The last two times I’ve left Rebecca with someone outside our extended family, she’s gotten so anxious she’s puked. The first time was in August, and I was perplexed and not sure what had happened. The second time was in October, right after she turned two, and I felt like a failure as a mother. The mom friend who was watching her was incredibly gracious, but what two year old can’t spend an hour at a friend’s house while her mom has coffee or gets a haircut? Everyone’s always said I had an easy baby, the kind who’s easygoing and adaptable. When she got nervous enough to throw up, I felt like I’d broken her. My poor kid.
Later I remind myself that I’m not in charge of Rebecca’s existential struggles and that her emotional life is hers first, not something I should be using to measure of my own success. Bad parenting 101: If I’m preoccupied with how my toddler’s emotional outbursts reflect on me, then I’m likely to complicate her attempts to express and deal with whatever she’s feeling, and I’m likely to miss what’s actually going on.
It was supposed to be an innocent Christmas story about a little owl who wanted to go sledding. His only problems were that there wasn’t any snow and that he was the tenant of a second-hand pop-up book with a few pieces missing.
I read that story maybe twice before discovering that Little Owl had a much bigger problem: his mother was missing. Maybe he liked living by himself, I suggested, like in One Was Johnny? Nope. Rebecca rejected one explanation after the other, until I facetiously threw in, “Or maybe his mama was eaten by a fox.”
That answer Rebecca supported. But what do you do when your mama’s eaten by a fox? I remembered how I’d dealt with my parents’ deaths and gave Rebecca the short sanitized version, about feeling sad and adjusting to it and moving on with the story. Little Owl could learn how to be happy even without a mommy. The next page had him sitting on a sled. So maybe he needed to do something fun, like go sledding? That wasn’t the right answer for Rebecca, of course, because it dodged the thing that interested her. But I remember bursts of madcap elation nestled into every grief I’ve known.
Rebecca told me that Little Owl needed to find a new mommy. So he did, with Rebecca prompting further adjustments to the story along the way. She called the new version her “sad story” and she asked to read it several times a day for a while. Most often the requests came was I was unloading the dishwasher or not being present the way she wanted me. I suspect her concept of death is something along the lines of “unresponsive”–we’ve looked at dead bees–so going from “Mama’s ignoring me” to “what if Mama died?” isn’t such a jump. The “forever” aspect of death won’t make sense until she understands time better.
She’d grin in anticipation and didn’t seem sad about any of it.
Telling the sad story is part of a broader process of learning about feelings. All through October and November, Rebecca loved reading books about feelings and when she got upset, she started narrating what she felt–Baby cry! Sad! No take mine scarf! Baby cry!–instead of crying much of the time. I’m proud of her for that. But you get interested in learning about feelings because you’re feeling them, and it doesn’t take a child psychologist to tell you that the tyke’s worried about being separated from her mother.
My mom would’ve thought I should protect Rebecca from the idea that something could happen to me. She was scandalized when Bambi’s mama died. I not sure she’d approve of me mentioning her death to Rebecca, either, but I mention it anyway, especially around Samhain. I worry that not treating death as a normal part of life will make it more horrific when it happens. I don’t mind knowing our lives can be up-ended, because I’ve seen how we can be reborn again and again when we get knocked over. I’d rather teach Rebecca that.
Maybe that’s not the right move for a toddler who’s already gotten anxious enough to be puking, though. Or maybe the problem was that I was afraid I shouldn’t be talking about any of it, so I “mentioned” death and separation instead of explaining what had happened, and that opened up more space for anxiety. And maybe telling the sad story helped resolve it.
What I know is that representing your emotions or seeing them represented in stories usually makes good of them, and not representing them usually makes them hurt more. Now, toddlers have big emotions, but they get stories that are disproportionately small and safe, which is supposed to protect them from the really big stuff until they’re ready to face it. But if toddlers are already dealing with big stuff emotionally, how much sense does it make to keep their stories small? If toddlers have overwhelming emotions about things that seem small to us, would those emotions be better conveyed through catastrophic images, like houses destroyed and people gone missing?
Keeping the stories small and safe isn’t necessarily as backward as it sounds, though, because feelings love the symbolic. Little things can stand in for big things or broader situations, and carry their emotional weight. That’s one reason that toddlers sometimes freak out over things that seem comically inconsequential to adults. It means that maybe stories about small problems are just fine. I worry that if I introduce bigger problems, maybe I’m just going to intensify Rebecca’s fear.
However, when children’s books turn big feelings into little images, it sanitizes them for the adults reading the books, so that we can brush them away with a simple explanation. That’s what I initially tried to do with Little Owl’s missing mommy. But when you try that move on big disaster imagery, you start to see that what you’re doing is ridiculous and that the right move may be to focus on it instead. The scale of imagery in children’s books may be more important for what it elicits from its grown-up audience than from its toddler audience.
In the end, I don’t suppose there’s a “one size fits all” answer to how to talk about scary topics with a toddler, and there doesn’t need to be. What tells me that we handled the sad story well was Rebecca’s reaction. Not only is the sad story exactly what she wanted to hear, but she’s fascinated and eager when she hears similar stories. Some kids will tell you outright that they don’t want to look at the scary stuff, and that’s not her.
In the last month and a half, the wheel’s turned again. Rebecca’s linguistic abilities exploded and at the same time she started playing more independently. She’s been saying “Come too” whenever Shayna leaves the house, and she’s disappointed when she can’t go to work with her dad. If she spends more than two or three hours away from me, she goes on a boob binge when she comes back, so I can tell it still stresses her out. But that’s okay; she’s dealing with it. The next time we try leaving her alone with a friend will be for something she wants to do, so that she can meet the challenge on her own terms.