Sophie’s regression started with a simple request: “Mama, carry me like a little baby.” I obliged because, quite frankly, this is a fantasy I like to indulge in myself. Further evidence of our folie a deux.
“My tired little baby,” I whispered into her sweaty mop of hair, “do you need a kiss?”
“Yes, ma-ma,” she answered. I took all 28 pounds of her into my arms, planted a kiss on the crown of her head, and carried her off to bed.
We both felt a deep sense of satisfaction. The perfect ending to a day of eternal struggle. A mother-toddler battle-of-the-wills smackdown, which goes a little like this.
After a gentle request to climb into her carseat: “If you don’t climb into that carseat by the time I count to three, I’m putting you in. 1…2…. Good listening!”
After an invitation to sit down to breakfast: “If you don’t climb into that highchair by the count of three, I’m putting you in…1…2…3. That was pushing it, Missy.”
After notification that it is time to leave the park: “If you don’t climb back into your stroller by the count of three, I’ll put you in, myself…1…2…2 ½…3. (Sounds of a struggle…”NO! I’ll do it myself!” “I gave you the opportunity to do it yourself, now I have to do it for you.” “Daddy said I can do it myself!” “Daddy is at work and said no such thing.” “Waaaahhhhhhh!!!!”)
We are both wrung out.
The next day, I am fixing breakfast and Sophie is playing on the floor beside me. “Look, ma-ma. I’m a little baby crawling to you.” She crawls over to me and puts her arms up in the air, “uppy!” (NB: Even as a baby, Sophie never said “uppy.” This babytalk is based on her observation of other children, a modeling of iconic baby behavior, rather than a true reversion to her younger self.) I lift her up; she rests her head on my shoulder and places her thumb in her mouth.
She needs me less and less.
The awareness of her independence triggers an existential crisis that makes her want me more, “I want to be separate…oh no, I am alone in the world…I want to merge.” And then the cycle repeats. I do a careful dance of trying to foster her sense of self-efficacy and offering the reassurance that I am there to take care of her. It requires a great deal of attunement, empathy, and memory. At times, more than I can manage (e.g., I must retain the knowledge that she likes for me to begin to peel her banana, but not remove the peel entirely so that she can then peel the rest of it herself and hand it off to me for disposal. NOT following this sequence, i.e., peeling the banana entirely and then handing it to her runs the risk of triggering a tantrum.)
One could make the case that I should not give in to toddler whims. I am the parent. The control should rest with me. But I believe in giving her control within the limits of behavior that is acceptable to me. Letting her have a sense of autonomy, of agency, of importance. It is no skin off my nose to let her peel the rest of the banana. Saving a few seconds is not worth a battle. Safety issues, such as holding my hand when she crosses the street, are non-negotiables. I save my strength for these fights. I have no desire to lord over her, bend her will, break her spirit. Somehow, I believe, she understands the fairness of this, the inherent respect. She listens when it counts.
By the same token, I have to reel in the impulse to baby her, not just to do things for her, but to coddle her and hover over her like the helicopter parent I am. I try, really try, to make sure that babying takes place on her terms, when she is feeling frightened of the chasm forming between us her new, more competent self, when she wants assurance that she’ll always be my baby. (“Carry me like a little baby.” “Uppy.”) This is not to say that I don’t constantly reach for her, kiss her and tell her I love her. I do. But if rejected in the moment, “No Mommy! Don’t kiss me,” I back off, knowing the less I push, the less she’ll resist.
None of this is easy because it’s not about what I want or need. But I find that if I follow her rhythms…the ebb and flow of her desire to be connected and separate, the rise and fall of her longing for agency and care…I get exactly what I want and just what I need.