The kids are screaming again.
We’ve been home from work for about twenty minutes, and they’re screaming. And “screaming” is precisely the word for it — this is not a mildly perturbed whine, nor a plaintive cry for help — this is a top-of-the-lungs howl that doesn’t even really call for action or intervention, it simply rails against the great injustice of the world.
And it’s in response to a “stolen” spoon.
Not even a special spoon. In fact, the spoon in question is the exact twin of the one that sprout the younger holds clutched in her pudgy, grubby fist. But the spoon in question has been claimed from the tabletop by sprout the elder, and she has decided that that is the spoon she wants, not eventually but right the fargo NOW, and it gives him great pleasure to deny her anything she wants, and from her tiny lungs comes the mightiest ear-splitting shriek.
That sounds like fun, sprout the first thinks, and then he’s shrieking too, for the pure, unadulterated hell of it. My wife is up to her eyeballs in work she’s brought home from the job that taxes her more and more beyond her pay grade with every passing day, and I’m elbows-deep in chicken slime from cooking the sprouts’ dinner (which they will later totally ignore, for reasons that certainly make sense in the brains of a two- and four-year-old, but for no reason this thirty-something college-educated male can discern), and there’s nothing that anybody can do.
Time out, we threaten, which has about as much effect as you’d expect. Spanking, we enjoin, which they know is an empty threat — I’m not going to turn my salmonella hands upon them, after all.
This is how it goes in our house lately. And as parents, we get really torn, because all they really want is attention. They’re in day care these days, after all, so they only get our company for a few blessed hours in the evening. But, as any working family knows, you come home from work and there’s dinner to cook and baths to prepare and messes to clean up and the stress of the day hanging like an albatross from your neck and it’s almost a better idea if we don’t interact with the sprouts too much, because we might really unload on them, and they sure don’t deserve that. But still they clamor, and sometimes we can push the dark clouds aside and spare them a few minutes amongst the cascading junk pile of demands on our time, but sometimes we can’t, and when we can’t, well, that’s when the screaming starts.
Over anything. She’s in his chair. He’s got a toy that she wants. She dropped that thing I was playing with. He’s painting and she wants to paint too. She’s chewing on the coffee table. He’s holding onto the back of her shirt.
Their cries could shatter glass at a hundred yards.
And again, we endure it, because it’s better that than unloading a day’s worth of frustration and choked-back snide comments and real gut-boiling traffic-induced rage on somebody who has to stand on tiptoes to brush their teeth and who thinks that a dinosaur might make a really cool friend.
And then, somehow, some way, the clouds part, a ray of light shines down, and they stop howling. My wife and I lock eyes in shock but we say nothing. We don’t even try to look and see what they’re up to, lest we break the spell. We hear harmless, idle chatter from sprout the younger, and giggling, broken sentences from sprout the elder.
Just as quickly as the toddler tornado struck, the skies have cleared and they’re playing happily together. If we believed in God, we’d fall to our knees and give thanks, but God will soon make his absence painfully clear.
THUMP. THUMP THUMP.
It’s surprising how much any thumping sound can sound like a toddler’s head whacking any significant surface to a pair of bedraggled parents. We’re sure one of them has somehow managed to surmount the childproof stair gate and toss the other to their doom. We dash around the corner and look.
But they’re not dead. Not even close. They’re standing behind their little toddler armchairs, which have been upended and rolled across the floor, like wheels if they were designed by sadists and masochists working in perfect concert. THUMP THUMP. They push their chairs over and over, and the sound is a bit like carpet-wrapped bricks in a tumble dryer. THUMP THUMP. THUMP THUMP. Giggles. Laughter. Smiles.
Chairs aren’t supposed to be played with that way, for sharknado’s sake, and our teach-them-to-be-decent-human-beings instincts flare and we start for them with our voices already rising in chastisement.
But we realize it at the same time.
They’re not screaming.
Sure, they’re mistreating the furniture. Sure, it’s making an ungodly racket. Sure, they might crush a cat under all that tumbling upholstery (but the cat has it coming, and frankly the cats can go take a flying leap for all we’re concerned about their well-being at the moment). But paint this bald man blue and send me to Vegas, they have stopped screaming.
Being a parent is nothing if not a tactical, well-calculated slow retreat from a thousand lines drawn in the sand. Problem is, the tide never stops coming in. You have to pick your battles, and sometimes you choose the lesser indignity of the children pushing their tiny chairs around the floor like the worst sleds you’ve ever imagined over the perfectly disharmonious symphony of their unending screams.
We let this one slide. I finish cooking and my wife finishes working to the THUMP THUMP THUMPing of their chair game that would rival the dance beats of a few songs I’ve heard on the radio lately. We place a lovingly-crafted dinner of chicken and potatoes and green beans in front of them and watch as they refuse to eat a single bite. And yeah, that hurts my feelings a little bit.
But at least they’re not screaming.