared at my two wailing daughters, wondering what my next step should be.

For I now have enough parenting experience to know that when you’re mired in these situations, the two things that most efficiently snap kids out of their wild sobbing are, one, the introduction of a different person, and thus different energy, into the room; or two, changing the physical, spatial relationship that seems to be feeding the cycle.

In this case, I gave myself a kind of Mommy time out, leaving the room to walk around the house for a moment. As I did so, the thought ran through my head that what was crazy was the fact that picking Neve up – who’s a fairly straightforward, content baby, usually – would likely be all I needed to do to get her to stop crying for a moment. But I didn’t want Lily to feel like I was favoring her sister, or only addressing her sister’s needs. So rather than making one feel dismissed, I let both cry.

Yet as it happened, Neve soon came seeking me out, and at that point, I felt I had the right to pick her up as a response. I took her into the den, sat on the couch, and tried to get her to drink some of her milk to help her calm down.

Lily, feeling I wasn’t paying enough attention to her pain, shuffled in shortly thereafter, red-eyed and weepy. So I started to talk to her.

“So tell me why you’re crying.”

“I want you to read books!”

“And I would love to read your new books to you. You know that’s something I look forward to everyday. Do you think I’m not reading books to you because I don’t want to?”

“No,” she hiccupped.

“No,” I repeated, knowing I had to tread carefully with my words. The last thing I wanted was to plant seeds of resentment in Lily’s mind regarding the presence of her baby sister. “I can’t read books right now because I need to take care of you and your sister, and Nevie isn’t at an age where we can all read a book together. She will be one day, and that will be really fun when she gets there – but right now, she just wants to climb and walk and explore and play, so we have to be patient.”

And then I changed the subject entirely: “So what was your favorite part of preschool today?”

By this point, Lily had come back to earth, and she and Nevie, both on my lap, started poking each other, laughing, and making faces.

Phew. Bullet dodged.

For now.

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