Sunday, April 24, 2011

Here comes a storm in the form of a girl, she's the finest sweetest thing in the world...

The title of this blog entry is a line from a Hole song that I love. It always made me think of myself: stormy, moody, extreme, but somehow likeable anyhow. Me? Ha. Like mother, like daughter.

For fourteen months I've been thinking that this parenting stuff isn't so hard. I figured either I was just naturally talented or we got an unusually easy kid, or maybe a bit of both. Right? I mean, people warned me that it wasn't always love at first sight, but I bonded to her instantly. I thought I'd be a perfect candidate for postpartum depression and yet I was elated every single minute I was with her. I would even spring out of bed in the middle of the night, happy to see her and tend to her. When I went back to work and had to get her on a bottle, people told me to be careful, that she might never nurse again. Fat chance - she still loves the boob. When she showed interest in food, everyone warned me, "Once you start feeding her, it's all over!" But she had such fun trying out new foods and tastes and textures that it still hasn't gotten boring. When she was trying to crawl, everyone told me in a knowing voice "As soon as she crawls, it's all over!" But she crawled early and easily and it was nothing but fun. Then when she was cruising, everyone said, "As soon as she walks, it's all over!" But she walked early and easily, and it was nothing but fun. Then when she started to talk, everyone said "Just wait until she's able to say no. That's when it's all over!" But she spoke early and easily, and her saying no was just one more way for her to express herself, and that was very helpful - and fun.

Now why the hell didn't anyone warn me about temper tantrums?

I've been coasting for months. Sure, she's walking and talking, she's saying no and yes and hi and two dozen other things. She had very strong opinions and lets you know exactly what she wants, what she doesn't want, and how or where or when she wants it. She doesn't hold back. My days are full and I go to bed exhausted. But she's easy. Cute. Distractable. Mostly happy. Easily bribed with snacks or Big Bird or nursing. Happy to spend time in the playground.

And all the while I'm sitting pretty thinking this isn't so bad!

Then, out of nowhere, a storm came about a week ago at bedtime.

About a week before that night, the birth ball that has been our most valued piece of furniture since Thora was still in the womb popped beyond repair. It deflated and I was out a foot rest. I'd been using it while sitting with Thora on the glider at bedtime to keep my legs up, since, as my pregnancy progresses I have less and less lap space to offer her with my feet down. We tossed the ball in the trash and dusted off the nursing stool we'd gotten when she was born but never really used. About four inches off the ground, this little wooden stool became instantly popular with our baby, who loves to climb up but has not yet mastered going down. Falling results repeatedly in tears, bumps and bruises, but she is undeterred and over the course of the week-with-no-birth-ball she was on that stupid footstool like she was glued to it. She'd push it up against the glider and stand on it, rocking a sleeping cat back and forth, back and forth, until I started to see visions of angry furballs and broken babies.

So that bedtime, when I couldn't get her off the stool to use it myself and initiate the bedtime process, we very calmly lifted her off and took it away.

Thora was not okay with this. Normally any disruption results in objection of some mild form or other, but this was like nothing we'd ever seen before. Helplessly, Johnny and I stood, mouths open, while Thora clenched her fists and screamed, rooted to the spot. Red in the face, tear-stained and snotty, she howled. She was inconsolable. It was almost funny to see her so bent out of shape over something so small so we both had to hide smiles as we attempted to parent through this moment. But in a flash I remembered all the times my mother got the nervous giggles when I was upset, and how infuriating I still find that. I knew I had to validate this somehow. I wiped the smile off my face and tried to hold out my arms to hug her. She took a step toward me and reached out a hand. Okay, I can fix this, it's not so bad, I thought with relief in the second before she pushed my arms away with that hand. My heart broke. But I stayed where I was and I said calmly and firmly, Baby girl, I see you are really upset. I know you were having fun. But that stool is not safe for you and I don't want you to get hurt because I love you and I am worried that you will fall.

This calmed her enough to get into my arms and nurse, wrapped in her blanket. When she was quiet enough to put down in the crib, she started to howl again. I tried to pick her up again. She pushed me away. I stood and talked to her. No dice. Finally I told her it seemed like she needed some space and since it was bedtime anyway, I was going to say goodnight and that I would be right in the next room. I would check on her soon, I told her. I did - and this went on for another half hour. I went back and forth but could not console her completely. Eventually, she passed out.

She woke up once during the night and everything was normal. I went to her and she fell right back asleep. In the morning she was smiling like nothing ever happened -- at first. Then she had another extreme reaction to me trying to feed her breakfast the way I've been feeding her breakfast every single day for the last seven months. She refused everything I offered her. It became unmistakably clear that she wanted to feed herself. Dubiously I poured her a small bowl of cereal and handed it to her with a spoon. She stopped crying and fussing instantly and went to work. She got through most of it before everything  ended up on the floor. Eating this way took four times as long, she ate half as much, and there was twice as much to clean up. I had to be somewhere at 8:45. I was late. Worse, I was really rattled. I was totally out of my parenting element.

