Three little monkeys sit quietly in the breakfast nook, eating their after school snacks. These calm, quiet moments are rare and because of their rarity, I find them to be a bit disconcerting… Surely something chaotic is about to happen. These sorts of events must be on some sort of cosmic time clock that is set to some unpredictable variable interval schedule to ensure I will never be ready for it. I’m onto you, Cosmos… I’m on to you.
“AH!!” the oldest, Elizabeth, screams and jumps up from her seat on the bench.
Right on time…
Quick, assess the situation! Bella, the three year old, has her soft chubby arm still extended. Under this plump appendage is the offending source. She spilled her cup of milk. I am too far away and too much has spilled to do anything about it now. She is looking to me for a cue on how to respond, trying to figure out if this is freak out worthy. I can see this sensitive period as a moment where she could teeter into a meltdown fed by her older sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth appears dissatisfied by my lack of response and is now standing on the bench screaming in unjustifiable terror.
Being the opportunistic and wise little girl she is, the six-year-old Grace sees this chaotic window as an opportunity. Her little arm reaches over the table with lightning fast thievery, I am reminded of the thieving Rebel Rhesus Monkeys of Jaipur, India. She captures the coveted bag of popcorn I typically have her work and mand to obtain. Normally, I’d snatch the bag right back, but at the moment, the Rebel Monkey is the least of my worries.
Ok… What and whom to I address first. Bella is not freaking out, but her eyes are as wide as those of an Owl Monkey still looking at me with this face of potential danger and worry. I reassure her.
“It’s ok, sweetie. It was an accident. Come over here,” I say as I grab her arm and help her out of her milk covered surroundings.
I set her back on her feet and walk to retrieve a dishtowel to begin the clean up. Elizabeth can be a bit dramatic but this is ridiculous. She’s screaming as if there is a fire in the middle of the table, has caught her skirt aflame, and will soon consume us all!
“AHHH! IT’S ON MY SKIRT! AND”
Elizabeth is screeching in horror and like a Howler Monkey that has seen a jaguar on the prowl. Her false alarm calls can surely be heard for miles in this suburban jungle.
“Lizzy, please calm down. It’s ok. We can clean it up…” I try to interject.
At this point whatever she is saying is unintelligible. She’s gone into baby voiced screaming. She’s way too into it to even notice me talking. I call her name two more times. Nothing. She is still screeching. It is completely inappropriate and disproportionate to intensity of the situation. At this point I am starting to think she is more upset that I am not reacting at a level she would deem appropriate. I assume that would be me screaming, running out of the house, and calling 9-1-1, “HELP OPERATOR! THERE IS LOOSE DAIRY PRODUCT IN THE KITCHEN BREAKFAST NOOK! AND IT IS ON LIZ’S SKIRT!!!”
“ELIZABETH! Look at me!” I finally say raising my head lioness voice.
I rarely use this tone of voice. This is purposeful so that when I do use it, they respond immediately and know I mean business. She locks eyes with me.
“Sweetie, if we can clean it up, is it a big deal?” I ask her in a calm voice to try and bring her back to a state of sanity.
She takes a moment before responding. Surely she is reconsidering her over reactive behavior and will soon sit back down calmly and apologize, maybe even thank me for helping her realize it’s no big deal. She’ll say, “Thank you so much, Ms. RAZ, for teaching me the error of my ways. I’m sorry for overacting.” Then we’ll all collectively clean the house, fold laundry, and make dinner all before mom and dad get home. Then mom and dad will feel compelled to organize a parade where the community will come out and cheer!
“YES IT’S A BIG DEAL!” she screams back.
And back to reality. This scream is too much for Grace. She shovels one more handful of popcorn into her mouth and bolts. Dammit. Please stay out of trouble for the next five minutes so I can clean this mess. At this point the mental mess is more pressing. Bella is still looking at me with this face of fear and innocence. She’s only three, but I do think she has an idea that she accidentally caused some of this madness. She waits patiently for my next command.
“Bella, could you please get me another dishtowel?” I say calmly while ignoring the screeching for the oldest Howler monkey.
“It’s all over my skirt! And…” Elizabeth continues and is getting weepier.
Though I do acknowledge and agree milk on clothing if left untreated can be pretty disgusting, but this is outrageous. I am not sure how to deal with her. She’s an anxious little girl and has had freak-outs before but usually in response to something potentially dangerous, like the steam she assumes is smoke coming from a pot of boiling water. There is nothing threating about this situation. I can feel my frustration growing; even I want to cry out at this point. I am worried Grace is “getting into mischief,” as Liz would say. I’m irritated by this childish behavior from the oldest of the monkeys, and disgusted that my hand is now covered in diary product. Gross. I feel my own mood starting to tank…
“Elizabeth. This is not a big deal. I need you to calm down. You cannot act like this in the world. People aren’t going to accommodate this kind of freak out behavior in life…”
I say this more to myself than to her. It’s an immature, snarky comment that a seven-year-old is too young to swallow… I’ve noticed this is one of my coping mechanisms. I say something mentally over their heads to feel like I am talking to someone I can reason with. Then I remember… I am the oldest of us four children. I need to diffuse this.
I remind myself the goal right now is to regain control of the situation and calm everyone down. These kids— all kids, really— are looking to the adult for cues on how to react and respond, as well as ways to cope and be comforted. Maybe I shouldn’t hold a seven-year-old to such high standards… I’m sure it is a lot of pressure to be the oldest of three, especially when one of the three mischievous monkeys has autism. My annoyance begins to transform into empathy… I feel bad for Liz because she is so overwhelmed, so deep into this moment. She can’t step outside for a moment to assess the situation. Many adults, myself included, fall victim to this situational myopia.
I focus my attention onto Bella because she is acting calm and being helpful. I cannot acknowledge Elizabeth until she calms down, or I may accidently reinforce this inappropriate behavior. I finish cleaning the table, floor, and Bella. Liz is the only thing still mildly dirty with about three drops of milk on the edge of her pink skirt. I continue shuffling around the kitchen, tidying up, and killing time till, trying to ride out this emotional deluge.
I believe she is finally realizing no amount of screaming or crying about her skirt is going to get to me respond to her the way she wants. She appears to be running out of the premium grade freak out fuel. I feel the energy subsiding. Thank god. Once she has taken a deep breath and is now at least slightly receptive to my input, I am ready to swoop in and reassure her. I ask her if she is ok. She sniffles and nods.
“It’s ok. Come here, sweetheart. Let’s take the skirt off and rinse it with a little water,” I say reassuringly.
She sniffles and averts her gaze as though I am going to scold her, of which I have no intention.
“It’s ok, Lizzy. I know you were upset, but you can’t scream like that, sweetheart. Sometimes things happen, but it’s better to stay calm. And look!” I say motioning to the post-apocalyptic dairy zone. “It’s like it never even happened! We were able to do something about it, right?”
“Yeah…” she relents.
“So was it a big deal?”
She nods her head, a bit reluctantly, but nods it nonetheless. We dilute the three small spot on her skirt with some water and toss it into the washer. I wipe down the table one last with a wet rag to ensure no residual milk stink. I give her a hug and send her on her way. Bella and Liz run off to continue on their sisterly adventures of playing pretend and fighting for control, as little monkeys do. Even Grace has resurfaced and as far as I can tell no irrevocable harm has occurred. All is back to some form of equilibrium.
I adjust the chairs and place the napkin basket back into pre-incident positions. As I complete my spot checks, I take a moment to reflect on this brief 10-minute scene. I can’t help but laugh when I realize the old saying is quite true…
There is no use crying of spilt milk. Even when it gets on your pink skirt.