In my defense, it had been a long four days. We’d spent way too many hours in the car, driving from Boston to central Pennsylvania and then a day later onto Buffalo, NY, where the whole thing went down. I hadn’t gotten nearly enough exercise or sleep on the trip, which always triggers my anxiety. Also, it was the day before my birthday, an annual event that I anticipate with increasingly mixed emotions each passing year.
In my daughter’s defense, her little body had spent way too much time sitting in a car seat and staring at a screen over the past four days. She’d met many new people over the course of the trip, which is always exhausting for her. Most relevant, she was hungrier than I had realized, which is the primary cause for the nuclear meltdowns that only happen when I let her go too long without eating.
And what a meltdown it was. We were in a toy store; we had promised the girls they could pick out one toy as a souvenir from the trip. We told them they could have anything other than a baby doll or a stuffed animal—we have enough of those at home to start a store of our own. My daughter quickly became fixated on every doll and teddy bear in the store, her cries of frustration becoming increasingly louder and stronger by the minute. I tried to calm her down by distracting her with books and craft sets that would normally catch her attention; she wiggled out of my arms, sobbing.
I finally got so frustrated that I took her outside to the parking lot. As we sat on the curb, she tearfully explained to me how she never gets what she wants and there’s nothing in the store that will be fun for her and why would we take her into a toy store and not let her get anything good?? All I could think about was a boy hiding in a hole in Poland for over a year during World War II.
A perfect storm had been brewing in my own mind, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I’d been listening to the audiobook of “Exodus” by Leon Uris during my daily walks, and I was reading “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr in bed at night. The first is a classic tale of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel; the second is a heartbreaking World War II story. Images of the atrocities and tragedies of the war had been bouncing around my brain for days by the time we got to Buffalo, where we were visiting my husband’s grandmother (Oma), along with her sister and her boyfriend. Most (but not all) of Oma’s family escaped Germany in time. Oma’s boyfriend didn’t make it out of Poland, although he did survive the war by hiding in a hole in the ground.
A hole in the ground.
And here was my daughter crying over a damn baby doll when she already had several at home. Her warm, safe home with indoor plumbing and fresh food and a soft mattress to sleep on each night. What kind of spoiled child was I raising after all?
I couldn’t reconcile the two realities, so I did the only thing an over-tired, anxious, irritated, triggered, and mildly traumatized parent could do. I lost my shit.
I snapped at my daughter that she needed to pull herself together or I would never take her to another toy store again. I dragged her back inside and handed her over to her father so I could take a few deep breaths and get control of myself. My daughter wasn’t able to calm down for another half an hour or so, not until I was able to get some food into her. As she scarfed down the second of three bowls of noodles, I saw the flexible, resilient, understanding child I know so well re-emerge.
That night, once the girls were asleep in their hotel bed and I had a moment to think, I tried to make sense of what had happened. As much as I wanted to blame my daughter for the afternoon meltdown, the responsibility was mine.
There are many truths in any given moment, but as my daughter was spiraling out of control, the only truth that mattered was the one right in front of me. She was too hungry. I’ve seen this before, and I know from years of experience that she only falls apart this fast and this hard when her blood sugar has dropped too low.
She’s only 6 years old. I’m 38. I know how to observe my thoughts, and I know how to distinguish the useful ones from the random, frazzled, crazed memories and worries that arrive unbidden and serve only to drag me away from what really matters and down into a spiral of anxiety and confusion. She can’t even recognize when she’s hungry yet.
Yes, the Holocaust happened, and people in my family and my husband’s family died and suffered greatly because of it. My daughter will learn about all of it, and she will hear the stories of her family and her people. Hopefully she will be a stronger, more grateful, and more resilient person for it. But none of that was relevant on that afternoon in the toy store. She just needed food, and we are fortunate enough to be able to give it to her.
My job as a Jewish mother is to learn to hold all of these truths. Just not all at the same time.