*****Note: I wrote this initially in October of 2015 at one of my writing club sessions. I have wanted to revisit it for some time now but, you know, life and shit. Back then Little Guy would have been almost two. Now he’s…well you can do the math.*****
The other evening, during our normal going-to-bed routine, my almost-two-year-old son exhibited the eery and age-specific Jekyll-Hydian crying laugh.
We were playing monster, his favorite post-bath pursuit, when I grabbed him and monstrously pinned him down on his changing pad to put on his PJs. He did not want PJs. PJs meant bedtime and he did not want bedtime. His tears and crying were immediate and real, but so was his deep belly laugh when I tickled him.
I stopped tickling and he started crying.
I tickled and he laughed.
The reactions were so immediate and startling that I did a few investigative rounds. After a few tickling starts and stops he was exhausted and just began to whine, but what I saw was clear: I had found a switch to toggle between tears and elation, sad and happy, 0 and 1. Binary. No intermediate steps.
In my short experience as a parent, I see that this instance is only but one incarnation of the infantile bit flip. The moments before bedtime is not the only time you can see the forces of happiness and despair flip a coin. Dinner time comes and the toast is cut into triangles instead of squares: tears. He falls down and hurts himself to the point of crying but then sees the cats chasing a fly: laughter.
He and his like-aged chums are little light switches, little observed Schrödinger’s cats, little 1s and 0s. There is no in-between. Just as you can’t have a half-switched-on light, you can’t have two-year-old who’s half happy or half sad.
I do believe this to be a known universal truth; we all went through this phase. For some the phase lasts a year, for others, it can last a lifetime. I’ve always had a temper and it’s been a terrible pain in my ass. As a younger man, being slighted or disrespected would swallow me into a sour smelling shroud of seething sulk.
To this day, yes, my anger can run deep and cold, but my bouts of anger don’t surface very often. I am genuinely a happy person. Because of this, both ends of the spectrum of human emotion are familiar ground. I do know and have traveled too often the quickest route from high to low, from 1 to 0. But, in my 30 something years, I’ve also learned how to get lost on the scenic route on my way to 0.
What is it that allows me to calm myself down now in upsetting times? One answer is that I’m older and smarter and more balanced. The other answer is that I’m simply afraid; terrified of dislodging and sliding uncontrollably into the impossibly black hole of the zero. Because the frustration of impotence and vulnerability is Kryptonite for a control freak, and falling into this inky dark place of anger, hatred and fury stains even the deepest of one’s fibers (and may never come fully out.)
And I’m afraid because I know this dark place. I can hear the hollow crack of the bucket hitting the rocky bottom of a well no longer flush with energy to fight back, fight on. I have run my fingers over the hard, dank, penetrating cold at the bottom. I have rattled around in there to the rhythm of my trembling helplessness.
A broken hand, a few sessions of therapy, the passive-aggressive habit of yelling at people the day after silently in my head, learning that holding in that kind of emotional gunk leads to massive systemic skin problems, learning that more therapy does indeed work when it’s disguised as homeopathic witch magic, learning to accept my flaws and character and that being upset is OK, finding an outlet in writing, becoming a father and seeing that now another little person will be looking to me as a cheat sheet as he starts to play his cards in this silly game we’re all embroiled in.
And yes he’ll see me as a guide, but I fear it will be similar to my third semester of quantum mechanics in college. For every test and midterm the professor allowed a sheet of paper with anything on it; I put every formula I could find in the book, but it helped discouragingly little because my knowledge of the concepts underlying the formulae was as thin as my chances of passing without a very generous curve.
So my son will see me, someone who can (now) control his emotions (mostly), but he won’t understand that it took 30 years of experiences to find out who the person in me really is. Thirty years of getting upset, hurting other people, feeling remorse, being hurt, trying too hard, apologizing, in order to get to a point where I can fake it well enough to trick a child.
Developing the emotions, the skills, the control to add bus stops between 1 and 0 comes with age. It is a fundamental, if not essential, part of growing up. Developing the part of the brain that has the machinery to reason and rationalize comes with time and experience.
I know this, yet I still try to fill in this gap for him. Sadly, this will surely have the ill-fated effect of trying to sober up your drunk friend by opening the car window or pouring cups of coffee into him. I want to show him that toast cut into squares is not worth the tears or that jumping from couch to coffee table is not worth timeout; to protect him from himself and give him the biggest head-start he can have in emotional IQ and becoming a contributing member of society. But I know that won’t work. And this knowledge feeds the other part of me who wants to let him make his own mistakes—something I desperately wanted as a youth. This is the same part of me that allows him to go up and down the stairs by himself and doesn’t pick him up automatically when he falls (until I see blood).
I’m confident I’ll strike a balance between allowing him space to develop his sense of where the steps between 0 and 1 should go, and telling him outright that 0.5 is a good starting (and ending) point. Maybe 0.7.
I’m still filling in the gaps and I will never stop—no matter how many discrete steps you develop, you’re always infinitely far from done. I choose to look at this fact as an opportunity to ever better myself and to learn with all the mistakes I make. I hope Little Guy does too and is not put off by a challenge; he has infinitely more stops to add in.