Monday, January 11, 2010

The Mystery of Meltdowns

Sometimes I'm amazed by how quickly the tide of emotion changes in our house: one minute smiles and giggles and sweetness and light and the next minute tears and frustration and tragedy and the-sky-is-falling.

I try to remember what it is like to be a child. I try to remember back to my own meltdowns. I don't remember them from when I was my kids' ages, but I do remember them from when I was older. That feeling that no one quite understands what I feel and what I think and why, or even cares to. That sense of being alone against the world. Nevermind that it was over a Barbie doll or an invitation to a friend's house or a fight with one of my sisters. Nevermind that whatever scolding or chastisement I received was probably deserved. The rightness and wrongness of a situation never negated the sense of being misunderstood, of not being taken seriously.

Isn't that how we all feel in this world? As adults, we've just better learned to mask it--or prevent it in the first place. Or at least we have the valid platform of adulthood to address it when it happens now. No one can dismiss us as being "just kids."

So when I see my kids well up with emotion, see the tears sting their eyes and threaten to spill, see them take great, shallow breaths in an attempt to control the imminent loss of internal control, I feel such compassion, such empathy. Even if I'm right. Especially if I'm right. Because I know the rightness is irrelevant to them.

And I wonder sometimes why so much emotion sits so close to the surface. Why are tears so ready? Is it me? Is it them? Is it life? Probably all three.

The challenge of childhood is that there are all these very real feelings, all these very sincere desires, all these very legitimate curiosities that are subject to the decisions and moods and schedules of the grown-ups around. Kids are people with all the inconvenient realities of personhood but without the authority to exercise said personhood at will. No wonder kids cry so much.

I mean, we adults cry and whine when the government insists we have to do anything at all we don't like: endure airport security measures, pay taxes, respect speed limits (I'm especially guilty of crying and whining about the last one). Perhaps it stems from those first eighteen years of living life under the direction and enforcement of someone else. It leaves us recoiling at anything remotely resembling an authority trying to thwart our autonomy.

When I see my kids, I try to remember all this, but sometimes I don't.

I try to give as many choices and as much autonomy as I can, but sometimes I don't, or can't, or won't.

I try to explain why things are the way they are when I can, but sometimes I can't.

And in the end, sometimes they cry. Sometimes I do. It's all part of this give-and-take/tug-of-war/see-saw of relationship. You have needs, I have needs. You have wants, I have wants. All in the context of varying degrees of tiredness, hunger, stimulation, stress, and confusion--and in the power structure of adult/child hierarchy.

This, I'm sure, is why all parents say, "Just wait...someday you'll understand." It's not actually all that different on the other side, see. While as a child my needs and wants are necessarily curtailed for the benefit of the family, so as an adult I must willingly choose to curtail my needs and wants for the benefit of the family. The one small but profound difference is choice.

And choice does, in fact, mean everything. It's the foundation of democracy, of capitalism, of reality t.v. In America, we build bombs for choice, engineer nuclear weapons in the name of preserving this privilege. If political rhetoric threatens even the slightest restriction on our choice, beware an inbox flooded with the-sky-is-falling spin and McCarthy-esque warnings. We go to war and die for choice.

Yet many of us willingly sacrifice the full freedom of our choice in marriage and, later, parenthood. As I write this, I can't help but think how much easier it must seem to remain single, or at least childless. Then there's no outside party asserting their way and requesting the surrender of my way. Then I get to choose whatever I want whenever I want a lot more often. But alas, most single people I know would surrender their absoloute autonomy and uninhibited exercise of choice for the assurance of love: that of man and wife, of mother and child.

And I agree. I wouldn't trade my family for any amount of freedom. Somehow, love trumps choice in the end.

My kids didn't get to choose to sacrifice their choice for love, though, so I can't really fault them for their own nuclear meltdowns. And I don't feel bad for wishing I could prevent them. I will continue to help them ride out the storms of emotion with as much composure and compassion as I can muster, because I do hope that in some profound and mysterious way, they are being schooled in love--even as they rant and rave against its confines.

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