Do you remember the cause of all this? I do. The media was saturated with it, and the cause for all of this crazy weather became the catch-all explanation for every strange or inconveniencing occurrence. If you were in college with me during this time or watched David Letterman at all in 1998, then you remember El Niño.
It didn’t matter the problem. Did you wear the wrong sweater for this weather? El Niño. Is the cable out? El Niño. Lost your keys? El Niño. Girlfriend dump you? Stupid El Niño.
The meteorological phenomenon of anomalously cool oscillating temperatures of the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean took on a greater power in cultural consciousness than the Illuminati, the New World Order, and Satan combined. Part of this is because the media couldn’t leave it alone; it became a symbol of the destructive features of global warming, even though it is a climatic occurrence that has been occurring every five or so years for at least a hundred years. Also, it had a funny name.
There are certain events that seem inexplicable, at least on a small scale, and so demand that we broaden our scope to a larger scale to explain. This is certainly helpful in many circumstances, particularly when examining socio-cultural trends and problems. But it also tempts us into explaining away smaller problems by lumping them together. And I have now discovered the toddler equivalent of El Niño: growth spurts.
Like the strange and terrifying Great Ice Storm ‘98, several nights ago we experienced a disruption in the climate of our home. At midnight, our little girl woke up crying. She whimpered and whined, she shouted and cried. She was not running a temperature. She was not congested. She was not dirty. She made no mention of food or hunger. And she would not go to sleep without one of us in the room. For several hours I stayed up with her, rocking her to sleep, only to have her sit up screaming the moment I laid her down and left the room. Barring the nights she has been ill (our family should make up matching t-shirts that read “We Lived Through Christmas Eve 2011!”), this has not occurred since, well, ever. Our little girl is an amazing sleeper, which makes it all the more disorienting and troubling when she doesn’t sleep.
What could it have been? All the usual explanations fell short. When I complained about it at work – I was on only a few hours of sleep, after all – one of my coworkers said, “Maybe she’s in a growth spurt.” I asked how that would affect her sleep, and the response was, “Oh, it affects everything.”
I’ve heard similar stories from other parents. Toddlers who are suddenly picky about foods they had previously eaten with enthusiastic gusto. Toddlers who nap twice as long as usual. Toddlers who used to be happy and cheerful suddenly turning into shrieking monsters of tears and rage. Toddlers who literally rip their clothes in a sudden Bruce Banner transformation. All of it chalked up to growth spurts.
What can a parent do? Nothing, of course. Just like El Niño. When I was in college, we had a few catchphrase responses to some unexplained misfortune:
“Man, my biology professor called me out in class today!”
“Dude. El Niño.”
“For real. What can you do.”
El Niño and what can you do. As in, you can’t do anything. You’re helpless against the global powers of abnormally cool Pacific waters, just as parents are helpless against the invisible powers of abnormally accelerated cell growth in a young child.
“Man, my little girl nearly bit my face off today!”
“Dude. Growth spurts”
“For real. What can you do.”
But you know what? This isn’t even new. Parents have an explanation for those first nine months, too: teething. Every problem is a result of teething. Diarrhea, fever, even nasal congestion: I have heard with my own ears people tell me that all of these were caused by teething. Never mind the fact that scientific studies don’t show links between teething and these symptoms. Google them, and you’ll see that not only the majority of parents but a good portion of doctors believe that teething causes these things.
Hell, maybe they do, who really knows. It seems just as likely that a growth spurt would wake a child up in the night and cause them to become inconsolable. Maybe they can’t sleep because the sound of their bones growing is keeping them awake. The phenomenon of explaining away an unexplainable irritation is a normal human need. When we’re helpless, we want an explanation for our helplessness. Particularly if that explanation includes something normal and healthy. After all, I want my little girl to grow, don’t I? So I would be an idiot to want to stop a growth spurt. Marking up a sleepless night to growth spurts lets me stop worrying a little bit and even be glad that this sleepless night serves a larger function in the grand scheme of my little girl’s development.
It probably doesn’t hurt to believe a little untruth to help us relax. Teething probably doesn’t cause lowgrade fevers or runny noses; being an infant in a world of germs does, though, so chances are pretty good that on any day an infant cuts a tooth they may also be fighting off germs. Growth spurts probably don’t turn toddlers into unmanageable monsters; developing cognitive capacities before language abilities might, though. Or maybe it’s just a bad night.
I can’t wait to discover what the El Niño of the next developmental stage will be. Potty training? The oral stage? Allergies? Too much TV? Who knows. I’m sure I’ll be tempted to buy into it because it will make me feel a little more at ease, but I also hope I can hang on to my skepticism and even pass it on to my child as she gets older.
Think I’m crazy? You’re probably in a growth spurt.