Saturday, October 23, 2010

On the Nature of Tears

Diva burst into tears.

Normally, I would follow those four words with something descriptive like “…when we told her it was bedtime” or “…when she lost her ‘My Little Pony’ unicorn” or “…when the bear attacked.” But this week, it hardly seems worth categorizing why she was a yowling mess; to do so would suggest a rarity about the condition, a need for a special cause. And, trust me, it wasn’t that kind of week.

Diva has always had a dramatic personality. When she’s happy, she absolutely sparkles; when she feels angry, she glowers blackly. And when she cries, she likes to go for full-wail lamentations. Her cries do not bespeak sadness, typically, but injustice: the howl of the wronged. It is amazing how explicit in meaning a seemingly inarticulate shrieking “waaaaa” sound can be: “WHY is the universe so CRUEL as to stick me with EVIL dads who insist that my FAVORITE sandals do NOT qualify as sneakers for gym class?”

Thankfully, our gal isn’t prone to tears most of the time. But this week the tears seemed to wait around every corner. In the span of a half hour, we might face her blubbering dismay over being asked to swap dirty clothes for clean pajamas, followed soon after by a round of hysterics because the bedtime reading selection was too short, capped with the sobs of the misbegotten because her do-rag fell off in bed, exposing her beautiful new braids to the elements. If there was a soundtrack to the week, it was the Eurhythmics: Here comes the rain again.

Thankfully, I have now been a dad long enough to know that all emotional bursts come in waves. The Mildly Terrible Twos are followed by the Actually Terrible Threes and the Banshee Fours. In each case, we’re not talking about solid year-long periods of extreme behavior so much as months-long clusters of madness, during which physical growth, newfound mental discoveries, and burgeoning willpower transform otherwise adorable children into mini-Kraken. I have not yet nicknamed age 5 because, on the whole, it has been a lovely time; but I must note that when Diva does plummet from the sunny heights to disproportionate grief, the combined power of her lungs and her vast reserve of stubbornness well outpace any stockpile of reason she might otherwise possess.

The goal for her dads is to resist the urge to try and fix every situation that causes tears. If you set the precedent that each cry is equal, every single howl worth your undivided attention, it won’t be long before a keen little mind has figured out that she can control your behavior, turning you into Pavlov’s Parent reacting on cue. Learning when to respond most profoundly, to comfort when it’s really needed, helps both parent and child. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I cannot work up much sympathy over her total devastation that an especially enthralling episode of Curious George has come to an end.

The Hubby has a theory that I like: Crying is a child’s re-boot button. All the processes of her little life—emotions, impulses, senses—can simply feel like overload. So if the wild keening that make us crazy is actually the control-alt-delete of Diva’s system, fair enough. Alas, the computer metaphor breaks down in one regard: I still haven’t found the settings for volume control.

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