Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fear of the Dark: It's not Just for Kids

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, I can't quite put my finger on the night. But sometime between the long, lazy days of summer and falling back to Daylight Savings, my 2-year-old son became acutely aware of the dark. And he doesn't like it, not one bit.

It's never been an issue, perhaps because "dark" didn't really exist in his little world. Noah's first word was "light," and his ensuing fascination with switches has ensured both the illumination of our home and the profitability of DTE. And with an 8pm bedtime he just hasn't spent much time in natural darkness. But all of a sudden when he wakes in the morning and I go to raise his blinds, he asks me in a quivering voice, "Is the dark all gone, Mama?" as if he's been worried all night about what lurked outside. He wants his nightlight on all day, as if to guard against any sneak attack or unscheduled dark visit. And every once in a while he'll wake up in the middle of the night crying and call out for me.

I try to comfort him, holding him close as he wraps his jammie-clad arms and legs around me. We'll sit and rock as I whisper to him that everything's OK, that the dark is nothing to be scared of. Then I lay him gently back down in his bed, kiss his forehead, and tiptoe guiltily back to my room, knowing all the while I am nothing but a big, fat liar. Because here's the thing: I'm just as scared.

It's not the same fear I had as a child, when monsters lurked behind closet doors and shifting shapes and shadows on the floors were most certainly up to no good. No, my fears have grown-up over the years but still induce the same child-like panic.

Much like with my little Noah, I manage to dodge the dark fears during most of the day. Between a 2-year-old, a 4-month-old, a job, a house to take care of and a partridge in a pear tree (that reminds me, Christmas is coming), the daylight hours pass in a blur. I also avoid make a point to avoid dusting in corners, the bottom of the laundry basket, trips to the basement and anywhere else dark might dare hide. But late at night when I finally stop moving long enough to think, dark and fear come creeping in, swirling all around my bed in question form. What if I'm not doing this right? What if my babies don't grow up to be happy? How will I protect them from everything that hurts? How will I nourish their little minds, their souls, their beautiful spirits? What if something happens to me, to my husband, to my parents? What? How? What? How? It's my very own version of Fear Factor.

Eventually, sleep takes over and the monsters retreat. They leave without a trace before dawn, just as silently as they appeared and the world returns to "normal." But I know they'll be back.

That's why lately, I've begun arming myself with a secret weapon. Once both kids are tucked securely into bed I peek into each of their rooms and lean down close enough to smell their still-damp hair, feel their warm breath and hear those tiny heartbeats I once carried inside. Then I kneel down beside their cribs and pray. I pray for strength, for peace, for light in the dark. I know our fears are normal, I know they'll subside in time. Until then, we'll just have to hold each other tight and try to shine as brightly as we can.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Toddlers and Tantrums

I'd like to offer an open apology to countless people I have unknowingly wronged over the years. They are a group that suffers in silence, but it's high time they had a voice. I'm sure you know them, you've seen them, you may even be them. They are the parents of toddlers in the throes of a tantrum.

For years, I have seen them at the grocery store, on the sidewalk, at the mall, and God forbid, on airplanes. I have watched and listened as their little ones reach ear-piercing decibels, turn increasingly darker shades of red, jump up and down and twist their bodies into Cirque de Soleil worthy contortions. And I have judged them.

"Why can't they control their kids?" I would wonder, sometimes not so wordlessly. "I will never allow MY children to act like that in public." Of course, this is easy to say when you don't actually have any children. Now I find myself eating those words and they taste like... ketchup.

It all began at some point over the summer, a season which is somewhat of a blur of sleepless nights and very, very messy diapers. We brought home our baby girl at the end of June, swaddled in receiving blankets and cautionary tales from everyone around us. Beware, they said. Your sweet, angelic toddler is about to explode in jealous fits. But nothing happened. A few weeks later he turned 2, a birthday that comes with a warning label: life is about to get Terrible. But it didn't. He was the same energetic, loving little boy he had always been.

And then one day the dictator showed up, staging a coup de tantrum in the middle of the kitchen. "I WANT KETCHUP!!!!" this unfamiliar creature screamed. "KETCHUP!!!!!!" This "request" came complete with flailing arms, stomping legs, and a very red face. So I did what any good parent would: I burst out laughing.

This, as it turns out, was not the right response. My giggles were met with tears, screams, and eventually a wriggling mess of a child on the floor. And counterintuitive as it might seem, ketchup was not the right answer, either. In a panic I ran to grab the so desired bottle from the fridge, which he promptly threw at the wall. "I DON'T WANT KETCHUP!!!!!" my towheaded dictator screamed. Really? What kind of alternate condiment universe had we entered?

Time to pull out those handy parenting books. Let's see, 3 Easy Steps to Taming a Tantrum.

1) "Ignore the tantrum." Great. I'm not exactly the tantrum's biggest fan, but unfortunately, the tantrum will not be ignored, and I am now covered in ketchup. Moving on.

2) "Try reasoning with your child." Sounds good. "Noah, you and I both know that ketchup is for eating, not throwing." Now I just need to reason with the folks at Heinz, who designed and manufactured a highly aerodynamic ketchup bottle.

3) "Empathize with your child." All right. "Noah, I realize it is very frustrating for you to not be able to throw the ketchup. I understand, and I am here for you." And by "here" I mean right next to a pile of Legos, which I now know will stick to ketchup.

4) Hold your child tightly until the tantrum passes. Fabulous, now we're both covered in ketchup, I'm on the verge of a tantrum of my own, and the baby is screaming in her bouncy seat. Turns out tantrums are highly contagious.

Over the past few months I've tried different approaches, experimented with different techniques, and what I've found is that the storm will pass when it's good and ready, usually as quickly as it arrived. Still, I've put together my own list for dealing with the inevitable.

1) Try not to laugh, no matter how funny your child looks.
2) Remember how much you love your child, despite how much you may not actually like him/her in the moment.
3) Hold the ketchup.

Mona Shand is a TV and radio news reporter who no longer enjoys ketchup. You can read more on her blog.