The Tantrum on the Train

Sometimes I wish I knew what Connor was thinking. My current interpretation of his facial expression is, “Holy crap this train moves fast.” But maybe that’s simply because it’s what I was thinking too.

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

The trouble with a toddler’s tantrums is that you just can’t get a good picture.

That’s not to say a full-on, whole-body, eardrum-shattering scream-and-thrash fest doesn’t make for a striking photo. Quite the contrary. Hell, some of Connor’s tantrums deserved a storyboard and a film crew.

No, the trouble with toddler tantrums is that, no matter how perfect a picture it would make, you’re too much in parenting damage control mode to remember to grab the camera. That, and your spouse probably won’t be open to the idea of you taking pictures while your kid screams and she or he looks on, mortified. “Honey, can you hold him a little closer to your ear? It’s better composition, and that was a great open-mouth screaming face!”

Yeah, spouses usually frown on that.

So it is, I’m sorry to say, that I have zero photos or videos of the tantrums that Connor performed for the Japanese. You’ll just have to take my word for it when I explain that as much as our wee guy can be happy, smiley and Mr. Personable personified, when he is upset, he is just as fervent and heartfelt in his display.

Don’t be fooled. Mr. Breakfast Smiles packed an alter ego for our Shinkansen train ride to Kyoto.

Overall, things began well. Our last morning in Tokyo began with me taking Connor on another early-morning walk, but it wasn’t as early and didn’t last as long. Like the day before, it gave us the chance to wander Noborito’s neighborhoods and gardens, for Connor to get in some free-range exploring time, and for Jodie and our couchsurfing hosts to get more sleep.

Once we were on the train, or rather, once we were trapped in a high-speed enclosed metal tube, things began to change.

Notebooks and hobbit-wizard-monk-robe dolls are just a couple of ways we helped Connor stay occupied. But even a traveler supermom like Jodie was starting to feel a bit anxious…

The trip began well. Looking out the window from a Shinkansen is not as blurry a view as I thought, and Connor was having a good time with the change of scene. We sped through Tokyo, until its densely packed neighborhoods, business districts and industrial areas were behind us. Connor sat on our laps, looking out the window and pointing at scenery. He may have been very engaged, or he may just have been mimicking what I was doing.

Soon Connor transitioned to either standing on the floor in front of our seats, or sitting on the empty middle seat between me and Jodie. He played with various toys, such as the wee hobbit-wizard doll (as I call it) that Jodie made Connor for his first birthday.

But why stay around our seats, when the wide world of the train is calling? Connor and I soon embarked on one of his favorite pasttimes: wandering up and down the aisle, nonverbally saying hello to every passenger (followed by my spoken hello, or, “konnichiwa!”), and perhaps giving a quick pull to the zips on people’s bags.

People have been most accommodating of my wee son’s curiosity, making it clear that it’s okay for him to thoroughly examine the outside of their bags. Connor flicked zippers, patted compartments, and looked closely at the shiny metal bits. It’s all pretty amusing, and also cool to see such intent curiosity. After a brief exploration, I would usually help guide Connor along, giving a quick bow and “arigato gozai mas” (thank you) as we continued on our way.

One woman in particular was most kind. Reading a book from her seat on the other side of the aisle from us, her grandmotherly air drew Connor in like a magnet. He wandered over and stood next to her legs, looking up at her and smiling, his big blue eyes set to maximum open and “kawaī,” or cute. She laughed and smiled, lowering her book and waving to Connor. Seeing the book’s pages, covered in columns of Japanese script, Connor drew in close, fascinated by how different the text looked. The woman flipped through the pages, nodding when Connor would point at a character. Eventually Connor wandered back toward me, and as usual I bowed and said “arigato gozai mas.” She laughed, smiled, and gave a final wave to Connor.

Then the trouble began.

This kind, patient Japanese woman spent many a time playing with Connor and showing him her book

Back in our seats, Jodie had finished drinking a coffee. Lately Connor is intently interested in things we use, especially crinkly empty paper coffee cups. Once we’ve made sure the cup is empty, we give it to Connor. He can examine it to the full extent required by his toddler curiosity, and we can try not to laugh ourselves onto the floor when noticing the occasional odd look thrown by someone wondering what nutjob parent would give their child coffee.

That’s us nutjob parents, bucko.

