Crazy is the New Sane. Or a Pointless Rant.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Listen. Just hear them out.  Even though it makes no fucking sense sometimes.
  6. 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).


24 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah says:

    You are so AMAZING!! Does it ever fucking make sense in those instances?! The manic smile – that is exactly what I’ve been needing! Xoxo

  2. courtney says:

    Oh no. Too funny. Those flights are horrendous. I’m so not graceful and calm about the bounce bounce baby dance. My almost-four-year old just does not act out in public ever-he saves that for home. I guess I was kind of naive to think that the difficult flights were just a baby thing. I am getting the feeling that my one-year-old daughter is not going to be so deferential to social niceties. Oy vey. I will have to work on that joker-smile. Great image.

  3. Lindy says:

    Excellent post! I do have to say you shouldn’t feel so self conscience though. I am a new mommy so I have little experience (well 4 months to be exact) BUT I have be a member of the “public” for some time now. And I never think bad about the kids who are whining- it’s a fact of life. Kids will occassionally (hopefully not too occassionally) misbehave. What I get annoyed with are the parents who don’t do anything. If I see a gaggle of kids acting up but the parents are right there, doing their job, restoring order, then I’m happy. Back when I waited tables, I would see parents just totally ignore their screaming child, despite the fact that the whole restuarant was definitely not able to ignore the little hell raiser. They would just sit there! No “Johny behave” or “Suzy do you want a time out?”. The worst was when it was an infant or toodler and wouldn’t comfort their baby! REALLY!?! Ugh… Parents looking silly- good for them! Parents not parenting- no way.

  4. luannemacy says:

    I hear you. Why does it matter what others think? Ultimately, 10 years from now, does it matter that some stranger judged you in a moment of personal chaos? No. What matters is the energy exchange between YOU and YOURS. I have trouble turning off that switch and just saying FUCK IT to the rubberneckers. Even worse: my own relatives. This can be more challenging, but in the end I’m the one who lives with my parenting choices, my children, my memories. What do I want to remember about today? Live in love, live in love, live in love…

    Trying my highest good,

  5. Trish says:

    Oh sweet Leigh,

    Love you!! Love your precious words!!

    I am such a fan of the manic smile (although my gritted teeth are a dead give away that it’s fake.) Case in point I took both kids to a hotel alone for the first time this summer and attempted the free (read:insanely crowded) continental breakfast. I was whizzing around getting food, standing in the hour long waffle line, all the time w whiny kids and the manic smile. When I finally sat down the woman behind me began telling me how amazing I am. How well I was handeling things. How she couldn’t even believe I could move so quickly, and gracefully, and with such a great smile. I was on top of the world, figuring, yeah, I’m the single mom of the year when Leo flips his sticky waffle plate straight into my lap in one of those epic scenes where the plate literally hits your chest then cascades downward leaving a foot and a half of smeared syrup and broken waffle pieces down the entire front of me. I think the universe just likes to keep me humble. Manic smile, bigger than ever : )

    Love you sweet Mama!!

  6. erin says:

    ‘I am so sorry your legs don’t work anymore.’
    cracked my shit right up.
    oh.. how i love you. and cannot ever get the image of your crazy ass zen smile while
    mamamaMAMAmamaa! chaos is swirling around.
    forever in my mind for the moment to present itself.
    so wise.
    so fucking hilarious

  7. Katie says:

    Oh, this SO hits home and I only have two! My daughter has always been pretty easy and mellow in public. She is one of those kids who behaves like a ‘perfect’ little girl in front of others and saves the defiance and tantrums for home. But my son? Oh my son has all kinds of fire in his belly in public, and he wants things his way NOW! I often feel like I’m getting the judgy stares if I ‘give in’ to my kids (i.e. carry my almost-4-year-old because she asks to be carried instead of making her walk like a ‘big girl’) but I’ve also learned if you shut out the world and speak to your little ones with love and a calm energy, they usually respond much better and people around you WILL notice. And the ones who don’t notice or who judge aren’t worth worrying about.

    We had an epic one over Christmas when we took the kids to see Santa. It ended with my son in Child Pose on the mall floor, and there was no talking through the meltdown, so I hefted him into a football carry and we hightailed it to the car, where he was asleep within seconds. I’m sure I was being judged as my screeching 22 month old and I rushed past the fancy people at Nordstrom, but I couldn’t have cared less.

  8. Heather says:

    As the resident psych geek, I’m excited to tell you that there’s research on how smiling can *trick* you into being happier. It’s called the facial feedback hypothesis, and the first study is one of my favorite psych studies ever:

    “In 1988 a team led by Fritz Strack came up with a brilliant cover story that allowed them to manipulate facial expressions without the research participants’ awareness. The researchers told participants that they were studying adaptations for people who had lost the use of their hands…The participants then held a pencil in their teeth (which naturally activates the muscles typically used for smiling) or lips (which does not activate those muscles), and then rated several cartoons for funniness. Those who were (unknowingly) “smiling” rated the cartoons as funnier than people who weren’t smiling.” (from

    The down side is that botox can really f*ck up your emotional processing:

    People are quicker to process happy sentences when they have a “forced” smile, and quicker to process sad sentences when they have a scowl. So not only does that smile plastered on your face make you feel better, it actually changes how you perceive the world around you. This confirms that you are an intuitive genius 🙂

  9. Oh this is so inspiring. I lack slow deliberateness. My deliberateness is a more ‘get it done’ sort of deliberateness, which sometimes translates as coercion, which sometimes translates into a yelling kid under one arm, and the other being nudged forward with whatever free body part I’ve got. Sometimes I’m okay with that. Sometimes I’m not. Patience is not my virtue, and I’m trying to not beat myself up about it – and drowning out that weakness with as much silly kitchen-dancing as I can manage.

