We were shopping at Target. I can’t remember what for, but I do remember very vividly our toddler, Aspen, screaming while leaning out from the side of the cart, blonde hair in pigtails, gray shirt with a rainbow on it, and a binky in her mouth and one in her hand.
My wife, Mel, was shopping in another section with our two older children, Tristan and Norah, while I passed the through the store with a disgruntled 2-year-old with wet eyes and a boogery nose, her hand reaching out for something, but I’m not sure what.
She’d been up since 3 a.m. for no reason other than to watch Blue’s Clues. It was 3 p.m. now and both of us were tired, but obviously I was handling it much better than she was. Mel and I assumed the ride to the store would calm her down enough to fall asleep, but it didn’t.
This all started because she’d been getting up a lot in the night. We tried taking away naps, but that backfired. It threw off her sleep cycle or something, and she kept waking up well before dawn. She’d obviously blown into some higher level of sleeplessness, into some horrible red-eyed zone, where she went from being tired at the end of the day to a delusional demon that couldn’t go to sleep and couldn’t stay asleep. And now, everyone at Target had to hear about.
But ultimately, this is life with an overtired child. It’s screaming for no reason. It’s asking for crackers, and when you give them crackers, they cry because the crackers were broken, or they didn’t really want crackers. It’s a child limp on the floor, screaming loud and long, and the only immediate solution a parent can think of is an exorcism. But even a priest couldn’t help an overtired child.
For those of you without children, think of it this way: If a rested child were a number line, 0 being well-rested and 10 being tired, an overtired child is 11. It’s a gray area. It’s an unknown zone that is beyond the explanation of science or religion.
The only cure is sleep, but once a child crosses into that horrible overtired zone, it can take a long time to get them to finally settle down and stop screaming.
I tried to comfort Aspen. I took her out of the cart and held her, but she kicked me. I put her down so she could walk, and she fell limp on the floor. I offered her candy and she pushed me away. Nothing worked.
People were looking at us now. These are the snide looks, the sideways glances that parents get at stores when their children are throwing fits, when every non-parent, perfect parent, and judgmental assclown glares at you because, obviously, your child isn’t happy, which is ruining their trip to shop for new leggings. And it just seems pathetic to them that you can’t handle one little toddler.
And as much as I want to glare back — or perhaps explain to them that kids throw fits when they are tired, and I can’t just stay home every time my child is overtired and throwing a fit, because that would mean I’d never leave the house — I can’t because my hands were full. And they wouldn’t listen anyway, because when someone makes up their mind about your children, they usually don’t give a shit about explanations. They just want to judge you.
I moved to another part of the store that seemed less crowded, and then I thought about revenge. I assume most parents do. Sometimes I think about how awesome it will be to write, “FART” on the backseat of my son’s first car. Or I think about hiding in my middle daughter’s pantry and crapping my pants. As Aspen screamed and kicked, all I could think about was how sweet it will be for me to one day wake her at 3 a.m., years from that moment, and then act like a moody asshole all day.
Not that I actually would take revenge on my children for all the crap they pulled in their childhood, but it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?
I met back up with Mel and the kids in the boys’ clothing department. Mel was getting our son some new shirts. She put them in the cart, and Aspen reached out for her mother.
Mel picked her up, and she went silent. She nestled her face into Mel’s shoulder, wrapped her little legs around her waist, and went to sleep as if her mother was some wonderful drug.
“What the hell?” I said.
Mel shrugged, and I went from being tired and frustrated, to feeling cheated. Kids always do this to fathers. They say mothers have special powers, and in a moment like this, I knew it to be true.
“She just needed Mommy,” she said. Then Mel shrugged and took Aspen to the van while I purchased our items.
We drove home in silence as Aspen slept, and all I could think about was the next day. I hoped she’d be back in a regular sleep cycle. But somehow I knew this would all happen again because the fact is, having an overtired child is simply a part of parenting — a very sucky, horrible part.