I was driving home in our minivan with a baby screaming in the backseat. My wife, Mel, was sitting next to me. She was looking out the window, her left hand gripping her pant leg, right hand leaning against the armrest, face seated in her palm. Behind me, Tristan, age 7, and Norah, age 5, both had their ears covered. We were 10 minutes from home, but I knew it would feel like an eternity. Aspen, our 5-month-old, was just plain-out moody and wanted us all to know about it. She switched between her normal sorrowful cry to a deep panicking cry, and back again.
Before we got in the van, we’d checked her bum, given her some milk — all the usual — to make her content. It clearly wasn’t enough, or there was something else bothering her, but we were so close to home that the next exit was ours, so we were pressing on. It was going to be a long couple of minutes, because with a screaming baby in a minivan, minutes feel like hours.
And somewhere in all of this, my 5-year-old asked for her mother’s phone. At first, we couldn’t hear her, so she got more frustrated. Once we did understand, we told her no because Mom’s phone was off limits. But honestly, Mel and I were both probably a little frustrated because of the baby screaming, so I have to assume our tone wasn’t all that pleasant.
So Norah started screaming also. She kicked her little feet, smashed her little fists, and gnashed her little teeth, and suddenly it was a harmony of a baby crying and a child’s fit. My poor son was in the middle of it, hands over his ears, eyes a little misty, clearly not sure what to do or say to make it stop.
But honestly, what could make it stop? Mel leaned back and tried to reason with Norah, but it was no use. At the time, I wondered what could be worse than driving a minivan with a screaming baby and a fit-throwing 5-year-old? At the time, I couldn’t think of much.
Helping a child understand how to handle frustration is really difficult, and it’s easy to react with emotion, to get angry, or take things personally. It’s easy just to give in, give them what they want, and move on. But then there is the sinking feeling that I am making them worse, turning them into a bad person, and that’s the last thing that I want.
However, never giving in, well…that’s a whole other thing. That makes me into a brute — a demanding militant father, and I don’t want to be that either. Parenting isn’t black and white. It doesn’t come in clearly defined binaries, but rather in shades of a million colors that change depending on age and situation.
Long story short, Mel gave her a piece of candy instead of her phone, which agitated her brother. “Can I have some?” Tristan asked.
“That was all I had,“ Mel said.
Norah looked at her brother with a smirk, her lips chomping on chocolate. The baby was still crying, and Tristan was now red-faced and feeling picked on, but Norah was content. Mel promised Tristan that we’d get him some candy when we got home, because, with kids, everything must be equal even though life really isn’t that way.
And as I came up to my exit, I felt a deep weariness that only comes from a late night driving a van with screaming children. It was after 9 p.m. now, and I started thinking about work. I was teaching an online class at the time and I needed to finish some grading before I could go to bed.
And as I drove, I thought about how long it was going to take to get the children settled and in bed. I thought about all the work I had to do, and how I was going to be up late, again. I wondered why I was in all this. I wondered why I was trying so hard to be a parent. In the thick of a bad parenting day, it’s easy to feel picked on and angry — an emotion that is probably very similar to the way Tristan felt when his sister received candy and he didn’t. I thought parenting was supposed to be sweet and rewarding, something similar to ’50s TV shows, but that obviously wasn’t the reality. Up to this point, much of it had been screaming.
I wanted to pull the van over to the side of the road, step out, and wander off, never to be seen again. I wanted to be done with all of it. I wanted some quiet. I wanted to go to sleep. I wanted, really, to be anywhere but in that van with a crying baby.
Altogether, I drove with a screaming baby for about 20 minutes. But it felt much, much, longer than that. And once it was all said and done — once the children were asleep and my work was finished and I was in bed looking up at a dark ceiling — I smiled. I’m not sure why, but I did. That then led to laughter, and suddenly I couldn’t stop laughing, thinking about the absurdity of it all. It was deep giggle that rested somewhere between madness and relief. I laughed at Tristan’s reaction when he didn’t get chocolate. I laughed at my desire to wander off into the darkness never to be seen again, and how silly it was. I laughed because it was all over.
But at the same time, I knew that I shouldn’t be laughing. I should be burned out. But instead, I laughed. I suppose this is parenting. This is what it means when your mother says, “One day, you will look back on all this and laugh.” And although this seemed a little earlier than I expected, it was still welcome after a long night driving with screaming children.