Why is your toddler lying on the sidewalk writhing around like an angry centipede? Or why is she scowling like a gargoyle and refusing to get out of her stroller?
Most likely because it’s Halloween, and we know who the real monster is: It’s you, the mom. You’ve gone to great effort and expense to buy or make the Halloween costume your child asked for repeatedly. You’re going out and doing a fun, special thing, and she likes fun, special things. You’re giving her candy, and she likes candy. People are making a fuss over how cute she is, and she wants people to make a fuss over how cute she is. HOW DARE YOU, MOM.
All of my kids have acted this way for their first several Halloweens. They are dying to go trick-or-treating, and they’re super excited about it for weeks ahead of time; but when they time actually comes . . . forget it, mom. It’s Toddlertown.
If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have warned you not to put a lot of time, effort, or money into a toddler costume, because chances are very good that costume will go to waste. Exhibit A: Here is child, age 2.5, who asked repeatedly to be Dashi for Halloween. Then, in the days before Halloween, she insisted on wearing her sister’s Wonder Woman costume morning, noon, and night. Halloween comes, and this is what she actually wore:
This was after she had three tantrums and tried to bite everyone who offered her candy. She is wearing two different shoes. I was fine with this, because I’ve been a mom for 21 years, and I have learned to recognize “she isn’t currently biting anyone” as a howling success. Here is a more typical toddler Halloween experience from a previous year:
I forget what costume it was I painstakingly made for her, but she sure ain’t wearing it. Her face is smeared with Snickers and tears. Happy day!
Here’s one more: The child is wearing a “pink mummy ghost” costume, whatever that is, and it keeps getting caught in the stroller wheels:
and everyone was mad at everyone else. That was our Halloween, while the rest of the country was enjoying a perfect day of cute happy fun cozy pumpkin spice adorable! Or so it seemed.
The first few times toddler Halloween bombed, it was really tough for me. Like, ridiculously tough. So tough that, in retrospect, it was clearly about more than Halloween.
Part of it was because, as a new mom, I was fairly young myself, and it hadn’t been that many years since I was the trick-or-treater. Even though I loved my babies and was glad to be married, I also routinely dealt with a lot of feelings of loss and deprivation, because suddenly I couldn’t eat what I wanted, spend my time how I wanted, eat what I wanted, or even sleep when I wanted. Basically all of my old comforts were gone. That was so much harder than I felt like it ought to be! I wanted to be an excellent wife and mother who was lovin’ every minute of it, and I didn’t cut myself enough slack for learning how to deal with a life that had been turned upside down.
I felt this all the time, but especially on holidays. Heck, here’s one of our trademark cozy happy family Christmas Eves:
Merry and bright indeed.
So. Holidays carry a lot of emotional freight, and it’s very normal to feel like it’s Very Important to do them right, for several reasons:
-so you can recreate the happy times you remember from your own childhood,
-so you can rescue what was unhappy about your childhood, and do it right now that you’re in charge,
-so you can prove to everyone, especially the skeptics, that you are an A#1 mom,
-or even just so you can feel like you get to have some fun for once, in the midst of an endless stream of spit up and poop and cracker crumbs.
Instagram and other platforms just ratchet up all these pressures, because everyone else seems to have it together. For weeks now, moms who are better than you have been sharing gorgeous photos of their little homemade punkin sitting cheerfully on a sanitary bale of hay with plenty of corn stalks and bokeh in the background. And your kid, lest we forget, is writhing around on the sidewalk like a centipede.
Holidays are intense, and you may find yourself really bearing down on your little kids to make special days be what you (maybe subconsciously) want them to be. This leads, of course, to everyone being miserable on a day that’s supposed to be especially pleasant, so you can add guilt to the other stinking pile of unpleasant emotions. What to do?
The best way I know to deal with this: Try to take the long view.
Remind yourself that days are just days. No holiday is an all-or-nothing event that proves anything about yourself or your life. They’re just dates on the calendar. It’s okay to want to have stuff for yourself — the nice picture, the happy experience, the cute occasion. There’s nothing wrong with wishing you can have it, so don’t beat yourself up over wanting it. But remember that you’re in this — parenthood and marriage — for the long haul, and there are very few individual make-or-break days; and they almost never match up with Hallmark’s schedule.
Looking back, I have only a few memories of holidays that were perfect holidays, but many, many happy memories of random Thursdays that happened to go well, or unexpected mornings with floods of sweetness for no particular reason. That’s just how life be. So train yourself to notice and relish and cherish those memories, so that you value them as much as they deserve to be valued.
And for the days when things fall flat? Train yourself to just sort of lean in to saying, “Yeah, this is a disappointment. I am disappointed. But it’s just one day, and there will be many, many other special days to come. My goal today is to try not to completely lose my dignity.”
But what if you’re still feeling those big feelings? How do you manage them? A good first step it is to be honest with yourself about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. So if you realize (or someone tells you) you’re overwrought, take some time to work out why, exactly, the stakes are so high for you.
Is it because you feel like you’re not as good as your other mom friends? Is is because you think you’re a good mom but you think other people don’t think so? Is it because you’re feeling neglected yourself and could use some fun or a day off? Or what?
These are things you can address — but not if you keep telling yourself it’s really truly only all about this damn bee costume, and if you could just get the wing lace to go on straight, you’d stop crying. It’s probably not about the bee costume! It’s probably about you and your life as a mom, and it’s normal for a new mom to be overwrought. Why should you have it under control? Do you become an instant expert at anything else? Then why should you be an instant expert at being a mom, including an expert at dealing with mom emotions?
Motherhood is hard. Mother emotions are hard. As a mother of toddlers, elementary school kids, high school kids, and college kids, I can tell you that all stages of it are hard (at least so far!); but there are so many hard things about those first few years. If you’re feeling a lot of big feelings, you’re in good company. Motherhood is big, and it takes a long, long time to grow into it. Be patient with yourself. Have a Snickers, take a smeary picture, and let yourself be disappointed for a while. There’s always next year, and all the years to come.