“It’s not what it looks like!”: One parent’s lament

Neve, playing happily on dry land

Neve, playing happily on dry land

There are so many things about parenting that, from the outside, look entirely different from the inside.

Subtle things. Like, one day, I’d herded both girls (because the little one wanted to tag along, of course) into a restaurant’s single restroom, and when, after everyone had washed their hands, Lily pulled multiple paper towels from the dispenser – after I told her she only needed one – I got surly and sharp with her.

“That’s a waste! We need to create as little waste as possible! It’s terrible for the environment! And I asked you to take one! You took FIVE! You don’t need five!”

In this moment, even as I’m saying the words, I hear them through the perspective of a 5 year old (or my calmly blinking spouse, to whom I repeat my grievance moments later), and they sound like the ravings of a crazy person. What is she talking about? Why is Mommy losing her s*** over paper towels?

A pretty reasonable question, really. And I don’t honestly know the answer. I wasn’t more sleep-deprived than usual. I’d had a decent day up until then. But out of nowhere, this ugly anger just poured out of me, and I snapped. What the what?

It happens. To all of us. And since I’ve realized this, I’m much more compassionate, and less judgy, when seeing parents lose their patience in public over something that seems so stupid and small, like a child kicking the chair’s legs, or tearing a napkin into strips. Parents inevitably have to vent some of the tension that comes with attending to others’ needs nearly every waking moment of every day. It comes out in these inexplicable, badly timed ways sometimes – but the process must be necessary to keep us sane.

Another instance of appearances vs. reality in parenting involves how a parent responds when a child balks at being introduced to a new activity.

Thursday was the first day of evening swim lessons for both Lily and Neve. I got the girls (who were both very excited) changed into their swimsuits; guided Lily to the right pool lane for her class; and then toted Neve over to the smaller pool, where the toddler/baby class was happening.

Neve and I were the last ones getting into the pool, and the class was already underway, with a young woman demonstrating on a baby doll what we were to do with our little ones (since the noise in the pool area was cacophonous). Neve tensed up in my arms, and when the twentysomething teacher came by with an Elmo puppet in hand, asking for Neve’s name to be included in the welcome song, Neve recoiled.

So far, so meh.

We were next supposed to kick the toddlers’ legs in the water, and then have them kick balls floating on the surface. Again, Neve didn’t love it, but she tolerated it.

The teacher then introduced a Styrofoam float – which was essentially a bent-up pool noodle – and demonstrated how we were to lower our child into the float.

And this is the moment when Neve FREAKED. OUT.

She screamed. She cried. She walked up my body like it was a climbing wall. She kicked. And she repeatedly yelled, “I want to walk! I want to walk!”

I tried to tell her the water was too deep; that it was taller than she was; that this wasn’t the lake by Grandma and Grandpa’s cottage, where she could stand with her feet touching the bottom and play in the water to her heart’s content.

But that’s hard to communicate when someone’s fighting you with every fiber of their being.

I tried to stand her up on the bench that ran along the side, which she’d been fine with before, but the reaction was the same as the float. Not having it.

The teacher came and said to my teary, snotty, red-faced baby daughter, “What’s the matter, Neve? What’s going on?”

More screaming, climbing, kicking.

The teacher turned to me. “Sometimes this happens, and I know it’s frustrating but keep trying different things with her.”

In that moment, I believe Neve’s foot was covering one of my eyes, and her drool (or snot) fell in a puddle onto my head. One of those “it’s great to be a mom” moments.

Joe arrived at about this time, saw what was happening, and offered to get changed and take my place. While he vanished into a changing room, I climbed the steps out of the pool, which, weirdly, infuriated Neve anew.

“I want to walk! I want to walk!” she said in a now-senseless loop.

“I know you do, sweetie, but you’d drown and die, and I kind of like you being around.”

I walked out of the pool area holding her, hoping to calm her down, and walked her around the changing area. When Joe was ready, he took her back into the pool, with the same result.

I sat in a white plastic chair, poolside, projecting pure agony as one of the school’s reps came to tell me how Lily was doing, and that I had to keep trying with Neve.

I know you mean well, dude, but seriously. Uncle.

I used to witness these painful scenes as a non-parent and think that parents were so distraught and disappointed because they’d built up, in their minds, what they thought a certain experience would be like; that it would be an idyllic, Hallmark card-y moment. And that may, in fact, be what our situation looked like from the outside.

But I’m here to tell you: that’s not what was going on in my head.

What it was is, you’ve spent some of the rare, little time you have for yourself to research where you can take classes; you’ve plunked down money, because you think it’s something your child will enjoy, and that it will be good for them; you’ve introduced a new, complicating factor into the family’s weekly schedule; and you’ve made getting your family fed even MORE difficult than it already is on a weeknight – just to watch your sweet-natured child turn feral with anger and frustration and unhappiness.

It’s just too much to take. It knocks the wind out of you. It makes you want to just stop trying to do anything beyond the barest of bare minimums.

But usually, you recover. You get away from the nightmare after a few days, you re-gain perspective, and you screw up the courage to go at it again.

So we’ll try to coax Neve into the pool one more time this week, and we’ll try to tell her beforehand what to expect. It may not work, and she may freak out all over again.

But if you see us, or other parents, in that kind of tough moment, don’t assume you know what’s behind it.

Because whether it’s a mom’s paper towel meltdown in a restaurant or a Mommy and Me swim class disaster, you likely don’t know as much as you think you know – and that’s a good thing to remember.

The last thing we need, as parents, is an even stronger sense of being constantly (mis)judged by others around us.

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4 thoughts on ““It’s not what it looks like!”: One parent’s lament

  1. Kally Muenster says:

    This exact thing happened to my son and me at his first swim class. And I felt exactly as you described. Thank you for putting into words my feeling in that very moment. You are a fabulous writer and make me feel a little less over-whelmed as a parent.

    • Jenn McKee says:

      Aw, thank you! Things got better, fortunately. Neve now has issues with wanting to do what she likes over and over again, rather than do what the teacher’s asking us to do, but she’s not screaming through every lesson anymore. So there’s that. 🙂

  2. Matt says:

    This totally made me think of Louis CK:

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