Sometimes the only thing you can do is pull on a manic-looking smile and tend to each one of them, slowly and deliberately, through the wails and screams. This means that you’ll have to allow one or two of them to cry longer and louder than you’d normally want to (especially if you are in public) but it also means that the energy surrounding you all shifts a little. Sess furrowing. More smoothing. Less nagging and badgering. More nodding and listening. Less pulling and dragging. More hugging and cuddling. Less coercion. More harmony. Less anger. More love.
It is one of the secret weapons in my arsenal, likely learned from many mothers before me.
And really, the smile is not fun to plaster on. You force it. You breathe through it to keep it from falling into a pinched frown. You try hard and chant silently to yourself. But, soon, you’ll notice that you no longer have to work at it. Because THIS – this scene unfurling before you – is actually kind of silly. And funny. And wonderful. And wild. And normal.
The scenario usually looks something like this:
I’m alone with three kids. Out in public. They are all tired, hungry, and done. Maybe it’s the grocery store, maybe it’s the library. or perhaps it’s the park.
There are lots of eyes watching us.
It happens even after bribing them with chocolate, apples, juice, and animal crackers.
I am holding the baby on my hip or carrying him in the Ergo. i have a purse or backpack on my shoulder. i may be pushing a cart or carrying two overflowing bags of library books. my bladder is probably full.
One starts by refusing to walk. she flings herself dramatically to the dirty floor or dry ground. Arms and legs are outstretched and there is yelling and various statements about body parts no longer functioning.
The other one tries to help by offering her hand. In a fit of rage, the first one lashes out and punches her sister.
Another is now crumpled to the ground, tears streaming down her cheeks. With her last bit of energy, she stands up on stomps on her sister’s hand. hard.
More screams. More stares.
The baby starts to fuss and cry, likely hungry or sitting in a dirty diaper.
No amount of bribing, cajoling, dragging, pleading, or negotiation will work. I promise you. There is no quick fix.
This is where the “SMILE” technique comes into play.
Smile, Mellow, Intuit, Listen, Empathize.
Okay, I just totally made that up on the spot but here’s the basic idea.
- First, really, you breathe. Maybe even close your eyes for a second and pretend there is no such thing as Time or Judgement from Others.
- Smile. It doesn’t mean you are happy, but it just can be an sympathetic smile. And the kicker is, you are smiling initially because it sets the stage. It gives Others the impression you are calm and collected. It kind of throws your kids off a bit. It makes you feel a bit crazy, which is okay in this situation because it keeps you from YELLING. And then, you start to actually feel it. And you start to almost laugh at how truly insane you look, smiling ear to ear, talking calmly to your tantruming children, gently bending down to listen to them and pick them up.
- Mellow. This is important. This is where you physically make yourself SLOW DOWN. Your bend over slowly. You quiet your voice. You tenderly speak to your children in short sentences (no elaborate monologues here). And like the smile, it almost needs to feel forced and exaggerated. You tend to ONE child at a time, swiftly yet consciously and intentionally. Mellow.
- Intuit. You know your kids. What do they REALLY need right now? They probably need to leave and be home. Or, they need you to hold them for a minute and tell them your exit plan. Or, they need hydration. So, give it to them. Sometimes, I’ve had to carry two kids on me and push one in the cart. That is after picking them both up from the floor, as the baby dangles from the Ergo carrier.
- Listen. Just hear them out. Even though it makes no fucking sense sometimes.
- Empathize. Just look in their eyes. Nod. Bend to their level and hold their hands. Tell them “Yes, yes, I know it’s hard when you are tired and you are a just a kid and you are being dragged through a boring store.” Try to mean it when you say “I am so sorry your legs don’t work anymore. Here, let me help you into the cart. We’ll let you lay your head on this nice pillow from the Home Decorating section while you rest in the cart, surrounded by groceries”. (ok, a bit of sarcasm there but the pillow trick works).
OK, even those steps were kinda bullshit. Here’s the REAL gist.
Breathe, Smile, and Slow Down.
Be SUPER deliberate about each of those steps. You have to feel CRAZY first before it starts to really work. Like, you have to feel like a mental basket case. Think: The Joker (as in Batman). The situations usually involve some sort of singing or swaying as well. You’ll want to run away from it all, but you’ll need to just ground yourself.
Screw the stares and the worry about where you have to be next. It’s hard to get over our cultural ideas of “what kids should BE like”. But once you’ve done it over and over, it gets easier. I promise. And what the strangers will hear you saying is kind things, not berating and fear-tactics and shame and hurt. And they’ll see, one by one, your kids getting undivided attention and love. And they’ll see your kids respond. It make take five minutes. But I’m not gonna lie: sometimes it takes 20 or more. While your ice-cream is melting, you are rebuilding.
Key to this, though, is letting go of pride. Forget about standing your ground, and control, and discipline. Really, come on. Life is give and take. Parenting is give and take. Forget what you will “look like” if you have kids that scream and tantrum in public occasionally. What you’ll look like is a human being who is herself probably sleep-deprived and hungry and stressed. And see, they are waiting for you to crack. Oh yes, they are. That’s what “they” (i.e. “we”) do. It’s like a train wreck. But you aren’t going to crack. Oh, by golly, no. You are gonna smile away, be creative and figure it all out.
And, look, you don’t have to act happy about all of it in the moment. You can relay your frustration, too. But don’t forget mellow, smiling, and breathing. Don’t forget that at THIS point, it’s about getting everyone huddled together, calm, and OUT of there. That is the primary goal. Survival. Teamwork. The secondary goal is get home so you can swim in chocolate and wine and a hot bath.
Lastly, this WILL happen to you . It will happen in spite of you. In spite of any parenting method you subscribe to. In spite of the best organization and the strongest will power. It will happen to you.
I was this mama, on the four-hour return air flight this weekend, after two weeks of traveling with my family. My kids had been amazing through our Tour de Midwest; on long drives and flights and sleeping in a total of four different homes on five different occasions. All were sick. All were exhausted and ready to be home.
Jason was with me, thankfully, but even two people aren’t always enough. We sat in two rows, one in front of the other, Lyric with me the entire time (he’s been clingy lately). The girls kicked each otters seats, Indigo was climbing over the top of her seat and flipping the tray table up and down, Kaia eeked out some screams here and there, Lyric was fussing and wanted me to stand and rock and dance most of the flight. I spent alot of the time turned around in my seat, kneeling on it while I bounced Lyric. I was staring back into the eyes of The Others. And smiling.
Longest four hours of my life.
And so I smiled, eyes-wide, and danced with Lyric while I read Indigo a book and doled out food to Kaia.
I was THAT mom.
You will be too.
But then, you’ll have a vision of me all crazy-ass looking, wired and strung out and and insane.
And you’ll remember you aren’t alone.
And when that smile snakes across your face, you won’t feel powerless. You’ll feel powerFULL (of love).