Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Maternal Meltdowns and Existential Opacity

In high school, our dean used the acronym PDA to refer to Public Displays of Affection. Some twenty years later I still find the acronym to be an apt descriptor of behavior in which it might be inappropriate to engage in front of innocent bystanders, although it now stands for Parental Displays of Anger.

When my daughter was around 5-6 months old, I remember being out on a walk with her asleep in her stroller. We lived right by an elementary school, and on that particular afternoon we encountered a mother engaged in an enraged altercation with her son that also involved his coat, the sidewalk, and possibly a plastic guitar. The mom was furious, the kid was crying, and there was some screaming, and forceful shoving into a carseat, and much mini-van door slamming followed by an angry screech of tires.

I spent the first 9 months of my daughter's life in a blissed-out bubble, and I could not at that time comprehend how this mother could be so impatient with her child. Her angel. Her sweet baby. Flesh of her flesh. I looked at the peaceful face of my sleeping infant, and felt foolishly superior. Never would that mother be me. Flash forward a few months, and the bubble burst, as bubbles tend to do.

It happened at an airport, at the end of a long flight following an even longer trip involving hotels and rental cars and restaurants and guest rooms and disrupted nap and bed times. I don't even remember what happened. I'm sure it was some routine and minor annoyance, but it was one more than I was ready to deal with and suddenly I was that screaming mother, shoving my daughter forcefully into her stroller, slamming my suitcase around, and pushing my way angrily up the walkway toward the ticket counter, uncomfortably aware of my audience of flight attendants and gate agents who had, undoubtedly, seen it all before (and probably worse) but whose wide-eyed opprobrium still made me feel like a terrible person, not to mention a bad mom.

How I longed to give the backstory! I wanted to lay out for them how this was just the inevitable endpoint of holding everything together so well the past five days. How I had been a model parent through pteradactyl tantrums and jelly legs and evenings where I couldn't leave my hotel room after 7 pm. Beyond that, I wished I could hand them a flier tallying up the nights I had lain awake with my daughter as she wheezed her way through a cold or cried her way through an ear infection without so much as a peep of protest from me. I felt like I should be wearing a sign outlining the sacrifices I had made and indignities I had suffered as a mother because I know what I looked like in that one moment: an inpatient, inflexible lunatic.

Talk about tipping points. Somehow mine are doozies, and they always seem to happen in public.

It happened again this week at Starbucks. We'd gotten our usual egg sandwich and a foamy drink, and my daughter was (mostly) sitting (mostly) happily (mostly) eating when out of nowhere she started screaming "Egg! Egg! Egg!" (even though one was sitting on the table right in front of her) and crying and rubbing milk foam on her face while trying to stick her fingers into my scalding coffee. When I tried to hold her hand back from the cup, she started a crazy lip splutter which ended up spraying the contents of her mouth onto my face, the only upside of which was that it tasted like caramel and we both ended up smelling like sticky cupcakes. Still, I hadn't signed on for a sticky cupcake morning and, momentarily enraged, I set her down forcefully in her seat, packed up her food, wiped the chair off and hustled her out of the store. The lunatic strikes again. All that was missing was the plastic guitar.

Cooling down in the car on the way home, I thought back on that mother and son and their previously inexplicable altercation. It doesn't seem inexplicable to me now. In fact, I feel a great deal of empathy for both that mother and her son. It's hard to be a parent, sure. But it's also hard to be a kid. As a parent, I often feel like my life is ruled - directly and indirectly - by my child. And yet, I remember very clearly that feeling as a child that I had control over nothing. And no one likes to feel out of control. Well, at least I don't.

In graduate school, I spent some time forced to contemplate the indeterminacy of translation. (Philosophy rears its ugly head!) The classic example, from Willard Van Orman Quine, is when a foreign speaker points to something, like a rabbit, and says "gavagai." How do you figure out to what they are referring? You can't take for granted that what they are really saying is simply "Lo, a rabbit." Maybe they're referring to undifferentiated rabbit parts, maybe to time-slices of rabbits. Maybe they are talking about hunting, or food, or magic tricks.

I wasn't a huge fan of this kind of inquiry. At the time it seemed like loopy, self-indulgent, hair-splitting. And quite possibly delusional. However, in the past year, I have come to see that the problem of referential opacity can serve as a useful model highlighting the problem of existential opacity. Well beyond the imprecision of language, you never know what is going on in someone's head or life - or at their table in Starbucks - until you have some backstory. Or context.

This is Quine's response to the indeterminacy of language; you must be pragmatic and gather enough data to make conclusions that are consistent with behavioral evidence.

When I snap at my daughter and storm out of a store, it could be because I was up all the night before cuddling her croup-y body, worrying about her wheezing and snuffling, soothing and singing to her. Or it could be because she was screaming the entire way to the store, and will be screaming the entire way home again, and I am just beyond gosh awful tired of screaming. It could be because she begs for eggs all the time and then refuses to eat them and no amount of reasoning or refusal seems to break this interminable cycle. It could be because I am a selfish, shallow, spiteful person who should never have reproduced. Or if could be that once again the kid agenda and adult agenda have come into conflict, and I am just too frustrated, or furious, or flummoxed to take a step back or a deep breath and negotiate this particular impasse with poise or humor.

I have little hope for the middle east when this most primal of power struggles rages regularly in bedrooms, and carseats, and shopping carts and, yes - in airports and Starbucks - around this country. I wish for more patience on my end, and more tolerance, and a more mellow toddler - or at least better judgment about when and where to take her our in public - but I also find myself returning to my earlier wish that I could somehow situate this moment in time for those who are looking at me like some shrew of a mother.

There are always a million things threatening to spiral out of control as my daughter spins along like a pre-verbal cyclone of partially-met wants and needs. But most days, most errands, I am reasonably good at managing and responding to her emotional typhoon. Not that I'm perfect at it. But not a total maniac, either. In both public and private, I am far more likely to engage in displays of affection than anger.

If only I could hand out a highlight reel of my best parenting moments or find a snappy way to fit them on a message tee. Because that would be a whole new world of PDA: Pretty Darn Awesome.

1 comment:

  1. Good job, Ellen. It might help to know you are not alone. It might also help to reflect on the capriciousness of life (just when you think you have it figured out, your children will find a way to prove you are wrong.)

    Look at it this way: If human beings (including mothers) were perfect, we would be denied the on-going show Congress puts on everyday absolutely free… AND you would have no idea what it feels like to be a sticky cupcake. Experience has to count for something.

    On the other hand, you may just be intellectualizing something that is, by its very nature, primordial and, therefore, "a work in progress".

    If God had intended for you to understand what's going through your daughter's mind at any given moment, he would have produced the definitive playbook for raising children, something like painting by filling in the numbers: "Oh, she's six months and a day old, so you do this…."

    This way, every child is his or her very own "adventure"...or "challenge", depending upon how you look at it. I think it is therapeutic to get things off your chest whether it's self-doubt or just the caramel your daughter deposited there.

    And I think you need to be generous with yourself. There is an old Indian saying that you should always walk a mile in a man's (or woman's) moccasins before you judge them. There is also an old Hollywood saying: "Me Tarzan, you Jane". It all boils down to whatever works for you.

    Oh, and by the way, when someone points and says "gavagai", does it really matter what it means if there is no one there to see or hear them?