You know how you can tell something or the other by counting the seconds between thunder and lightning? I don’t remember what it is that you can tell but I still count the seconds between thunder and lightning in order to simply know the number of seconds between thunder and lightning—but that is neither here nor there and I really ought to google it.
More to the point, I can tell how severe my children’s meltdowns are going to be by counting the seconds between the point at which they open their mouths and the point at which they let out their first cry. It is a marvellous tool, one that allows me to hold my breath in the brief silence, the moments before the calm, and steady my nerves for the inevitable meltdown. Like the calm before the storm, the receding waters before the tsunami, it is nature’s way of giving the parents time to prepare for that which cannot be avoided. The longer the silence, the more dramatic the meltdown, the more moments I have to get ready.
Like with natural disasters, there is little I can do in those intervening moments of silence. The storm will hit, the waters will rush in, the child will cry. I can do nothing but remain in the moment and accept it. This too shall pass.
Often I find I can sense these moments even if I am not actively watching them. My daughters, only 16 months apart, have recently started pulling each other’s hair when they are fighting. It surprises me that this is such an innate human instinct that children must be born with because they have certainly never witnessed anyone pulling anyone else’s hair. If I am in the room, I can feel the air change ever so slightly, a change so imperceptible no non-mother would ever notice it. And then it all moves quickly. One grabs the other one’s toy, one throws a toy across the room, one pushes the other, one manages to grab a fistful of hair and pulls.
And then there it is—the moments of silence. The perpetrator looks down innocently at her toys and quickly busies herself and works hard to avoid making eye contact with me. The victim (and these roles change every time) sits with her little mouth wide open, eyes closed, gathering up all her tiny rage and anger and sadness to turn into a shout that will shake the house. On the sofa, I take a deep breath and wince, ready to receive the torrent of emotion, fighting the urge to rush and soothe because I am determined to let them learn how to sort out their own fights and manage their own emotions and also because it has been 10 long months of no childcare and I am drained.
To keep my own sanity, I go for long hikes.
I wonder sometimes if maybe I should also gather up all my emotions and shout as loudly as I can. My children always seem rejuvenated after their meltdowns. The monotony of the pandemic is challenging—each day looks like the previous one, with little space for the pursuit of new pleasures. While I walk up hills and down natural trails, I allow my mind to wander, dreaming of crowded restaurants and airports, sharing space and covid-free air with strangers. I look into the woods, lovely, dark and deep, but I do not shout. If I want my children to learn to manage their big emotions, I have to manage my own. That is, alas, the reality of life, the reality of adulthood.
When I return home, my daughters are best friends again. Sharing toys, stopping to hug and kiss each other, collaborating on how best to climb the shelves to reach the things that have been deliberately placed out of their reach. The calm after the storm is always more beautiful than the one before the storm.
Diksha Basu is the best-selling author of The Windfall and Destination Wedding