There is a war being waged every day. A war for peace and for autonomy. This violent and sometimes messy struggle pervades our society; nobody is safe, especially women and children. If you think you’ve remained unscathed then you are not a parent, and you must have blocked the terrors of childhood from your mind. Because you don’t remember your own struggle for autonomy and freedom from your parents and your crib; or how your ancestors all fought this fight before you. As a newly minted Uncle who’s been babysitting lately, let me tell you, the toddler war against nap time and nighttime is no joke.
In one corner – Parents, struggling for a living room filled with peace. In the other corner – Toddlers, standing up against the oppressive tyranny of rules, schedules, and above all, silence. This reporter has seen first hand how the violence and tear-shed can change the course of an entire afternoon. A peaceful session of painting can turn into a splotchy mess, as walls and faces are covered blood red. My niece Charlie, turning three this week, calls me “Uncle Pizza,” which I love. Sometimes she calls me simply “Unkies” to rhyme with junkies, which I love even more.
Last night she was scared after bedtime because a fire truck came roaring down the street and roused her from a sleep she had just barely entered. So naturally she started screaming her head off. Her mom, my sister Cheryl went in to soothe her and took her down on the couch to read some more books while she calmed down. It worked. She went back to her crib, Cheryl sang their customary million songs to her and things were looking good. Her eyes even closed.
As Cheryl was leaving the room Hurricane Charlie picked right back up, still gripped with fear, and began howling even louder than before. She asked for Daddy, for books, for a sip of milk. Anything she could think of to get the hell up out of that crib. But Cheryl refused and told Charlie to go to sleep.
You see, Charlie has this habit, even at only three years old, or crying wolf. The fire truck scared her, that was legit. Cheryl did what any good mom would do. She picked her up, spent time with her, read to her, and comforted her. But when Charlie started whooping it up again claiming she was still scared, it was hard to believe. She is an expert at avoiding night-night, like a smooth talking master thief, she is a word-smith already well-versed in the art of getting-her-way. So Cheryl left the room, closed the door, and thought “she’ll just have to cry it out.”
Two minutes of bloody murderous screams filled the air.
Two minutes became six minutes. Mom and Dad were a mess now, raw nerves and pure conflict.
Do we get her? Is she really scared or just trying to pull another one of her toddler fast ones that she’s gotten so good at?
Honestly, even I wasn’t sure.
My sister, unable to take the piercing shrieks was about to relent and let Charlie sit on the couch with us. It was almost 10pm.
That’s when I stepped in. The battle-weary parents weren’t thinking clearly.
We can’t give in to her, we just can’t. If I was as tired as they were after three years in the toddler trenches I’d have wanted to waive the white pillowcase too, and let the little one stay up late. I told my sister that if she didn’t mind I’d go in and try to calm her down until she falls asleep.
Without hesitation I had her approval. It turns out it doesn’t take any arm twisting at all to get a tired, nerve-frayed mother to agree to let you approach her screaming child late at night; none whatsoever.
With her nod of agreement, I approached the war zone. I entered Charlie’s room.
The battle was raging. Her screams were louder than mortar shells and seemed like, if left unchecked they could do just as much damage.
She was standing in her crib, gripping the railing. When she spotted me, she did something I didn’t even think was possible. She got louder.
She reached her hands out to me to pick her up. I knew I wouldn’t be doing that so each hand was a knife stabbing my heart. I wanted to help her calm down, and if possible learn to calm herself. And with any luck at all she’d fall back asleep. So I steeled myself against her pleas for rescue and sat on the floor just outside the crib.
“Hi, Charlie, hi. Can you calm down for me?”
“I want mommy, I want mommy,” her cheeks were wet and her voice loud and quivering.
I was ready to give in right there, but I summoned the strength to proceed.
“I know you do, but Mommy and Daddy are downstairs right now. I just came in to sit with you until you fall asleep because I know you’re scared.”
“I want mommy, I want mommy.”
I wanted to die, I was such an asshole. Who doesn’t let a screaming kid have their mom. But that wasn’t the solution. I got this, I told myself.
“I’m sorry honey, but it’s past your bedtime and Mommy and Daddy are going to stay downstairs, but I’m going to sit with you until you calm down okay.”
Mommy and Daddy already had a very long day, they both work more than full time. Besides, my reputation as an Uncle was on the line now!
“I want daddy,” she sobbed
“I’m sorry, no honey.”
“I want my books.”
“No, it’s past your bedtime, now sit down okay.”
By some miracle she sat down.
“I want sip of milk.”
Bingo! The one stroke of genius I had. I brought her milk in there with me. I could finally say yes to something.
“Okay, I have your milk right here,” I was way too enthusiastic. Startled, she started to cry again.
“Shhh, shhh, I have your milk okay.”
I handed the milk over the crib, she stopped screaming just long enough to take some sips.
“Okay, how’s that, you feel better?”
“Yeah,” she was calming ever so slightly, but I could tell I was just one wrong move away from a nuclear explosion. The landmines were everywhere but I went for broke anyway,
“Okay honey, lay down for me okay?”
She did not.
“There was a really big truck, I got scared,” She tried to explain, revving up the sobs, her chest and breath heaving and labored.
“I know, and it’s okay, but it’s gone and you’re safe now. Okay?”
She shook her head, listening. I powered on.
“And it’s past your bedtime and you need some sleep, it will make you feel better, okay.”
“I got scared.” She tried to make me understand, now wailing again.
“Okay, I know honey, but it’s gone. Listen to me okay. I’m going to stay for a few minutes to help you calm down. Can you take a big deep breath for me. It will help you to calm down.”
“What?” she couldn’t hear me over her screaming.
“Let’s take a deep breath together, okay.”
She seemed to agree with her quivering breathless silence. She was shaking and her breathing shallow. She was choking on her own fear.
“In, then out, like me.”
I took a deep breath. Then the second miracle, so did she. It was actually helping.
“Okay, lets do that again.” I took another deep breath.
She did it again, steadying.
“Okay, now lay down and I’ll sing a song to you okay.”
She laid down and pulled her blanket up around her. And I sang.
Moments later the tears began, the emotional winds were picking up again.
“I don’t want Mommy and Daddy to go to work tonight,” she was on the brink of a sob.
“They aren’t going to work, they are downstairs and staying home all night. Okay.”
She shook her head, grateful for that news.
I sang Hush Little Baby, with so many made up verses because, well, I don’t know that song and frankly, I was vamping for time. She requested Twinkle Twinkle next, and I obliged. About ten minutes of eternity later she was asleep.
I nailed it. The baby whisperer is back in the house.
I wasn’t going to toot my own horn though, because with my luck she’d wake back up right on cue if I did that.
She slept through the night. I was on cloud nine, feeling great about myself.
The next morning she told her grandmother that she was scared of a big truck but Uncle Pizza wouldn’t get her out of her crib.
I was horrified. I really was a total asshole. I probably scarred her for life.
Then she explained further, “I was so scared,” she imitated her own choked and labored breathing, “I was crying like that. Unkies told me to take deep breaths to calm down. Then I fell asleep and then it was morning and you were here.”
“Yes, Charlotte,” Grandma agreed, “that’s how it works.”
“Yeah,” Charlie agreed, beaming.
I know two things for sure: I don’t ever want Charlie to be that afraid again, and no matter what I do she will be one day anyhow. But I can breathe a little easier knowing I helped show her how to breathe a little easier too.