Raising a dramatic kid when you, yourself, are a drama queen.
I hate it when my son gets sick.
Just about any parent will tell you that. How it’s awful to think of your kid suffering, especially when they’re little and you can’t explain what’s happening and what’s being done to help them. But to be honest, that’s only part of it for me.
My son is generally a cheerful little guy who developed a sense of humor early on. He loves to laugh and often finds things in the world funny or surprising — and that makes me happy, because it’ s a great way to go through life.
In many ways, he’s your average four-year-old. He loves trains and superheroes, is still discovering how things work, has his friends and even a girlfriend at preschool, and is becoming increasingly articulate — and along with that, making some delightful malapropisms, like saying “unicorn” instead of “uniform”, “Grandma D.” (what he calls his step-grandmother) for “granité ” (the French word for icee), and my favorite so far, “Zootopia” instead of “Tokyo”. Like many kids his age, he can surprise you by how well- or badly behaved he can be on any given day or in any given moment — you never quite know. Overall, though, I think he’s pretty good. On a family trip to Florence a few weeks ago, he walked around the museums and the museum of a city itself just like the rest of us, appreciating and admiring things in his way. He was a trooper. He even asked to stop for gelato less than I did.
But in some ways, he’s also really difficult. My son is one of the few kids in his preschool who regularly comes home crying. It’s not my fault; he’s just tired, or annoyed that I forgot to bring a specific toy he was thinking of, or horrified that he’ll have to make the five-minute walk to our apartment without a snack.
The worst, though, is when he’s sick. When he has a headache or growing pains, he knows by now that children’s Tylenol (well, its French equivalent, Doliprane) will help. But still he roars and sometimes refuses to take it. He seems furious at the world: why should he be in any pain — and since he is, he is not going to cooperate or see reason.
The worst of the worst was about a year ago, when we were staying at my father and stepmom’s house in the US. He contracted what turned out to be strep throat, which often manifests in toddlers as nausea and vomiting. My son could not stop doing the latter. And though he was perfectly conscious and coherent, he refused to vomit into a garbage can, barf bag, or other appropriate receptacle. He would deliberately turn his head from anything we held out to him, and, despite our pleas (and, I admit, as the routine got old, my yelling), stubbornly vomit onto the bedsheets, the guest room’s pristine white comforter, or, at best, the floor.
Many parents, I think, would still feel compassion. Their heartstrings would be tugged, they would sob in despair. I was worried about my son, but after eight hours of non-stop…let’s call it rage-vomiting…onto things that weren’t even ours, I couldn’t help but be almost as exasperated as I was afraid.
For my son, every emotion is magnified, every slight becomes a bleeding wound. Every small pain is the most horrendous ordeal any human being has had to endure. Let’s just say, as Regina George’s iconic t-shirt proclaims, he’s a little bit dramatic.
It’s hard being the mom of a dramatic kid. You often feel embarrassed, frustrated, overwhelmed. But I know where he gets it.
I, myself, am a lifelong drama queen. Like him, I don’t seek out drama — we’re not shit-stirrers. We just have it within us, a constant whirlwind of joy, sadness, worry, anger, excitement.
I remember roaring at being sick when I was a kid, too (though I did always try to barf in appropriate places). I remember crying easily — in fact, I still do. I have a low pain tolerance, a low threshold for frustration. I yell at computers that go too slowly. I yell at family members. As a grown adult, I’ve actually stomped my foot on the floor and pouted. I love people, animals, art, books, food, and ideas deeply. I sometimes tear up when I explain an especially inspiring movie plot.
My family members praise my sweet nature and say I’m a pushover — but as I see more of the world, I’ve realized that this is only because they’re bred from working-class New Jersey stock and are brassier and ballsier than I could ever be. To them, I am a pushover. To most other people, I’m something else.
I’ve been involved in a surprising number of loud arguments in public spaces. I have threatened a probably mentally ill person with a muffin at a coffee shop (long story). I have complained. I have yelled at the people I love. A guilty pleasure of mine is dreaming of being a cast member on “Jersey Shore.” I always thought I’d be the fish out of water; I don’t dress like them or drink like them. Our lives are very different. Only, the more I think about it, the more I realize that, if I did wear hoop earrings, I probably would give them to a friend to hold while I got in the face of someone who insulted me.
Raising a dramatic kid isn’t easy, even if you were one, yourself (I remember the note, deliberately stained with tears, that nine-year-old me left for the people who bought my childhood home; some of my earliest memories are of inexplicably insisting on crying whenever we had family photos taken; I remember sobbing about a Halloween costume not looking the way I thought it would….).
But as I’ve thought more about it, I’m not sure that being a drama queen is all that bad.
Because here’s the thing: I know lots of people who seem drama-free.
Many of the people in my life keep their emotions inside. It’s not about propriety; it’s about not letting yourself plunge into the depths. These are people who will shed a few tears at a funeral but block any further sorrow from themselves. These are people who must think of moments of sadness or loneliness or fear as flies to brush away.
Some of them are just fine, and I envy them. But most are being eaten from the inside by their emotions. Their trapped feelings are like a parasite struggling to emerge from their skin. To ignore that pain, they take up smoking or drinking, or, in one case, getting so into conspiracy theories that they think the entire world is going to fall apart at any moment and nowhere is safe. They pick fights on social media, flaunt their politics, make fun of others, never hug.
He may have spitefully barfed on someone’s expensive bedding, but at least my son can say that he feels angry or sad. At least he lets himself cry, wail, laugh, scream, grin, sing….rage-vomit. If he stays dramatic, he’ll experience every high and low in life, not trap things inside himself.
When he was about a year old, if he was frustrated about something, he’d get so enraged that he’d smack his head against the hard sides of his stroller. It was always awful to see, and an enormous struggle to get him to stop. When he gave himself a black eye, I knew it was time to take him to a professional. The therapist pointed out something very interesting: My son may be filled with drama, but at least he doesn’t want to direct at it anyone else. He didn’t lash out and hurt other people or break things; he hurt himself, instead.
It was a beautiful revelation, but heartbreaking, too. What kind of armor will he have against the world, if he’s always ripping it off?
Still, I’d rather he be that way, and meet each day with emotions raw and ready, than slowly turn himself to stone.
That said, the next time he gets sick, I just might tape a barf bag to his mouth….