One evening last week I was sitting at the dinner table with a good friend of mine, therapeutically sipping a glass of wine after a particularly tough couple of days with Bean. I was lamenting the fact that Bean's emotions had been so heightened lately I felt like I'd spent the last few days running after a ticking time bomb trying to prevent an explosion! My friend, a connoisseur of great literature, reminded me of a wonderful line from J.M Barry's 'Peter Pan':
“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for only one feeling at a time. ”
Sound like anyone you know?? :-)
Small children are often compared to fairies, elves, pixies...probably because their translucent innocence and mischievous nature holds a certain magical quality for us big people. But they also have the same emotional tendency of which Barry writes in Peter Pan. Bean, at 18 months, is entering a new phase in the way she behaves and relates to her world. She's been SO much busier lately! Toddling from one activity to the next...to the next and the next etc...completely self-directed, whilst I stumble along bleary eyed in her wake while she smears wet paint through her freshly washed hair at 6pm. Trying not to snap? Ummmm, that about says it...
She's also working hard to communicate a lot more, but struggles sometimes because she doesn't have enough language yet to always get her needs across. This is where we run into difficulty sometimes, because she's trying so desperately to tell me she wants something very specific and, despite my super-psychic-mummy powers, I don't always know what that is! < insert back-arching, writhing, biting, blubbering, tears-steaming, MELTDOWN! >
Another situation that often provokes an emotional meltdown lately is when Bean REALLY wants to do something she knows isn't kosher...like painting the furniture! A gentle explanation of 'Paint goes on the paper, not on the furniture' or 'Paint brushes stay at the table' is often the final straw for an already tired and fussy little Bean. MELTDOWN! Of course this is all basic toddler stuff, and in time this too shall pass. Sometimes though I find myself looking up from the bottom of the pool searching to see something, ANYTHING clearly.
These types of emotional outbursts seem to happen in clusters, then we come to the end and maybe I just write it off as a bad week. But when I take a moment to look back and examine the week and reflect on the bigger picture, I usually find that Bean has made some kind of developmental leap in that time - which I see as some kind of new awareness, understanding, or abilities that have blossomed. It also often coincides with teething, the onset of illness, me being in a bad space emotionally, something stressful happening in our family life, or all of the above!!
Toddlers are very sensitive little beings, with big emotions in a world that they're still learning literally everything about. Every moment for them is learning something new. It's not to say that their emotions aren't as complex as adults, but rather that when they feel something they feel it in its entirety. Like a tidal wave it swells up and fills every corner of their mind and body, leaving no room inside for reason, inhibition, or logic to temper the force of the overflow. In some ways, it's probably a much healthier way of dealing with things - just letting emotions flow into and out of you like a giant wave, no suppression, no grasping, no holding on. That way when it's done, it's done. The very same toddler who was in a state of internal apocalypse one minute, is suddenly babbling and exclaiming with excitement the next.
So when I witness Bean's next meltdown, I remind myself that her feelings are actually no different or more dramatic than my own, it's just that she FEELS and EXPRESSES every emotion she has...whereas, as an (English) adult, I've learned to barely acknowledge most of mine. There are many things we can learn from our children, and I think here the lesson is two-fold. First, we need to re-learn sensitivity both in relation to ourselves and to each other; and second, to recognize that emotions are, in fact, OK (healthy even!). So lets take a cue from our toddlers - express and let go, express and let go. When they explode, we embrace the explosion, let it flow through us and them, and then relax as it flows past. Take a breath, don't hold the emotion, acknowledge it then move on to the next thing.
This way we might be lucky enough to take a step backwards in time, to an age before we carried the worries and woes of the world on our shoulders. A time when we could cry hot salty palpable tears over spilled milk, then run out into the sunshine and let the breeze whisk them from our cheeks. A time when we still felt free to be ourselves. A time when we still believed in fairies.