This is now, horrifyingly, how my child eats (the second is worse than the first):

The rest of the week has been pretty calm but now I know what this kid is capable of. I am prepared. Still, this all happened so fast. That night and the next morning, I felt so many things at once. Fear, lack of confidence. My beautiful, easygoing baby was suddenly a monster and I barely recognized her. I didn't know how to handle this change. We poked and pulled at her skin to make sure there wasn't a lizard underneath (you've all seen V, right?). Nope, she was still human. I checked all her parts. Same dimply tush, same stork bite, same mark on her arm she's had since birth. Same crooked bangs that I gave her when I snipped a few long strands out of her eyes a few weeks ago. Definitely ours. At the same time, I felt pride because I want a child who is free and feels strong enough to express herself to me no matter how it comes out. I felt sympathy, as I have to admit that when I am tired my emotions also get a little unchecked. Everything suddenly feels like a life or death situation and I pick horrible fights over the tiniest things. And I also felt fierce love. No matter how horribly she behaves, I still love her and want to protect her. In my mind's eye, I saw her as a teenager and I saw the path to letting go and letting her grow up and figure stuff out herself. Suddenly adolescence and toddlerhood didn't seem that different. Being able to validate her and also leave her to sort her feelings out when it was clear that she needed a little space made me see that when she becomes an adolescent I might have the tools I need to tough out those times and let her grow into her own person. Maybe. I hope.

I was talking to someone about this who suggested I come up with a mantra to say under my breath when she behaves like this. I thought long and hard about what I wanted her to see in me when she is acting out and we came up with "kind, calm and caring." I absolutely want her to feel validated. Truly the worst feeling I can think of is when I am very upset about something and the people around me do not take me seriously or listen to me. I want my girl to know that even if I can't fix the problem, I can relate to her and feel empathy. I understand that she is upset and want to be there for her in whatever way is helpful. I also want to stay calm enough that I don't give in to what she wants just because she is hysterical. I know that would mean resigning myself to a lifetime of temper tantrums and a spoiled kid. Still, it's not easy to stand firm. In this particular instance, I found myself wanting to just give her the stool back so she would just shut up already, but as I heard myself say That's not safe, Bea, I knew I had to stick to my guns. And I did, and the moment passed eventually. Since that night we have had only peaceful bedtimes. And I want to be the kind of parent who explains why I am making the decision I am. I never want Thora to hear Because I said so or I'm your mother, that's why or You'll understand when you're older. I always found explanations of that sort so dismissive and completely unhelpful. They left me thinking my parents didn't care and were just making decisions at random to make me miserable. I do care, and I want her to know it and to be part of these moments with me so that we both learn from them.

My biggest fear is still adolescence. Ultimately when she is a teenager she will be able to do whatever she wants no matter what I say to her. I won't be able to stop her. What I want for her then will not matter if she has her mind set and if we do not have trust. But I want to build trust in the years between now and then and I want to be consistently kind, calm and caring so that when she's fourteen years old and wants to do some totally outlandish thing that I say no to, she will fight and argue but then consider my words seriously and say to herself, my mom doesn't want that for me, and think about it before she goes and tries some substance or sneaks out at night or whatever. Then, I will remind her of when she was fourteen months old and we handled her totally outlandish thing the same way. Now, as someone pointed out to me, is the time to wire the air conditioner properly so that ten or fifteen years from now all I have to do is plug it in the same way and it will still work in the same way.

This is big stuff for me. Bigger than getting her to sit on the potty (I'm not allowed to show this picture, but it's really cute!) and bigger than checking the weather by looking out the "doh!" (window) every morning:

or trying to keep her out of puddles while we both videotape:

or getting her used to being around other babies in preparation for Newbie's arrival:

And as if it weren't hard enough dealing with our own child, now Johnny and I have to deal with everyone else's too, in ways we never have before. This week we signed up for a trial class at the Little Gym near our apartment. Johnny took her to an 11 am class on Thursday that lasted 45 minutes. We agreed that if he and Thora liked it, he would sign her up for the rest of the "semester" so when my phone rang at 11:46 I figured he totally hated it. No, he said, the class was great, the space was nice and clean, the "teacher" was wonderful. But a little boy about Thora's age walked up to her and bit her.

Someone hit her? I asked. No, he spat, still very upset. Bit her! Like a dog. A bite. He didn't break the skin but he bit hard and she has teeth marks on her upper arm. She wailed, the nanny apologized profusely, and the little boy just continued to run around and play in the gym space. What could Johnny do? He didn't do anything but leave and call me to blow off some steam. (He did sign her up for the rest of the semester.)

This is two days after the bite happened:

We're thinking about nursery school a few mornings a week once Newbie is born, but this made us rethink. Would we be sending her somewhere just to get bitten? There are other kids out there! Maybe that's not safe!

