Ariel is performing a gymnastics routine with a partner in the school’s talent show. Penelope is sitting rapt on my knee, watching her big sister’s stage debut. “I can’t believe I did that!” Ariel says afterwards. The talent show continues, for Penelope – as nap time comes and goes – the show drags on. She’s no longer in my lap. She’s sitting on the floor taking her shoes off and making flirty faces at the other kids beside us. Now she’s standing, swaying her whole body back and forth to the music, and that’s when I see something catch her eye.

“Balls, mom!” She points to the open storage room across the gym with the large red, yellow and blue bouncy balls in sight, a question in her eye. I try to distract her, avert her eyes, willing her to look back to the front, “Look! What’s that?” Four pink ballerinas take the stage, but she’s making a run for it, and now I’m holding her down by the hem of her yellow dress with the kitten on it, and the kids beside us are cracking up. Penelope loves this new game, where she is the star of the show. I check the time on my phone. We’re getting close to the end, almost there. Hang on. But there’s one last lovely singer to go, and Penelope breaks loose like the wild creature she is and makes for the ball room. Another parent tries to intervene; a teacher attempts to coax her out of the room, but Penelope just stands there, her resolve impervious, those glowing half-moons for eyes gazing up from a starry sky of curls. I don’t want to dampen her spirit, not one little bit, but as the parent you’re expected to have control.

I make my way over to my feral child, ducking out of the way of a few other parents, and I grab her. Truthfully, the disturbance wasn’t that big of a deal.

By now the principal is speaking a few words of farewell to the school secretary who is retiring. I have no idea what she’s just said because things quickly deteriorate from there. The next thing I know, I’ve made it into the foyer where my two other children are waiting, ready to go, and Penelope makes a bee-line for the exit, in her sleeveless dress.

I should mention the weather outside at this point in the story. The sky is on the verge of hailing pellets of ice.

Another parent is blocking the door again, helping me out, while I try to rally the troops, “Time to GO!!!!” while chasing after Penelope. I attempt to manoeuvre Penelope into her outdoor gear, but as I do so, she wrestles free of my grasp for the twentieth time by rendering her toddler limbs limp and lifeless. She’s a puddle on the floor one minute – the next she sprints for the exit again. This time I say, “It’s okay, let her go.” I reason, once she feels the cold she’ll let me put her sweater and coat on. Outside, freezing, she is still resisting. She’s fighting against herself, and her own stubborn tiredness.

Now the parents are filtering out of the school and my kid is screaming and kicking her feet in classic tantrum formation. I have a relaxed smile on my face that says, we’ve all been here before – nothing to see here folks – move along.

Toddlers are destined for trouble. They’re learning boundaries and testing their limits – and their parents’. Even as I type this, Penelope’s little face appeared around the corner. “This got wet,” she says casually. She’s talking about her pants, which are now soaked with pee. To clarify, I’m waiting for warmer weather to potty train. She got herself dressed in pajamas and decided to take her diaper off and not tell me. She was sitting on the couch when her “pants got wet.”

Back at the school, the tantrum is over, but my smile is wearing thin; beneath its cloak I’m tired after a long weekend with our three kids and my husband away, all of it culminating in this moment. As I’ve finally wrangled the little beastie into her outdoor clothes, and I’m strapping her tightly into the fold-up stroller I wisely brought along to ger her home, Elyse, in the foreground, throws her backpack on the ground, abandoning it before running off, and yet another kind parent brings it over to where I’m standing. I’m happy for the distraction of Ariel chit chattering along on the walk home revealing her excitement about the talent show experience. I’m smiling hard, for her sake.

I took the girls to my cousin’s baby shower on the weekend, where there were many opportunities to test my patience. Ariel disappeared the moment we got there, then five minutes later declared, “these are my new best friends,” pointing to the gaggle of children she instantly joined. Elyse played with the kids on and off, but then hovered by the entranceway, exactly where I did not want her to be. Elyse has gotten better about staying with me, but if that door were to open, the temptation to walk through it would be too great, and I may lose her into the deep woods surrounding the building. Penelope obviously runs everywhere, obeying no one or nothing but her own toddler instincts. I frantically surveyed the buffet table looking for peanuts, to which she is allergic. Fatal allergies, escape artists and disappearing children – what’s one to worry about? Just for fun, let’s turn off all the lights and add burning candles to the mix (there was a power outage). What could possibly go wrong?

My brain churned with all these impending dangers, and while I tried to relax and settle in with family, doing so with three girls running around in the dark made it nearly impossible. Still, I smiled, I gritted my teeth, and I smiled. You can hide anything behind a smile. A boiling rage, a festering sizzle of discontent, a sense of failure and shame, humiliation and angst. Pain. Fear. Rejection. Don’t let a smiling face fool you. Look past the façade into the person’s eyes. You can’t fake the smile in your eyes, or hide that the light has been extinguished.

My candle still burns bright, even with Dan on an extended work trip away. I had help from grandparents all weekend, and those parents who leaned in to give me a hand when I needed it most. My stores dipped low, but were not depleted. As my children get older, it gets easier and easier to manage on my own (not that I want to!) But everyone needs a break and time to themselves. Everyone could use a support system, and not everyone has one. Anyone who’s ever had kids knows what a toddler tantrum looks like, and if you don’t remember it’s because you blocked that time from your mind for self-preservation – not because it didn’t happen.

As Penelope flung herself through the doors into outside, in the background I heard a parent exclaim, “…but it’s so cold!” The comment seemed directed at me, at my child’s bare arms, at my parenting, but in the moment, I had more pressing concerns, like catching my toddler before she got hit by a school bus. It is SO easy to judge, but the people I care about are the ones who lent a helping hand when it was easy not to, when they could have turned a blind eye.

Which type of person are you?

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