Tantrums & Grief in the Grocery: More Than Meets the Eye
My son is almost five-years-old.
It's been a while since I've witnessed him suffer a temper tantrum of a Force Ten velocity. I can attribute that to him growing older, I guess, but I think it’s a cruelly inverse combination of his youth versus the reality of the real world.
Sometimes, no matter how you scream and sob and rage and beg and wail, the Universe refuses to give in.
My Bumpy girl is three-years-old now, just 21 months younger than her brother. She's a drama queen of the cutest, most irritating variety, known for throwing herself on the floor in distraught fury while I veer between trying not to laugh and restraining myself from smacking her gorgeous, still–a–baby bum.
But never in public. Miss Bump, when out and about, is entirely too occupied with looking sweet and being a princess. It's a commonly accepted principle between the people who know and love her -- the Bump’s little world would be a lovely place to live. There are fairies and ballerinas and butterflies floating across city streetscapes, firework colors in every mundane object.
It's only at home that she displays what an absolute heathen she is truly capable of being.
Her brother was entirely different two years ago, at her age. His tantrums were dramatic, boisterous, slightly hysterical, and always happened in public. But as I said, it has been a while. I was wholly unprepared for a temper tantrum of this heat and fury.
And, of course, small children can smell weakness like fear.
Days get away from me sometimes. What begins with an attempt to get out of bed when the sun -- and my son -- both rise, turns into a lazy lie in with Lady Bump. Washing, cleaning, emailing, writing, refereeing small children... all those things take great chomping bites from the morning hours, and on some cursed days, we leave the house after 1 pm.
It's not my preferred course of action, dragging two tired children through Woolies, aka The Most Tempting Yet Boring Place On Earth, on a damp Tuesday afternoon. But we needed groceries. No milk. No bread. No cat food or, more importantly, cat litter.
And nothing caffeinated in sight. No coke. No chocolate. Not even instant freaking coffee.
I'm a seasoned, stealth supermarket shopper and, to give credit where it's due, the behavior of my children during food gathering is commendable. They range from moderately well–behaved to... well... moderately well–behaved. It just depends on how much of the cute-factor they like to slather on at the checkout. (Do not be fooled. These children will suck you in like that then, bang, when you least expect it... chaos).
I'm distracted, quite literally listless after leaving my chicken–scrawl shopping memorandum stuck on the fridge at home, where it was doing very little good for me or anyone else. I've made the executive decision to just buy all the non–perishable essentials we might need (tomato sauce, sultanas and Coke being paramount to my action plan) and rely on the kidlets to remind me if I'm forgetting something.
Again, not my chosen course of action. But a rushed, bedraggled shopping trip is better than pizza for dinner again.
I don't realize my son is tense, bothered, quiet. I don't realize it until later, after the urge to strangle him had subsided.
One of the special racks, at the end of the fourth or fifth aisle, is stacked with boxes of muesli bars. "Can we get some of these please Mum?"
I barely even glance at him. "We can, but not from here. When we get around to where they usually are, where there's lots of them to choose from, we'll get them then."
Those of you who spend time in the company of small children know how this next bit goes. Small child begins to whinge, their drawn out pleas often mixed with exaggerated sobs in the back of their throat. “Please... but please...”
"No. Please stop it, the answer is no. We’ll be around in the aisle in a moment, we can get them then."
Child continues to beg, plead and cajole. You swing between staunchly ignoring them and repeating, as calmly as one can with their teeth clenched so tightly it makes the muscles in your cheeks and jaw spasm, that you've said "no," you mean "no" and perhaps even the reason why you both said and mean "no."
That stage can continue for an indeterminate period. It ceases only when a direct manifestation occurs -- either the authority figure waves the white flag and gives in; the child switches Guilt–Inciting Mope tactics; or the volume, rage, desperation, intensity and volume of the child continues to the point where you have a Force Ten temper tantrum to deal with... right there in the middle of the only supermarket in your very small area, where everyone knows everyone and the staff recognize you and your kids every week after you've been shopping there for just a few months.
The happier-on-the-day-this-was-taken-obviously Chop goes all MJ style over the air vents at Luna Park.
But there's temper tantrums.... and there's temper tantrums. For my little man, who's often far too grown up for his own good, to lose it with that much force in such a public place...
This was about more than muesli bars. This was about something much bigger, too big for him. Too big for me. My Chop, he's a clever kid, and he can read basic words. Give him "zoo" or "nan" or "mum" and he'll recognize them.
