Sunday, February 27, 2011

Banshee Moms

I was just about to ease myself into a hot bath when Nan called last night.

“Got a minute?” She asked. Yes. I always have a minute for Nan. Except that it’s never just a minute.

“I have to warn you. The battery on my phone is about to wear out.”

“This will only take a minute,” she assures me. (I am skeptical.)

“What’s up?”

“I have a question. If you were about to go somewhere, do you think Sophia would know not to jump in a muddle puddle and get herself wet and dirty?”

I think about it for a second. I know I tend to be a bit generous in terms of that I think Sophia is and isn’t capable of understanding. “No,” I answer. “She still isn’t really able to conceptualize a future that is more fun than the present. A mud puddle in the here and now would definitely trump whatever is coming next.”

Nan sighed. “I thought so.” And I realized my response, though validating her own suspicions, gave her reason to beat herself up a little.

She pained a complete picture of that afternoon: She and her three children were getting ready to go to Chuck E. Cheese. While Nan was dealing with Mitchell, who was jumping in the aforementioned mud puddle, Reid had surreptitiously opened a jar of Play-Doh for Rachel, who proceeded to eat the contents. Nan announced that there would be no Chuck E. Cheese and that everyone was going back in the house.

After they did, Nan quizzed them: “Do you know why we went back in the house?”

Reid answered, “Because Mitchell jumped in a mud puddle, and Rachel ate Play-Doh.”

Though the facts were right, the spirit of its wrongness was absent from his response. Nancy went into the living room and screamed like a banshee.

“Have you ever done this?” she asked me

“You mean screamed?”

“Yes. At the top of your lungs.”

Uh, yeah. Like a couple days ago.

Sophie and I were, coincidentally, in the bath. The bath. The bane of my existence. I knew, before Sophia was even born, that I would hate giving baths. I don’t like to bathe myself. It’s so banal—the routine of it. Every day the same damn thing. And to have to do it twice a day is absolute torture. Just one of the myriad of reasons I should only have one child.

It may be that on an unconscious level Sophie is aware of my anti-bath attitude.

Or, it may be that she has sensory issues—a hypersensitivity to touch. When I wash her, no matter how gently, she screams, “You’re hurting me! You’re hurting me!” And the other day, when I tried to clean out her ears, she actually bit me. Hard. I’ve tried to be gentle, dabbing at her with the softest of washcloths, but she acts as though I am scrubbing her with lye soap and Brillo pads. As she grows older, stronger, and smarter, the battles have become fiercer. She thrashes around, soaking me, kicking me, all the while screaming she’s in pain.

But, the other day, I finally lost it. Partly out of extreme frustration, partly out a desire to shock her out of her hysteria, I screamed. I screamed until my throat hurt. It was a primal cry from the very base of my soul that reverberated all the way down my street.

And do you know what she did? She looked at me and smiled.

I will never be entirely sure of what that smile meant. At the time, it felt sadistic. A smile of satisfaction that she had truly rattled me. I pushed through the bath, angry with her and myself for losing control.

Nan offered another explanation—perhaps Sophie didn’t know what to make of the scream. Maybe she was amused by it, i.e. “What is my crazy mother doing NOW?”

All I know is that screaming did not accomplish my goal.

After that bath, I decided it was time to come up with a proactive approach for addressing her bath battle behavior. I now write a checklist of all her body parts on the wall with a pink bath crayon. As I wash each part in a predictable, routine fashion, Sophia checks it off the list. The point of this is that 1) she sees bathing has a concrete end (which we approach with each completed item) and 2) I have given her some control over the process. It was working fairly well, but I still encountered a good deal of resistance around hair and face washing. So I coupled my list with the art of distraction.

When Sophia was a little baby, I sang “Rise and Shine” to her as I sponged her fragile parts on our kitchen counter. I told her this the other day as we worked our way through the checklist. “Sing it to me, Mommy,” she asked. I began to sing, and Sophia was captivated, letting me work under her arms, between her toes, behind her ears, joining me in the chorus, “Rise and shine and give god your glory, glory. Rise and shine and give god your glory, glory. Rise. And. Shine. And. Give got your glory, glory, children of the lord.”

Later, when she requested the song at lunch, I told her, no. “That’s our special bath song. You’ll get to hear it the next time you take a bath.” She smiled at the possibility.

I pocketed the song as a “task-specific reinforcer”—something she will only get to hear when she takes a bath, made more powerful by its lack of availability.

Nan told me that after she calmed down, she took the kids outside to jump in mud puddles. After all, it was the path of least resistance.

And the futile scream was replaced with laughter.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oral Tradition

Sophia, my father, and I are sitting on the shiny leather couch in my father’s living room. It is the only thing that shines here. Everything else seems dulled with age or dust or by the dim light that filters through the shaded windows, barely illuminating the room. It’s just enough light for us to make out the pictures in the book he’s holding, a children’s story about an anxious lemur. But it’s not the plot that is lulling both Sophie and I into a fairytale stupor. It’s my father’s voice.