But no, it is just the cup. As far as we’re concerned, if Connor is occupied with something he finds interesting that ain’t dangerous, then play on.

That is, until the cup became a problem.

Connor had been playing with the cup for a while. But he was also getting restless and increasingly squealy. Trying to think of things from his perspective, maybe he was getting tired; maybe it was a sign of the beginnings of teething pain—he still had 3 molars coming in, after all. Eventually, the cup began annoying him more than intriguing him. I told him that it was time to be done with the cup. After a little bit to let this sink in, I picked up the cup, left the seat and went to the end of the car to throw away the cup.

Then the screaming began.

Like any other person, Connor has his difficult moments. Sometimes teething pain makes him very loudly vocally unhappy. Sometimes he gets over-tired, and that makes him audibly cranky. But this? This was different. This was full-on pissed off.

Connor shrieked and screamed louder than I had ever heard him do before. Maybe some of this was the train car—nothing like hard surfaces to bounce and amplify a toddler’s outrage. But Connor screamed and screamed, flailing his arms while he figured out a new way to scream louder. Jodie could barely hold him, and he fought back against all her attempts to soothe him. She handed Connor to me. As I pulled him toward me, he fired a fresh vocal volley right into my eardrum. (I’m still having trouble distinguishing Beethoven from Led Zeppelin, but my doctor assures me it will pass. At least, I think that’s what he said.)

The intensity of the sound shocked me. Fresh waves of adrenaline poured into me, as I tried to think of what to do, and tried not to think of how embarrassed I felt that my child—my precious, amazing child—was melting down in the train car like a snowman in Tahiti. I hugged Connor in close, though I positioned him so his head was over my shoulder, therefore clear of my ears. “I’m taking him between the cars,” I said to Jodie. She nodded and sat back. As Connor and I made our way to the end of the train car, I apologized as we passed our fellow passengers. A heartfelt “gomennasai,” or “I’m sorry” seemed the least I could do.

An angry toddler makes a train car vestibule are very, very loud. Connor screamed and screamed. I held him close, patting his back. It’s hard now to remember what I did to try to be there for Connor. I held him; I think I tried smiling and singing. Eventually I realized that whatever was wrong, it had resulted in emoting that Connor just had to get out of his system.

I walked him up and down the vestibule, waiting, trying to see if I could make my sense of hearing physically recede. I also felt completely and utterly mortified. This was our first big public tantrum with Connor. Our overall sweet, smiley, friendly, congenial, curious guy looked like a scrunchy, red-faced hellhound. And all I could do was be there until this toddler storm spent itself.

Which, gradually, it did. The screams weren’t as intense or constant, the way thunder fades as a summer storm passes by. I continued holding Connor close, saying nothing, just being there. The screaming stopped. He breathed in a sort of ragged sob.

Eventually he looked at me, eyes red and wet. I think I smiled at him. I hope I smiled at him, anyway. The tantrum had sucked. It was miserable—painful even, when the screams were volleying right into my ears—and embarrassing as hell. But we’d survived. I patted Connor’s back and held him a bit longer. I may have sung to him a little, but that’s probably more indicative of a grace I wish I’d had a dad on this occasion.

A train-travel-tired Tokyo toddler finally gives in to the need to nap

Once Connor was calmed down, we came back into the train car. As I walked us to our seats, many of the passengers gave us… not frowns, but small smiles. The knowing empathy of parents who’ve been there, I thought as we sat down. Jodie and I looked at each other, sharing our own small smiles. That had been really, really hard to deal with. But we’d gotten through.

All too soon, the Shinkansen arrived in Kyoto, and we found ourselves in a new city, poised for new adventures. We put Connor on my back in his carrier. He quickly nodded off.

As we walked around Kyoto, killing time until we met our next homestay host, I tried to make sense of what had happened on the train. Tantrums happen. Toddlers are going through so much mental, emotional and physical development, that there’s no way to completely avoid times where they break down. But we were just travelers in a foreign country, no true space of our own, no home, no center to hone in on except each other. One way or another, every tantrum Connor had would be in public.

Sooner or later, this was going to happen again.

The thought was mortifying. Terrifying. And as we wandered Kyoto, our son now snuggled on my back and sleeping peacefully, I had no idea how I was going to be able to handle the tantrums of a Tokyo toddler.

More Tokyo Toddler

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