And just five days before Father’s Day, the word "Dad" was plastered on every available supermarket service. Whole displays featured gifts to be bought for men with offspring old and young -- chocolates, mugs, nuts and DVDs. Banners floating high under the glaring white fluorescent lights did exactly what they were intended to do and reminded you, every step of the way, the first Sunday in September was getting very close and don't you forget now!
That's just an educated guess, of course, and I certainly didn't have that level of insight at the time. Hindsight is an amazing thing. To be honest, and why not be, I was so shell-shocked by the ear piercing screams, the genuine sobs hiccuping my little boy’s throat and the big fat tears of salt rolling down his cheeks that I couldn't think very clearly at all.
That eighteen months of shameful disconnection from my kids actually became useful as I continued to navigate a heavy trolley packed with the beginning of a grocery shop and a Bump, a screaming Chop trailing just feet behind me. Occasionally he would gulp down a sob to say, "But Mama, please!! Just LISTEN TO ME!!" On auto pilot, my brain flicked on the switch for Coping As Mum When Things Are Going To Shit and a barrier of ice froze anything that may have been reacting, fizzing to the distress of listening to my child scream like that, the exasperation of being unable to make him stop. No temper, no tears, a small dry smile and slight nod of the head the only inclination I heard my son's screaming at all.
I stop occasionally, crouch down and put my hands on his shoulders. I look him in the eyes and tell him it's ok, but he has to stop this, and besides he's going to make himself sick if he keeps screaming so hysterically. He nods, bottom lip still quivering, and I hug him and we continue on our way and thirty seconds later he's screaming again and, oh my lord, I could kill my husband right now if he wasn't already dead and I just want to get out of here but we have no food at home and just leaving isn't an option and how long can this kid possibly scream for, anyway?
Six aisles. That's how long this kid could scream for -- six aisles. With his sister watching on as if this were amusing to her (which, in all honesty, it probably was), and me ignoring the continual screech that people were actually wincing from and trying so very, very hard not to let the tears that had formed and pooled in the corner of my eyes slip down my cheeks.
And as long as I made eye contact with no one, I was winning. I am so damn sick of crying in public places. Well-meaning women in their forties and fifties who have been there and done this a long time ago give me their empathetic solidarity. One lovey lady goes so far as to pat me lightly on the shoulder and murmur "You're doing a very good job, love," and I whisper thank you, unable to look her in the eyes because if I do the small wall of pride I have left will be melted; it will fall apart if I sense any pity in her, if I even think she may feel sorry for me.
Another woman laughs as I approach her, loudly and boisterously. I'm not sure why; I think it's to mark her own discomfort. She looks at me, still laughing, expectant that I will join her. That crumbling, lip–trembling humiliation gives way to anger and I take a deep breath, leaving behind a bottle of white vinegar in my effort to move away before I stick out my tongue or my middle finger or both.
I remain victorious right up to the third–to–last aisle, one child still screaming, the other still vaguely amused; only cat food, cat litter, baby wipes and toilet paper left on my mentally scrambled check list that is now filled with holes as if it's been eaten by greedy snails, bloated and ugly on stress and the acidic tightness caused by the tense knot in my diaphragm.
I'm grabbing two boxes of crunchy cat food, still in shock and still gamely swallowing back whole tsunamis of tears, when the store manager approaches. He's not much older than me. For one bizarre moment I think he's going to complete my Totally Fantastic Shopping Experience by requesting that myself and my screaming child leave the store, please.
He doesn't, of course. Winking conspiratorially (”I've got one just this age at home”), he crouches down to my Chop’s level and speaks in that we’re–all–in–together tone.
“Well, mate, what's going on here?” He listens patiently as my little boy, between hitching sobs, tells him that “M–m–m–m–m–um–um–um–mm–mm–y won't let me have what I want...”
“Can't always have what you, mate, that's life. Now, I'll tell you what -- do you think you can be a good boy for mum and help her with her shopping, and when you get to the register I’ll have a lollipop waiting for you and your sister?”
My little man nods and shakes the managers hand, looking in the eyes the way his daddy taught to him to, and that makes me proud.
Mr Store Manager smiles at me, reminds Chop to be a good boy again, and leaves us to it, my son mostly placated but still taking great shaking sniffs every few step, his shoulders shaking as he breaths out, wiping the back of one across an already snotty face.