We talked for a long time that night about what it means to step in and discipline someone else's child, and whether it is acceptable. I still don't know how I feel about that. At the neighborhood storytime we take Thora to, there are sometimes older kids who run wild around the babies and toddlers and I wonder why their parents take them to the baby storytime and not to the one for older kids. Why do the parents let them run around like that? Why don't they reel them in? I've never said anything but I'm not sure I wouldn't. I don't think it's appropriate for them to sit there and do nothing and sometimes I get so riled up I think if they don't do something, then I will. But so far I haven't.

On the other hand, of course I would feel horrible if my child bit another child or ran around and knocked over a baby. And I know I would feel even worse if some stranger yelled at her for doing it. So far she hasn't bitten or knocked over anyone, but I know that sort of thing happens all the time and it's entirely possible that she will. Eventually she will do something to someone that they or their parents will not like. How will I react when that parent speaks up? Will I feel defensive? Will I appreciate the help? I really don't know.

What have your experiences been like?


  1. I guess we have been somewhat lucky with Xavier--he's always been opinionated and headstrong, so it wasn't a surprise when he started expressing himself in ways similar to the ones you've described. It wasn't a surprise, but it's no less disconcerting. If he's in the wrong mood, you can offer him one of his favorite things--bagel, banana, etc--and he'll straight-up throw it across the room. And, for me, what's worse is that he changes his mind back two seconds later and will make a bee-line for that bagel (or whatever) and sit there, happily munching away and smiling.

    I guess it's just part of the territory of dealing with a little kid. I take my solace in the thought that he will eventually learn that flipping out is not acceptable, and he'll control his emotions.

    We eased into daycare--we started with two days a week when Avy was in school last January, and we later bumped it up to three days. He's been full-time since December.

    At first it was definitely weird, but we started noticing little changes in his language abilities and levels of coordination. Socialization improved the quality of his interactions with other kids in the same ways that it improved his other physical skills.

    On the flip side, is daycare sends home "incident reports" if a kid is injured in some way, and Xavier has had a few of those--he fell and landed on a wood-chip, cutting his forehead. He got scratched on the cheek. He caught a finger in a door and got pinched. Someone pushed him. This stuff happens. Similarly, he's been known to push or hit other kids who interrupt him or invade his space when he's playing. And I hear about all of it. Lately, all of the kids have been hitting each other... it's a trend. Again, they're learning from each other.

    Most of the time, if nobody's bleeding or bruised, I just kind of let it go--after all, he's in a room full of kids his age, and they're all kind of wild, so it's pretty much par for the course. And kids get hurt and hurt each other all the time. It's part and parcel to kid life. None of the other parents have mentioned Xavier's behavior towards their kids yet, and I don't know if I would be defensive or angry if that happened, but I'm pretty sure I'd just apologize on Xavier's behalf and end with something like, "Hey, they're two-and-a-half... they do this kind of stuff." What else can you do?

  2. Anna and Thora sound like very similar babies. It always helps to remember that every little thing is a phase. Everything (except the messy eating, sometimes Anna still prefers to eat yogurt with her fingers. Hummus especially.).

    Anna's been in day care almost 2 years. In her class currently there's a kid who's known to be aggressive, and she is one of his targets. It's hard for me to admit to not liking a kid, but he's drawn blood twice (these incidents get reported and we have to sign an official form). I'm not trying to scare you with this because we're keeping her there, overall it's been a great experience for her. We've talked to the teachers to see what the strategy is with the aggressive kid. Anna is not scared of the boy nor does she fear school because of him, and I think she's actually learning to be a little tougher because of it. I don't like it, but we're keeping an eye on it and working with the school.

    Erik's comment is right on. The benefits of Anna being in day care 3x/week have so outweighed any of the negatives we wouldn't consider taking her out or putting her through a move. She loves her little friends. The best part is at pick-up, all of her friends get so excited, the whole class yells, "ANNA! YOUR MOMMY'S/DADDY'S HERE!" a few of them grab onto my legs. I am very pro-day care.

  3. This is one of my favorite posts of yours thus far. I found myself nodding throughout so much of it! I just wanna say that it sounds like you're doing a great job of handling her in a strong but comforting way. I find that when Hank starts getting into tantrum mode, it's effective for me to be really calm and clear and just say, "I know you're frustrated/disappointed. Would you like a hug?" 99% of the time he nods and lets me comfort him, which diffuses the situation. Another thing that really works for us is always giving him choices. The trick is to give two choices, either of which would work for YOU. So, I might say, "Do you want to read books and then get in bed, or do you want to just get in bed?" Or "Do you want to try on the potty now or after you have your snack?" Toddlers are so hungry for some control in their worlds - this gives it to them in a way that doesn't disrupt your role as parent/boss. Does that make sense?


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