The Terrible Rotten Screaming Tantrum

A glass room at one end of the swim center gazes over the kiddie pool like a giant, human aquarium. Parents sit in plastic lawn furniture and read paperback novels, tabloid magazines, or scroll through smart phone screens.  Occasionally, one of these parents pauses from their distractions to catch a glimpse of their child splashing in the water.  I sat in the back, well away from the rows of parents for fear that their boredom might bleed over to me in the way of banal conversation. The room is generally quiet.

sketch of toddler throwing a tantrum on the floor
(c) 2014 by David Borden
Suddenly the tranquility was shattered by a toddler throwing a terrible, rotten, screaming tantrum.  The mother ignored him.  After a few minutes of tear choked cries, the mother still made no attempt to soothe the boy or remove him from the room.  The passivity of the other parents surprised me until I noticed how many of them had been anesthetized by ear-buds.

The mother shoved a pacifier into the kid's mouth and for a cool, blissful second, silence fell until the boy pulled his lips back at the corners to scream around it the silicone impediment.  He flung his stomach to the floor and pounded the ground with this fists while continuing to wail.  Two thoughts came to mind: 1)  I was glad I no longer had a toddler and 2) I judged this mother to be incompetent.

Still screaming, the child sat up and pulled open a backpack under the woman's chair.  Another boy, maybe seven or eight walked over to the mother and asked her what was wrong with the toddler.  I couldn't hear her response.  Her voice was dull and weak.

The boy asked, "So why don't you just give it to him?"

Again, her answer was drowned under the continuing cries.  The older boy looked a the toddler once, shrugged, and walked off.

The mother turned my way and I saw her face for the first time.  Though she was not old, her features drooped and her bulging eyes sank into the dark bags underneath.  I knew her look, her desperate fatigue.  I recalled the darkest moments of Savannah's toddler years when her brain injury made the stimulus of her world so overwhelming and terrifying that she cried herself to sweaty, hoarse exhaustion.

I shouldn't judge this woman, I thought.

This scene may not be what it appears.  Maybe this awful child is not hers. He may have a brain injury or some other hidden disability, though he appears normal.  She may have had him under circumstances that I can't even imagine.  Maybe she didn't want children.  Maybe she's regretted every decision in her life up to this moment.  Maybe she spent a sleepless night caring for a sick mother or husband and dealing with this tantrum is beyond her energy reserves. Maybe she's done the best she could, and failed, and that realization has broken her so utterly that dragging herself out of bed and sustaining any modicum of normalcy is a victory.

Under those circumstances, who am I to judge her?

Finally, she stood and slowly gathered up the scattered junk of her life that the child had wrenched from the backpack.  She zipped it closed.  She picked up the screaming monster under his armpits and dumped him into a stroller, buckled him up, and pushed him out the door.  His screaming faded away like a siren in the night.

Quiet came to the aquarium once more.  I opened my book and began reading.

I am so grateful, I thought, so grateful.

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