In my experience, raising children is the ultimate “fool me twice,” except it’s more like “fool me four thousand six hundred and twenty nine times.” Just when I think my kids have passed through the darkness and into the light of reason, reliability, and relatively tantrum-free bliss, they pull the proverbial rug out from under me in spectacular fashion.
It seems the older children get the less satisfying private tantruming becomes. No longer is throwing their limp bodies on the floor of their own living room sufficient enough punishment for the parent who denied them candy before dinner or insisted they wear pants to school. No, those parents deserve a much more heinous display of public humiliation, and the miniature evil geniuses that our children inevitably become have chosen quality over quantity.
They now prefer lull their parents into a false sense of serenity only to explode in an Oscar-worthy display of preschooler pyrotechnics in front of new friends, work colleagues, school administration, or in rare opportunities all of the above.
My four-year-old was recently invited to the birthday party of his first school friend, and if you can’t tell, I’m still recovering from the post-traumatic tantrum stress syndrome associated with the event. I should have known he was planning something because for weeks leading up to the event we’d been floating through the blissfully calm waters of what I foolishly assumed was my maturing child. He had been reasonable, even-tempered, and nice to his little brother.
In retrospect, I was clearly being fooled for the four thousand six hundred and thirtieth time, but surely one of these days he really will become all those things, right?
Maybe, but not today.
Today I cowered behind a three-foot wall at the local gymnastics studio pretending to play with my toddler while my little drama king put on a spectacular performance of shrieking, fake injuries, back-talk, and good old-fashioned sulking for a captive audience of impressionable parents. Honestly, I couldn’t decide which was more uncomfortable: squatting my pregnant body down and repeatedly hoisting my toddler onto the wedge mat he was rolling down or standing up and witnessing the entire room of well behaved children waiting politely for their turn on the trampoline behind my prostrate and bellowing son. My knees may disagree tomorrow, but I chose the first option.
By the time my son accused the gymnastics teacher of attempting to murder him, I was ready to pack up my things and slink back to the car with my tail, toddler, and Tasmanian devil between my legs. But then something amazing happened: he started having fun despite his best efforts. The one chink in my little thespian’s armor is the fact that he actually loves gymnastics.
No matter how hard he tried to pretend he was miserable, his youthful exuberance got the best of him and within ten minutes he was laughing and playing with the other children like nothing had happened.
I hesitantly poked my head out from behind my padded play-area parapet, half expecting to get my head blown off by enemy soldiers, to find that the little monster I’d arrived with had been transformed back into the child I thought I was bringing with me. It was like the whole hairy experience had never happened and once again I began to believe that perhaps that was the last of my child’s reign of terror.
By the time he politely sat down at the snack table and sang happy birthday cheerfully to his friend while waiting patiently to eat his cupcake until everyone had been served, I was ready to take on the next potentially humiliating event with the same hubris and gusto with which I had arrived today.
What’s wrong with me? Why do I never learn?
I like to think it’s because parenting, for all its disillusionment, actually turns parents into closet optimists. Every day I wake up and truly believe that today will be better than yesterday: that today I will solve all my child’s behavioral problems, cook three healthy meals, find time to work out and get a pedicure, and maybe even catch a nap. Any sane person would look at the day before, and the six hundred before that, and know that I was setting myself up for an epic disappointment, but I don’t care.
Assuming our invitation hasn’t been rescinded, we will be attending another birthday party in a couple weeks and I’m sure that this time we’ll nail it. My son will be the well-behaved, delightful, witty person I know he can be, and I will spend the entire two hours chatting happily with the other parents while my toddler plays quietly by my feet. No one will cry, feign injury, or eat anything they aren’t supposed to, and under no circumstances will I find myself crouched inside a tiny padded room. It will be perfect.
Or maybe I’ll just drop him off next time…