When my daughter turned one, she decided to hasten the arrival of the Terrible Twos and began to throw daily tantrums fuelled by emotions worthy of a Greek tragedy. Seemingly without provocation, I frequently found myself in a public place wrestling a screaming, kicking toddler off the floor, draping her over my shoulder and leaving the store with my face burning from embarrassment.
Her tantrums leech the pleasure out of things I normally enjoy, like browsing the local library, drinking a coffee while it’s hot, shampooing my hair without a tiny, fully clothed person coming into the shower, grabbing onto my legs and demanding that I read That’s Not My Meerkat. Chores such as grocery shopping are even more tedious with a toddler who pleads to be unbuckled from the trolley with indefatigable persistence and runs away to grab cans of lentils and jars of olives off the bottom shelves. She makes it impossible to hold her hand by tucking her arms under her armpits and swivelling her torso violently from side to side. When I try to pick her up, she lifts her arms high above her head so I can’t get any traction and slithers down to the floor where she howls as though I’m attempting to kidnap her. It’s like she has attended a defensive martial arts course without my knowing.
The worst scene for tantrums is in the car, where her screaming is amplified, her rage inflamed by the seatbelt which stops her from rolling around on the floor as she would like to. While driving, I’m helpless; my arms can never reach whatever toy, book or scrap of popcorn she demands. One time, she screamed for her stuffed toy spider, furiously yelling “Spider!” and “Incy Wincy!” with all her might. I waited until the lights turned red, unbuckled my seatbelt, contorted my body like I was auditioning for Cirque du Soleil, and handed her the spider.
“No!” she shrieked, hurling it to the floor.
“Spider!” she yelled a nanosecond after the spider had left her hands.
We repeated this cycle a few times before I snapped, “I don’t know what the [expletive] you want!”
The next day, I had a sense of deja vu as I rushed around the house packing her Bag-Of-All-Eventualities (cardigan, hat, shoes, bib, baby wipes, nappies, water, single servings of snacks, wooden puzzles, lift the flap books) and she grew tired of being left alone.
“Kiki kaka!” she screeched, pointing at her stuffed koala. I handed her the wretched koala.
“No!” she bellowed, and hurled the koala away.
“Kiki kaka!” she yelled again, pointing at the koala.
I handed it to her. She threw it away.
Then: a moment of which I am incredibly ashamed. I put my face inches from hers and snarled, through gritted and bared teeth, “Get it yourself”, with an expression that must have made her think I would bite her. I have never behaved like this to another human being, not even when I was bullied by a belligerent man at work or when I confronted neighbours who were drunkenly partying until 4am on a Tuesday night. Yet this person whom I love, whose mere existence is a daily source of wonder, can drive me to act more savagely than I ever have in my adult life.
I never wanted to be a parent who yells or swears. I imagined that parenthood would reveal an infinite, inner reservoir of patience from which I could draw. I underestimated the effects of sleep deprivation and lack of personal space, especially for an introvert who feels oppressed and frazzled by noise and crowds. In the absence of crowds, even one noisy person can drive me to despair. Looking after a toddler involves attending to the nonsensical whims of a tyrant who wants to eat two kilos of cheese and a litre of moisturiser for breakfast and to leave the house wearing nothing but a pair of tights on her head. She cares not for your sanity, well being, or the fullness of your bladder. There are times when deep breathing and counting in my head, when attempting to reason in a clear, calm voice, and time-outs and closed doors have lost their effectiveness against the power of her battle cry and flailing limbs.
Whenever I raise my voice or drop the F-word, I spend the next days tortured by guilt and self-loathing.
It is not helpful when strangers, especially older women, approach you as your toddler writhes and wails on the floor and say things such as “You won’t win,” or, even worse, “Who’s the boss?” What do these old ladies expect me to do - prove that I’m the boss by spanking my child until she apologises?
The only helpful thing I have heard is, “Yeah, this phase sucks.”
Parenting really does require you to relinquish yourself: your sense of control, your desire for punctuality or solitude or inconspicuousness in a crowd, your time, your sleep, your capacity to think clearly. But I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for small moments of calm in the hurricane of noise. A morning run that used to be my daily entitlement has become a weekly escape that brings me to near delirium with joy. Every tantrum peters out eventually. When it’s over, she lays her teary, warm face on my shoulder, hiccuping with the fatigue that comes from crying for a long time, and I remind myself that there will come a time when she no longer kicks and rolls about on the floor, but that may also be a time when she is too big for me to carry. I inhale the scent of sweat in her hair and hold her, loose-limbed and warm, in my arms, and thank God for this girl who won’t let anybody be her boss.