    You’re such a light. xo

  10. Kewal says:

    That was awesome.

  11. Where were you when I needed this advice, way back when? Sigh.

    Better late than never. =)

  12. Heather says:

    So wise, dear one. I will always remember to pack my smile or put it into my pocket. I also try to remember to help another who is trying desperately to find their smile. We are all in it together.

  13. Chelsea says:

    Oh yes, I have lived several of those moments, it’s so hard to do, but it definitely does work… xoxo

  14. sara says:

    Really I just wanted to say thank you for posting this, I’m smiling because I really needed to read it! It’s so true about slowing down and being deliberate. Nice to see all these comments from people who have been there, it can feel so lonely when it’s happening!

  15. leighsteele says:

    you all are such loves. thank you. it helps to have the tribe of you, banding together. i want a photo of all of us together flashing manic smiles.

    court – love you. believe me, i’m not graceful either. if force it. and then, most of the time, grace sneaks into the moments and it’s very welcome.

    lindy – good point. i have gotten over *most* of the self-conscious stuff, but you can’t help but feel heated stares and glances. ha. and yes, i save the “non-parenting” schemes for the home. teeheehee

    trish – now YOU are the epiotome of grace. you exude it. been there done that with the waffle scene – oy vey. not fun.

    erin – i love that i entertain you. wheeeeee!

    katie – lol over that santa scene. i feel ya, sister. and yes, you are right….the manic smile is kinda contagious. creepy, yet contagious.

    heather – me? genius? well la-de-dah! 🙂 fascinating, though. i love your insight.

    kate – i TOTALLY and utterly lack slow deliberateness. i am a mega multi-tasker and have to literally talk myself through slowness. it sucks. i love the image of you kitchen dancing. you’ve got that down pat and i have often envisioned you doing little sambas across the floor. it helps me get through.

    Kewal, GL, Heather, Chelsea, Sarah – Thank you. Loves. Besos. Lots of them.

  16. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the reminder about that research, Heather! I remember that from my psych background once in a while and *try* to include it in my parenting arsenal :). And now that I have the Joker smile as a mental image…

  17. naima says:

    I used that smile today at a restaurant. luckily I only had to use it for a few minutes, while we were high tailing it outta’ there! Thank you so much reminding me what to do….

  18. Sarah-Anne K. says:

    You are incredible – this is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  19. Becca says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! This was so spot-on! I have been that mom on the plane! Thank goodness South West had a Jack Daniels promo running.

  20. Love this technique, and use it often. I use it at home too. Learning to slow down, be patient and listen has helped me a lot (when I manage to implement it). Another thing that helps me is to remember that this moment won’t last forever, and often it won’t be more than a few minutes (okay, maybe 10, or 20 … and occasionally 45 or 50). Seems obvious, but yeah, the reminder helps me a lot.

    4+ hour plane rides are tough, even when things are going well. I find flying with kids to be really exhausting. We flew to Vegas when M was about 21 months old. It was during her nap time and she wouldn’t sleep, so I put her in the sling and paced the aisle and bounced in the bulkhead. The whole. freaking. plane. was watching me. Oy. But she was crying hysterically from exhaustion and I felt like it was my only option. It took about 20 minutes to get her down and she slept about 30 minutes, then woke up just in time for the descent. And screamed the entire time. 30+ minutes of screaming. After a while I just gave up and quit trying to get her to stop. It was pretty awful. But we survived …

  21. Nicole says:

    Seriously one of the best posts I’ve ever read!!! I remember “those” days. My kids are 21 and 18 now….but I SO remember!! My kids still tease me and laugh about my “smile” and my “look”. They get it now. And yes…it DOES happen to everyone. You are awesome!!!

  22. Oh my gosh, Leigh, you are possibly the funniest and best blogger…because it’s all too real, all of it. I am going to save this and re read the next time (like tomorrow:) that this happens to me….

  23. I *just* blogged about a situation with my 3 kids that happened to me recently and how I feel self conscious with all the stares. Thank you for this. It will help me.

  24. mb says:

    how did i miss this post? i found it through a link my friend here in bellingham posted on facebook!!???

    oh so universal. so true. but sometimes i just have to scream. i scream and they scream and we all are better people afterwards.

    crazy. crazy like lollypops and mescaline. crazy in love. crazy for even thinking i can go out in public.

    it does get easier. when they can all run away from you at the market just freak you out….and in different directions. and i am standing there screaming each one of my kids names……
    i look so crazy. every freaking. day.

    i love you leigh leigh!

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