I am doing my regular weekly commute to work — an almost 3-hour train ride. It’s tedious enough that I have to commute, especially the getting up early in the morning, going out in the cold just to take the train to another city. But this is the deal I have with my client, and they pay me enough not to complain too much.
The train ride is usually quite smooth and undisturbed, I can even benefit from the fact that I have nothing else to do but work. So I have 5 hours of pure work-time, 2.5 there and another 2.5 back. I am quite productive; that’s when I write, that’s when I create my strategic presentations or social media posts for my other clients. Or in some rare cases, I just sit back and let the train rock me to a light nap.
But this morning is different and I need everything I have in me not to have an anxiety attack.
The train is different; it’s not the regular open-air train but it has compartments, where 6 people sit together — almost on top of each other. There is not enough oxygen and I feel the small space closing on me. Moreover, the family who enters the compartment I am sitting in is a mother with a little boy who can’t be older than 18 months (that’s 1.5 years). They are accompanied by all-so-eager grandparents. They look nice and upper-middle-class, they are polite and well-dressed.
But the toddler is a toddler.
He is just being a kid, bouncing around, screaming and shouting, incapable of staying still or silent. In 30 minutes ha has thrown 3 fits, made a mess of the whole place with the biscuits that were supposed to calm him. He bites his mum when she is trying to breastfeed him.
The three adults are giving him around, each giving a try to keep him entertained and occupied for 5–10 minutes.
Music blaring in my ears, I am turning my head away and trying to focus on what I am doing — but I notice my heart beating faster, I can’t breathe properly, and my palms start to get sweaty.
I start to type an article to calm myself down; I am forcing myself to breathe evenly, but I can feel tears welling up in my eyes and I feel helpless. I am trapped here, and I am equally irritated and ashamed.
I have three kids, so the terror of going away on any journey is not unfamiliar. It’s an awful burden for everyone, starting from the kid, to the mother and relatives and also the innocent bystanders.
The kids are suffering from the constraints of a car, a plane or a train — they are trapped. The parents are supposed to know how to deal with a hysterical and hyperactive kid who is feeling awful in this situation. And in this case, I am the innocent bystander — and I am so irritated and frustrated that I am having an anxiety attack.
I feel guilty.
I, of all people, should empathise and know how impossible it is to manage a toddler — who shouldn’t run around and shriek uncontrollably. And I am having a hard time empathising, as I am way too busy controlling my breathing.
I am thinking of all those times when I experienced mean comments from strangers — comments on my children’s behaviour, comments on my maternal abilities, comments on how I shouldn’t bring kids into this world if I can’t control them.
And I suddenly understand them all.
I feel like yelling at the mother and telling her to take her monster kid out of here. I feel like shaking the grandfather to stop him bouncing the boy on his knees, in the hope that the seat we share would stop bouncing too. I feel like screaming at the kid.
In fairness, I just feel like screaming.
Rationally I fully understand all of them. Emotionally I am irritated and my frustration is getting out of hand.
I am fuming and it doesn’t help me or them. So what does?
It’s not just about dealing with a toddler in a closed space, it’s about a lot of things in life.
Accepting what is
It’s an impossible situation. I can’t change it. I need to deal with it, whether I like it or not. Almost every time we feel stuck in a situation, there is the possibility of removing ourselves from it — it’s more the question of a decision than anything else.
I am deciding to stay, instead of looking for another compartment — because I am lazy; because it will be over soon; because I don’t want to be rude. But I am fully aware that I could walk out — and when me staying becomes a conscious decision, it becomes more tolerable. I suddenly don’t feel as trapped as I did — knowing that I could change it. Putting myself back in charge feels empowering and my breathing starts to calm down.
Changing my attitude
The world is 10% of what is happening and 90% of how we react to it. If I am focusing on how impossible it is to work, how much it is irritating me and how helpless I feel from my increasing anxiety — my anxiety will increase further, no work will be done anyway, and I am just left with my irritation.
It is entirely up to me how I decide to react. My immediate reaction might not be the best, so I need to change my attitude — even if it takes energy and effort, because no matter how much I want the situation to magically change, it might or might not. I can’t count on changing the things that are out of my circle of control.
Noticing the positive
Then came the extremely difficult part. Deciding not to remove myself from the situation and accepting that it’s my job to change my attitude, I needed to put it into action. So, very consciously I tried to notice the positive things. It took all my energy to notice how cute the boy was, how loving the mother was and how patient she stayed during the whole train ride. I was trying to see the good in them, appreciating how great it is to have grandparents who help out and accompany them wherever they are travelling.
Accepting the learning
No matter how terrible any situation is (this train ride is not the worst thing that can happen to me) there is always something to learn from it. It takes a lot of practice to shift your negative attitude from fuming into something progressive when you are consciously looking for clues about how to get something positive out of it.
There are always learnings, wherever you go. You can learn an awful lot about yourself, about your own attitudes, and of others too.
So, what did I learn here?
It reminded me of one of my key parenting takeaways — that made my life a lot easier and I believe it made me a better parent too.
Just because my kids irritate me, I am not a bad person or a bad mother; I am human.
I am only human that I get triggered and irritated, and my kids can be just as much the triggers as anything else.
If you have kids and they never irritate you — you are either lying or lying to yourself and by the latter, you are setting the bar for yourself so high that you are setting yourself up for failure.
Look at others’ kids!
We can agree that they are annoying, loud, obnoxious — if they are raised in a liberal way when they are not tamed into obedience, they will be all of it and more. Especially at a young age, they are not here to be model kids, they will be screaming and bouncing and spilling things on the floor and touching everything with their sticky hands. They will stain clothes and draw on contracts, they will appear at the moments when parents need privacy the most (think about peeing alone when they are little), they will throw a fit over the colour of their socks when mummy has a plane to catch.
They are annoying.
I’m not talking about your kids!
I am talking about every kid! But if you accept that kids in general, can be a pain in the ass, regardless of how cool of a parent you are, you will save yourself a lot of hassle and guilt.
You have every right to be annoyed. But it’s your choice how you manage your annoyance, how you look at your life, how you decide to deal with unexpected situations, and what learnings you are willing to take home.
And don’t forget to practise breathing, you will need that!