I was hanging out being a totally responsible mom, letting my kids have popsicles for breakfast in January. They are 4 and 1, and I am generally exhausted and tired of worrying about things that won't actually hurt them like veggie-based, no-sugar added frozen treats. There we were not having a heartfelt, warm family breakfast while talking about our wishes for the day, and eating homemade Belgian waffles, when things started going South.
My youngest son, at 18 months, hasn't had much in the way of life experiences. There was an extended battle over him wanting to hold the popsicle immediately. I was rushing to eat half of it so there would be half as much orange, liquid carrot goop all over my living room. He cried, he screamed, he demanded. I did my best to explain what was happening but I don't think he really cared.
Eventually, I wrapped the stick in a towel and handed him the popsicle. Things were great for about 5, maybe 10 minutes, both kids had happy tangerine-colored faces.
That fateful moment when there's not enough frozen ice pop left to hold itself to the stick.
What was left of the toddler's breakfast hit the floor.
And he lost all of his chill.
He cried. He screamed. He picked up the two pieces and tried uselessly to salvage what was left. He was beside himself with disappointment, his popsicle had let him down. He was, himself, a melted puddle on the floor.
I tried to hand back the individual pieces. I tried to explain the science of popsicle failure. I made it worse by washing his hands and melting away a remaining piece that I didn't know he was holding.
Turns out he cares nothing about the states of molecules OR clean fingernails so the whole time I think I am trying, he was crying the saddest, loudest cry -- the sound of the betrayed.
"You have big emotions." I said to him.
This is something I find myself affirming for him more often as he digs his heels deep into toddler-hood. He has the in-the-moment peaks and valleys of emotion that only a young child can possess.
Save for the cases when it involves throwing their dinner on the floor or running away from you in a crowded place, when kids are happy it's usually easy to allow yourself to be happy with them. Their smiles are contagious, there's hope in their joy.
But what about when they're upset?
When your brain defaults to the adult point of view: "Well, of course, it's going to melt. What's he so upset about?" Or when you wish they'd just stop crying, whining, complaining and understand that sometimes life is hard. What about those moments when you are challenged to find compassion in your child's sadness just as easily as you find hope in his joy?
I challenge myself daily to remember that we all have different material items, goals, and habits that are important to us.
As adults, our values are varied, our priorities are plentiful, none of us have identical belief systems. This is also true of children. Perhaps even more so as they are brand new to this life and don't have years of past experiences to refer to when sad things happen.
Toddlers naturally have big emotions.
I'm 33, and when I get to the end of a popsicle and the last piece starts sliding off, I think it's pretty disappointing. I can imagine it's devastating when you're one-and-a-half, eating a popsicle for breakfast is the best thing to happen to you all week, and the orange sticky ice pop disintegrates before your very eyes.
Compassion in the smallest moments, be it melted desserts or bubbles that burst a little too quickly, can lead to understanding our kids better in the long-term. There is power in allowing them to feel the full weight of their unhappiness. There is strength in supporting them as they work through their feelings and learn to regulate on their own accord without forcing them to stop crying -- to stop feeling -- before they are ready.
I know that when my kids are upset it is because something that matters to them has been compromised. I know that I have felt the same way many times before and I try to find empathy in that knowledge. I know they won't cry forever, but they may truly need to cry right now.
Eventually, when my children grow to be preteens, teens, men towering above me, with problems far greater than they can imagine today. I hope they will remember that although I am a hopelessly imperfect mother, I valued their feelings and emotions when they were small. I held them close when popsicles betrayed their trust. I hope they know without a doubt that I a here to offer support. I will listen to their problems even when they seem trivial to my adult mind.
I hope they know that whenever a popsicle dies I'll be there with a warm heart and calm understanding of their big emotions.
Lauren Dillard is a crafty, overthinking wife and mother of two boys living in Virginia. She enjoys writing emotional essays about uncomfortable subjects and baking vegan cookies. Lauren is currently working on a book about the intensity of motherhood. Until then you can find her work on The Establishment, Scary Mommy, elephant journal, and her blog.