It’s always disconcerting to be in public when Teddy decides to throw a tantrum. I wonder what people are thinking when they see a white woman dragging a black toddler who’s pitching a fit. Do they feel sympathy? When they exchange glances with their friends, are they whispering their relief that it’s not their kid screaming and crying uncontrollably? Or are their brows furrowing with concern? Do they wonder, even fleetingly, if that child belongs with that adult? If maybe that child is screaming bloody murder because he’s been taken from his parents?
After the fact, I realize it’s highly unlikely people go there. Every toddler throws tantrums. Teddy’s behavior is not unusual. (Not to mention, we were waiting for the train during one meltdown, and what kidnapper would be stupid enough to take their victim on public transit?). But when I’m in the moment, trying to stay calm while my 2-year-old, who looks nothing like me, is flipping out, I can’t help but wonder.
This has only happened a few times…so far. The first, Mike and I were both out with Teddy. Our toddler’s screams actually started before we’d left the house, but, in the past, going outside had calmed Teddy’s rage, so I figured the same thing would work again. We forced him into his little stroller, his angry body forming a stiff board against it so he wasn’t actually sitting, and pushed it down the hall to the elevator, and then through the lobby and out the door—with no sign of him regaining his composure.
We looked at each other. Continue on our merry way? Surely—surely—the outdoors would have their intended effect. We strolled down the block and across the street. The struggle continued unabated. We started actually looking guilty of something as we glanced furtively around to see who was witnessing this spectacle. Another block and a half and we passed a couple firemen standing outside their truck. They looked at us and then at each other but didn’t say a word. At that point, we wondered, what are they thinking? For those employed to look out for citizens’ safety, what is the line between normal toddler tantrum and red flag?
It took a few more blocks but Teddy finally expended the last of his frustration and we completed our shopping trip with no further drama.
The next time, Mike was out with Teddy. They were coming out of the metro and Teddy saw Starbucks. He politely asked for hot chocolate and Mike denied the request. Cue a tantrum—on a very busy corner of a predominantly black neighborhood. Again, Mike got lots of looks, but no comments. Even as he flipped Teddy over his shoulder in order to make any progress down the street and endured angry fists pounding his back.
The third time, I was out with Teddy. We were preparing to leave the library and my over-tired toddler was running circles around me, refusing to put on his parka. In an attempt to avoid a power struggle, I told him he didn’t have to wear it, but told him he’d be awfully cold if he didn’t. Thus began an episode of “I want it; no, I don’t”, with my argumentative toddler asking for his parka/hat/gloves and then refusing to allow me to put them on. I took his hand and we walked haltingly to the metro, his screams drawing the attention of everyone we passed.
He was still screaming as we stood on the metro platform, waiting for the train. I squatted down to be eye-level and spoke calmly, hoping if I held it together, his tears might subside. Throughout my monologue, I kept glancing around, trying to interpret the looks of our fellow commuters. I didn’t see sympathy, but I didn’t see concern either. After a couple minutes, a middle-aged black man walked up to us, and I thought, oh boy, here we go. But he simply bent over and said, “What’s going on little man?” As a proactive, self-appointed member of my “village”, He intended to distract Teddy, but Teddy’s response was quite different than I imagine either of us expected: my little man threw himself into my arms. He didn’t calm down one iota, although methinks the reasoning for his tantrum switched: rather than being ornery, now he was terrified of this stranger talking to him. On the plus side, this must’ve erased any concerns of kidnapping, if they existed. I also found the embrace encouraging: Even when my little boy is in the midst of an epic meltdown, I’m still the safe place.
The tantrum lasted all the way home. I don’t even remember now what ended it. Probably no one thing. Like a tempest, it simply passed through. But after experiencing that interaction and Teddy’s response, I don’t think I’ll really worry about what people are thinking anymore. Hopefully I’ll be able to just focus on getting to our destination and waiting out the storm as calmly as possible.