Lily is upset about noodles.
This is an understatement, the equivalent of saying that John McEnroe used to get upset at umpires’ calls at Wimbledon. 6-year-old Lily is upset about noodles. I put cold noodles in her lunch, not the hot ones she wanted, and as she picked her lunch up off the counter, the lack of a thermos tipped her off that this (like several other things this morning) has not gone according to plan.
She is tired. She is rushing through this Friday morning of her first week of first grade. The noodle question is unfixable at this late hour, but she can’t let it go – she’s still alternating between sobbing and yelling at me as she puts on her shoes. Lily’s siblings (4,5, and 9) are quietly gathering their things with their heads down. The air positively shimmers with Lily’s rage and my barely contained reaction to it, and they have seen all of this play out before. The 9-year-old gently moves to help the 4-year-old zip a jacket. I suck in a deep breath and try to help Lily, who can’t FIT her LUNCH INTO HER BACKPACK!!! She rears back and hits me.
“You didn’t pack my NOODLES!”
This all ends with Lily in her room with her father outside her door while I drive the other children to school on time, but in the car, I am shaking with fury. I’ll have to go back for her now after I drop the others off, I will get a late start at work, I’m so mad I can’t see straight, and she’s wrecked the whole day, just wrecked it! When I pick her up I’m going to make her sorry. Why does she have to be such a raving, raving, maniacal, daughter of a…
Yeah, well, that would be me. Because this isn’t just a question of a spoiled kid having a temper tantrum. I’ve seen kids lose it over being given the cup with the bear instead of the cup with a cat, and what happens to Lily is different – and bitterly familiar. I’ve struggled for years with black moods that can bring a whole family to its knees, brought on by a tendency to overreact to the little things and the inner conviction that once things have begun to go badly, they will continue to do so, probably forever. The monologue in my head matches the one in Lily’s precisely: something has gone wrong, nothing will ever go right again, and I want everyone else in the world to know it. There’s nothing like seeing yourself in your kids, but what do you do when the part you see is exactly the part you hate most?
When I see Lily in mid noodle-collapse, I’m not just upset by the fact that her antics will give the rest of us a miserable start to our day, I’m frustrated because I foresee decades of misery ahead for a kid who can’t bounce back from ordinary setbacks. It makes me crazy that I can know exactly how Lily feels but not be able to help, and my inability to fix this for her, ironically enough, makes me angry in the same way that Lily is angry: Why can’t she just be the way I want her to be?
And in the end, I’m filled with guilt over one huge, unavoidable factor: regardless of whether this is nature or nurture at work, somehow Lily’s misery is all my fault. If her mercurial temper is genetic, then she’s doomed to repeat my life’s work of being brought to my knees by every setback. If it’s nurture, then I’m clearly the one who’s taught her that when life gives you lemons, you absorb them into the essence of your being and spew them back as citrus-y bile. Either way, we both lose.
This is probably a good place to say that I don’t think this is a medical question for either of us. I understand that therapy and psycho-pharmacuticals work well for many people, but don’t think we’re among them. Whether I’ve passed on a Wednesday Addams gene or just been training up my own baby goth, I know from experience that that once you do conquer this particular personal demon (or, if you prefer, break this nasty habit), you gain a solid resource for dealing with the real stresses of life. The temper may be nature, but the self-control, I know you can nurture. But somehow watching Lily struggle with it brings out the worst in me. “I’ve already figured this out,” I want to scream. “Just take a deep breath and LET IT GO!”
She can’t do it. And when it comes to Lily, neither can I. Nothing in my life, at this point, makes me feel so helplessly enraged as watching Lily let the noodles be the ruination of her day. Thanks to years of meditation and self-improvement books, I can drop two full glass milk bottles on the floor and take cleaning up the mess in stride, but show me Lily sobbing over the fact that the skirt she promised her best friend she would wear to school is in the wash, and I’m going to lose it, too. Somehow, we’re stuck going right back through this together.
Maybe my lifetime of experience (and our matching rubber “just breathe” bracelets) will help Lily to learn earlier than I did that the bad things that happen are one thing, and the way we choose to react to them is another. But even though some days I feel like we’re making a little progress, I suspect I may have to find a way to take those deep breaths and let Lily get through this on her own. Because all the lessons I have to offer her really boil down to one simple mantra: don’t let it get to you.
And I can remember my mother saying that to me – when I was six years old.