As more and more people are getting vaccinated we decided it was time to put our ever active toddler into a small gymnastic class. Parents are required to wear masks, the place is constantly sanitized, and they have air purifiers everywhere. As safe as we’ve been this year (very, for most of the year we were practically in a bunker), we’ve started to see the effects of almost no socialization in our Uber extrovert and ourselves. So we talked, and googled, and asked questions, and decided it was low risk enough for us to feel comfortable (due to the low and mild infection rates of children and our newly vaccinated status). So we signed up.
On the drive there the very first day, I tried to prep him the best I could. “There’s going to be a class with lots of children,” I told him, “it might be loud and different than what you’re used to but I’ll be there with you.” He clapped and said “Yay! Kids!” Followed by “Slow down mamma, this is a big hill.” Because you can never be too young to be a backseat driver. He seemed excited so I felt sure he was going to love it and it was the best decision ever. And I was excited because it was the first time in well over a year that I was taking my toddler to do a normal, real life, toddler thing. I was also nervous because a symptom of the pandemic for me has been some pretty intense social anxiety.
When we got to the class, the teacher told us to take a place on a giant red gymnastics mat for circle time. Other tiny humans waddled in and took their places in a U shape around the teacher. As six tiny toddlers settled into their space, mine slowly transformed into a koala and crawled on top of my body with his face buried into my neck. He gripped my shirt and hair and stayed like that, like a newborn gorilla, until they were done singing songs about the alphabet while jumping, leaping, and running. When the teacher said they could go free play, he popped his head up, jumped off of me and sprinted towards the gymnastics equipment where he squealed and laughed and does this funny thing where he talks to everyone but I can’t make out what he’s saying because he’s bursting with enthusiasm but his arms are waving all over. The teacher smiled to me and said “wow, he came out of his shell fast!” And I nodded. And thought, hmmm, sorta.
Parenting books and classes always seem to talk in length about handling shyness. What to do when your kid is being shy or reserved and hides behind you when they feel overwhelmed. Hardly anyone talks about what to do when your child handles being overwhelmed by kicking it into high gear. It looks a little like social anxiety but I don’t know if that’s a thing at his age. When Little gets uncomfortable, it looks like super excitement blended with intense moments of hyperactivity. Which is hard to distinguish from his typically active and excited self. I’ve learned to spot it, because it’s chaotic, and uncontrolled, like his nervous system is firing too fast for him to get on top of it. It looks a little bit like every twenty-five year old on too many rails of cocaine in a dance club. Since professionals rarely talk about it, I don’t have tons of tools for managing it yet. It’s a work in progress. So as he began to parkour off of the equipment and run full sprint up the side of a rock wall, I hovered and tried to guide his activity, then I’d realize I was way too involved when I saw how the other parents were like ten feet from their kids and just hanging out. So I’d take a deep breath and relax my shoulders to model that we were in a safe environment. It worked fine, for a while.
He was standing on a puffy mat looking for the next fun thing when a little girl padded up to him and wacked him in the head, like toddlers do sometimes, because they’re evil. He was taken aback and just stared at her for a minute and then looked at me and back to her. Then he seemed to shrug it off and sprinted to a thing to jump on. The teacher called for everyone to return to the big mat for a sort of cool down so I collected my little and strolled over. The parents sat cross-legged in a circle and I followed suit. The teacher took out a bubble machine and the toddlers ran into the center of the circle to chase the bubbles. Including my little. And it was adorable. He laughed and popped bubbles. And then suddenly something snapped in his baby brain and he turned and charged a pod of tots like a bowling ball headed for the pins. He face-pushed a little boy out of the way, ran directly into a little girl, shoulder checked another baby, and then squished the face of another. He wasn’t attacking them, per se, because he wasn’t even looking at them. He was looking off into space, darting around at the bubbles, and laughing manically. One minute things were fine and the next he was playing “wack a baby” in the center of a circle of parents. Did I mention that he’s also huge? He’s the biggest child there in height and width (we have no idea how we managed to grow a gladiator). And toddlers were airborne and flying. I jumped to my feet and panicked, but I couldn’t go into the circle to grab him without leaping over one of the adults so I just began running around the circle yell-whispering “LITTLE! We don’t push! We don’t push! Come here, let’s take a break!” Which seemed to only embolden him and he ran away from me and before I knew it he was aggressively hugging a doe-eyed brunette who didn’t seem bothered as much as confused. The other parents calmly watched, while I played what looked like a frantic adult version of duck duck goose just sprinting around the other parents clockwise, then counterclockwise, then clockwise again arms flailing, sweating to the high heavens. It was not the proudest moment of my life, obviously.
Then the class ended and I have never felt more relieved in all of my life. I scooped him up and got the hell out of there. I felt like shit all the way home, because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to help him. And I didn’t want all of the parents to think he was the asshole kid because he’s totally not (all parents say that, but like, he’s really sweet). As someone who grew up on the fringes of mainstream Mormon culture in Utah, I have an enormous amount of “you can’t sit with us, heretic” trauma. And I constantly worry about him being outcasted, even at two. Yeah, I know it’s my shit. Yep, totally working on it.
Later that night at home, the teacher texted me to ask if we liked the class and I told her that I wasn’t sure it was a good fit for us. I was honest about what had happened and how I felt and my reservations and y’all, she was so nice. She was like, look, my kid went here and she was a biter. Toddlers do crazy toddler stuff and he’s only two, this is normal stuff. It’s a safe space for him to practice being around kids and I promise if you give it a chance you’ll see that he’ll transform here. I chose to trust her (I mean if she stuck it out with a biter, she must know something I don’t). And week after week he calmed. He began to talk to the other kids. And now, he sits (mostly) during circle time and sings the songs and plays along and names all of his stuffed animals after one of the little girls in the class he thinks is cool (because she’s so strong). We haven’t had an incident since.
It was a really great lesson for me in not projecting my stuff onto my child’s situation and not letting my social anxiety or my anxiety about being “othered” dictate the trajectory of his life and experiences. And it reminded me of the importance of giving him chances to adjust and grow before going “omg this was so awful for both of us RUN.” And also, I have that great memory of utter humiliation of being the mom of “that” kid, the memories all parents have at least one of, when there isn’t a global pandemic. Building empathy over here, yall.
Here’s to learning. To growing. To being absolutely fucking embarrassed by our children. And moving on.