Significance, Insignificance and the Validity of the Tantrum

I gave a lot of thought to the boys’ first birthday present. I had toyed with the idea of a water table for Sophie, but never bought her one. After I saw how the boys reacted to baths out of the sink and in a real tub (so. much. splashing.) I knew they would love this simple toy. So I researched them. Ordered one. Hid it in the basement. Bought two big bows for it—one for each boy, in the colors I was using for their party. And thought about how much they would love it. And thought about how much Sophie would love it. And thought about how, for the first time, I would have a toy all three children would love playing together—and I was so excited to witness that interaction.
When your job is to provide 24/7 care to a 3-year-old and two 1-year-olds, your perception of life changes. Life becomes magnified. What used to seem significant (finding the perfect prom dress, a much-anticipated date, a misplaced comma in a printed piece) suddenly seems insignificant as you’re driving to the emergency room with your beautiful 4-pound baby boy who is sick.
And yet, at the same time, life also becomes reduced to tasks essential to keeping babies and children alive. You spend a huge amount of time feeding, washing, diapering, cleaning, changing, picking up, putting down, watching, catching, strapping, carrying, hugging, kissing—over and over and over again. And so what once seemed insignificant—like watching kids use a new toy for the first time—suddenly becomes significant. And not just because of the act itself. But rather because your life is filled with small, mundane-yet-somehow-sometimes-also-joyous tasks. And when you spend your days disciplining, saying “share” over and over, loosening strands of one child’s hair from the fist of another, wiping away tears, persuading, pleading and insisting, fun things (trips to the park, zoo and museum; a special dessert; an unexpected walk; a new toy) become significant. Because you know your children are going to have fun. And seeing them happy, when you spend so much time seeing them unhappy, becomes important—really important.
You probably know where this is going.
The boys seemed somewhat interested in their water table when we presented it to them on their birthday. But I knew the best was yet to come—I knew the first time they used it they would get it, that they would really like it. There would be no fighting. Or crying. Or tears. Everyone would be happy.
The day after their (most perfect) birthday did not go well, for many reasons. Things I had planned on getting done (which included baking six dozen cupcakes for their Saturday party) weren’t getting done. I was stressed. A little after 5pm I pulled the first dozen cupcakes out of the oven. They were sunken, flat, not right. Ruined, I thought. I had house guests. No dinner plans. The kids were screaming. And I had hours of work ahead of me. And now I needed another box of cake mix.
So I ran to the store. I bought the mix. Eggs. Milk. And picked up two pizzas for dinner. I was gone, maybe, 45 minutes.
When I came home, no one was in the house. I heard laughter from outside.
The deck.
The water table.
The kids were using it for the first time, without me.
I’m positive I’m not the only mom to have gone through something like this—you spend hours researching “best of” websites, you plan, you make lists, you shop, you clean, you cook, you dress everyone in their best, you do all the background work and then, for whatever reason, you miss the defining moment, the surprise, the pay-off.
I imagine most moms are more gracious than me. I suppose the polite thing to do would have been to smile and take pleasure in all the pleasure my children were having, simply thinking, I knew they would like it.
But I was not gracious.
I went inside, where my children could not see me. I threw down my purse, breaking my key fob. I took off my sandals and threw them at the wall, screaming things I can’t type here. I then remembered the cold eggs and milk, and the hot pizza in the van. I went outside to get them, slamming the front door behind me so hard that I broke it.
I threw a tantrum.
Upon my return, apologies abounded. They had been promised, I was told. It was getting late, I was told.
This was all true. But, as insignificant as me missing this truly was to everyone else (kids included), it was significant—deeply significant—to me.
Later, when noticing the scuff marks on the wall and hearing the front door slam behind me (versus closing slowly), I wondered if my tantrum was too much.
I don’t think it was. After the day I had, and what I had just missed, I truly think I would have lost it in some other way had I not had that tantrum. I had to let the anger out. I, physically, could no longer keep it contained. And that is when I made a huge realization: There is no difference between my tantrum and my children’s tantrums.
When Sophie throws the mother of all fits because I won’t let her watch another episode of “Max and Ruby,” it’s because she thinks my saying “no” is significant—even though I think the whole thing is entirely insignificant, in the scheme of things. But to her, at that point of her life, the injustice is great. The anger has, most likely, built up throughout the day. And she has no choice but to explode, as I did. And that’s healthy. And necessary. And very much valid.
Late Saturday night I watched a recording Andy had made of the kids playing in the water table for the first time. The surprise and joy and laughter were all there, just as I had imagined. In the video Tucker’s tail begins to wag as I walk toward the back door. At first, I’m smiling. Then my entire face drops. And I’m crushed. Visibly crushed. And then I’m gone.
Andy said “I’ll delete the end.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t.”
Because that’s life. And a drawer full of recorded happy moments (or a blog full of pictures and essays detailing how perfect life is) isn’t true. Isn’t honest. Isn’t real.
Monday, it was supposed to rain all day. It did rain, in the morning. But then the sun came out, strong and warm. I slathered sunscreen on the kids. Refilled the water table. Brought the umbrella up from the patio to the deck. Brought out the beach towels. And took everyone outside.
It was everything I imagined.
And then some.
And no one threw a tantrum.
“Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” —Elliott Larson