Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Necessity of Conflict

Well, I did it. I yelled at Sophia. It was one of the things that, before I had her, I swore I would never do. But, turns out, I am human after all.

I have long held that most contention, most negative behavior can be effectively prevented if you have the time and energy to do it. But this was a day on which I had neither.

Sophia had just finished her morning at my mother’s nursery school, and as usual was utterly exhausted, having had less than her standard twelve hours of beauty rest and spent two hours in the car to arrive at school by nine. She collapsed on a giant stuffed frog, plugged her mouth with her thumb, and stared at the ceiling as she stroked his green fuzz.

My hard-working mom was having a down day, and I wanted to cheer her up. “Go ask grandma if she wants to come out to lunch with us,” I whispered into Sophia’s ear. She popped up, galloped over to my mother and shouted down the parents surrounding my mom. “Grandma, will you come to lunch with me?” My mother scooped Sophia up, beaming. “Excuse me,” she told the crowd, “but I was just asked to lunch by my grand-daughter.”

It took us awhile to collect our things, pile into the car, and get over to the luncheonette, but when we arrived we were the only customers, so I wasn’t terribly concerned that we were swiftly approaching nap time. Somehow, our three sandwiches took over a half-hour to make. By which point Sophia had fallen out of her chair several times, was transitioned to a high chair, protested adamantly, rejected every toy and chotchke offered, had grabbed every sharp and fragile object off the table, and had thoroughly irritated the couple having an adulterous rendez-vous at the next table.

I got half of a greasy grilled-cheese into her before she really started to lose it, whining, dropping her milk on the floor, and running her oily hands through her freshly-washed hair. (She knows this really gets to me). We asked for the check and high-tailed it out of there, leaving shredded napkins in our wake. In the car Sophia announced, “I want to go to sleep. I want my crib.”

“I know, darlin’.” I assured her, “I’ll get us home as fast as I can.” It was ½ an hour past her naptime. Most kids would just nap in the car. Not Sophie.

Forty red lights later, we arrived at my mother’s house, Sophie’s diaper bulging. I forgot to change it at the nursery school. If I let it go, she’s was going to leak. At best, she’d smell like pee. At worst, she’d soak the pack and play that she uses for a bed. I decided to change her.

Bad decision. She squirmed out of my grasp and made a break for it. “I just want to be with these two rabbits,” she screamed from across the room, clutching two stuffed rabbits to her chest defiantly. I approached her slowly, brandishing my iphone. “Hey Sophie,” I coo, “you want to look at animals?” I tapped the toddler flashcard app and held up a picture of a pig and snorted. “Look, it’s a pig!”


“Come on, Sophie. I just need to change your diaper and then you can go to sleep.”


“I know you don’t, but you do have a very wet diaper, and I need to change it. I would be remiss as your mother if I didn’t make sure you were clean and dry before I put you down for a nap.”


I decided that negotiations were over. I laid her flat on the changing pad. She began to buck and kick me. I would pin one part of her body and another part would wrench free and take a shot at me. I managed to rip off her soaked Pampers. I was grabbing a wipe when she clocked me in the jaw with her heel. That was it. I lost my cool.


My guilty conscience answered: Because she’s exhausted. Because you woke her early. You kept her up late. And now you’re subjecting her to her least favorite activity in the whole wide world. How would you like to have someone pin you to the ground, rip off your clothes, and vigorously wipe your vulva when all you wanted to do was sleep?

I took a deep breath. I forewent the wiping, slapped a fresh diaper on her, and carried her off to bed.

“I’m sorry for yelling, Sophia. I love you. I was just frustrated.” I closed the door. Then, I got a cup of coffee, put my head in my hands, and berated myself for an hour.

When she woke up, all seemed forgotten. We didn’t talk about the incident.

That night, over dinner, Sophia told my mother, “Mommy and I had a fight.”

“Oh?” says my mother.

“Yes. Mommy yelled at me, and I was squirming too much.”

I felt the weight of my guilt lift a little. I was deeply impressed that she acknowledged her role in our struggle. She didn’t simply feel victimized by my yelling; she accepted responsibility for the co-creation of our fight.

Most adults can’t do that.

Here, I was thinking that as her parent, I need to be the one who exercises self-control for the both of us, the one who engineers the environment for harmony. But what I didn’t realize, is that Sophia is becoming her own person, a person with a nascent understanding of what makes me angry, what hurts me, what pleases me. And she is beginning to be able to make choices about how she acts in the world. It is only through the context of a real fight that one learns the impact that one has on another. It is only through processing of these incidents that one understands contrition. Empathy, taking personal responsibility, and making a meaningful apology are skills that need to be learned in the context of a relationship where safety is guaranteed. And all is forgiven.

I cannot make any promises that I won’t yell again. I will. And it won’t be rational, or fair. But I’ll continue to try to do my best to respect Sophia’s needs, to pick my battles and to admit when I’ve done her wrong.

And to take her to the carpet, when necessary.

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