And me...? I have spent the last half hour purposely avoiding any type of connection with the other people here, pushing ugly grey metal cages around a too-bright, too-cold store; simply in order to regain my composure.
That interaction, while placating my son, seemed to serve to transfer his distress to me. Big, heavy tears roll silently down my cheeks and, once unbottled, refuse to stop. I begin grabbing the last few items we need, navigating through a wet mess of cloudy saline that is burning and balming my eyes both at once. I'm not even sure how I feel -- if I'm pissed off with this manager for stepping in and offering my child a reward when the whole purpose of the exercise was me attempting to reiterate that "no" means "no"; or if I'm so grateful for his intervention that I could worship his very existence. All I really know is that I want out of here, and soon. This one is a write-off, and again I curse myself for such a rookie mistake -- little kids plus afternoons plus supermarkets must, at the very least, quadruple the potential for humiliation of said children's parents.
We make it to the checkout with what's left of our respective dignities in tact. The Chop’s sobs have slowed to the point where there is only the tiniest pull as he draws in a breath, and I remember with a pang in my soul how he used to do that as a newborn baby; he would cry himself inconsolable, unable to drift off to sleep no matter how he was held or rocked or fed. When he finally fell into an exhausted slumber he would take a sighing gasp on every second or third breath, his diaphragm still catching up with the oxygen levels in his blood.
I begin stacking things on the checkout belt, Tetris–style, when the manager spots us. He asks the Chop to grab two lollipops, and, naturally, the child doesn't need to be told that twice. Mr Store Manager is again at my children's level, squatting onto the toes of his expensive black dress shoes, unwrapping their lollipops and chatting away to them. I catch his eye and smile, and it's at that moment that he asks, all innocence and meaning nothing at all, “So, what are you doing with Daddy for Father’s Day?”
Those hot salty tears well again immediately and I actually catch his eye, hold up my hands, mouth "No, no!" but it's a bit too late for that. My son and daughter respond so promptly and in such seriousness that it's almost comical. I think, for a moment there, Mr Manager is waiting for me to reveal the hidden cameras and the store speakers to bleat canned laughter.
"My Daddy died," says the Chop.
"My Daddy’s in Heaven," lisps my Bumpy thing, the cutest, saddest sentence you'll ever heard a three-year-old fairy say.
It feels as though the entire building pauses for a beat, every person within earshot holding their breath for just the slightest of seconds. Mr Manager’s eyes connect with mine again, and if he could have demanded the floor of his own store simply quicksand him down into the foundations, he would have gone quietly and without complaint.
"Shit." He says softly. All I can do is nod, unable to speak because if I do, I will start sobbing the same way my boy was just minutes before -- noisy, messy, uncontrollable. Acceptable in a four-year-old, but so much in a grown woman.
I can't help but feel sorry for him, this well-meaning manager come almost farcically undone by his own good deeds. He quietly asks his staff to help me pack my shopping, and my tears are flowing so thick and fast, I can barely see the brightly-lit keys on the eftpos pinpad. As I pay, Mr Manager quietly and without a fuss instructs my son to run and grab a huge box of chocolates from one of the front displays. "And you give them to Mummy when you get home, OK, and tell her you love her very much."
That's about the end of me, right there. This kind of unexpected kindness shatters the hard, high walls I work so diligently to cultivate and my tears continue, my eyes swelling with every step I take toward the blessed electronic exit doors.
Mr Store Manager follows me, of course, chatters with my kidlets, helps me pack my shopping into the rear of the car and I discover once I'm home that he's sat the cat litter oddly against one side of the boot and there's a huge tear in the bag and I'm eternally grateful neither of us noticed while I was still in the car park because I didn't need anything else to fuck up on me this afternoon and I don't think this bloke did, really, either.
"It must be hard, doing it by yourself." Again, I feel nothing but sorry for him; he is a genuinely nice guy. "I've got three boys at home, and two of us and we’re still run off our feet."
I shrug. What do I say to that, what is there to say to that? "We do OK, just the three of us." I'm reassuring myself as much as him. "We do OK."
I drive home. Unpack shopping, tape up cat litter. The Chop has reverted to his usual happy self and is marveling slightly at the "nice man who gave us chocolates," and I'm too tired to even think about what kind of message all this is sending. Right now, I don't care.
I feed, bath, book and bed my kids; then I lay down on my bed. I'm not sure whether to laugh, or to cry.
I stare at the ceiling instead.
We're just fine, just the three of us. We do OK.