My father has a magical storytelling voice. In conversation, he is halting and gruff, but when he’s sharing a narrative, his voice takes on a tender, mellifluous tone that has never failed to soothe me into a pleasant plane that is neither sleep nor consciousness. A place where, even as cold as the room is now, feels dreamy and warm. Like Hans Christen Anderson’s Matchstick Girl. Each story is a flame that gives off a gentle heat. Sophie’s eyes are glazed and I know that she is experiencing just what I am, what I always have, whenever my father became the version of his self that I loved best and told me a story.

Like the time I was in the hospital, having my appendix out. I was fourteen and terrified. We already had entered a deeply strained period in our relationship. When, what seemed like every night, both of us argued to be right, for the sake of being right. A know-it-all teenager and her know-it-all dad. Arguments that would devolve into swearing and demands to heed the Ten Commandments. Or rather, one in particular.

Honor thy mother and father.

But not that night. That night he stayed with me and in half a hospital room he told me stories from his childhood, growing up on the lower-east side of Manhattan. Sharing a bed in a crowded tenement with his twin-brother. The cockroaches that plagued him and still haunt his dreams. The pickles sold out of a barrel on the street for just a nickel. The true story behind why he never went back to Yeshiva after the first day. His stories allowed me to let of my angry teenager and to be his daughter again. The daughter, I’m sure, he missed.

My mother is also a formidable storyteller in her own right. She grabs you by the hand and drags you right into her story with her. Fiction or fact—her stories are vivid and alive. You are surrounded by her characters as she becomes each one in voice and expression. This is not acting. It is possession. The sheer power of her voice pulls you forward, along with her…running through her invented world, oblivious to whatever it is that actually surrounds you.

It is the combination of my father’s capacity to generate rich imagery, his ability to lend a transportive quality to an ordinary tale, for he is an expert escapist, and my mother’s energy and expressiveness that has infected me with the storytelling bug. A bug I am hoping to pass along to Sophie.

I began with familiar stories, changing a detail or two to locate Sophia within the tale: “Sophielocks and the Three Bears” or “Sophie and the Magic Porridge Pot,” for example. Sophia quickly realized the power of fiction. She understood she could go anywhere, do anything, interact with anyone under the guise of a story. At the center of her favorite fictions, she was no longer a helpless toddler needing to be washed, dressed, fed and brushed. She was empowered. A heroine.

It wasn’t long before she was asking me to make up stories that incorporated her favorite character. “Mommy! Tell me the story of Sophia and Curious George go to the Dentist... Tell me the Story of Sophia and Curious George go to the Zoo... Tell me the story of Sophia and Curious George Go To Wegmans and Curious George eats a fake [display] Banana.”

“Okay.” I say, and I launch into the requested fable, adding a new embellishment each time for my own entertainment. In these stories she is naughty, pays for her misdeeds and is redeemed. It is a subtle, gentle way in which I hope to impart a sense of morality, respect for others, and an ethical impulse. Story is our religion. It is a place where we can talk about the most difficult things on the most basic of levels.

She listens gravely in a way that is distinctly different from real life, when I tell her to apologize for a wrongdoing or express gratitude for a right. These days, most directives are met with a blasé, tuned out, “What?” But when I tell a story she is rapt, hanging on every word, jumping in if I miss a detail, inserting “mommy” if I leave myself out. What she resists or rejects as we go about the daily business of our lives, she readily accepts in our virtual world.

And so, when she asks, I tell her a story.

It is our deepest form of communication.

It is our common ground.

It is place where, by pretending, we don’t have to pretend at all.

And is the legacy of love that my parents handed down to me.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Girl Who Cried "Bathroom!"

“Mom, tell me the story of the Sophie who cried 'bathroom,'” I sigh, and begin to tell Sophia, for the umpteenth time, the story I “invented” to teach her a lesson about lying to escape dinner.

I am a victim of my own success.

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who didn’t want to sit at the table and eat her dinner....”

“…Sophia. Her name was Sophia.” Sophia interrupts.

“Her name was Sophia. And Sophia got a brilliant idea. She thought if she said “Bathroom!” she could get down and go play instead of finishing her chicken.

“She could go read a book…”

“Who’s telling this story?” I ask.


“Okay then. She could get down and go read a book. So she said, “Bathroom!” and her mother, who didn’t want her to have an accident, let her down. But did Sophia go to the bathroom?”


“No she didn’t! She went to the living room and picked up a book and began to read. This made her mommy very angry. Her mommy said, ‘Sophia, if you don’t get yourself to the bathroom by the count of three, I’m going to bring you there myself.’ So Sophia trotted off to the bathroom, but did she have to go?”


“No, she did not.” So her mommy made her go back to the table and finish her dinner. The next night, again, Sophia decided she would rather play than eat her dinner. So after a couple of bites, she announced, ‘Bathroom!” again. This time, Mommy and Daddy were both skeptical—do you know what that means.”


“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“It means we doubted you. We didn’t quite believe you. But we—I mean, Sophia’s Mommy and Daddy gave her the benefit of the doubt and let her down from the table. And do you know what she did?”

“She ran to the living room to get a book!” Sophia cried out gleefully.

“That’s right. She did. And this time mommy was very angry. And again, she said if Sophia did not go to the bathroom by the count of three, she was going to take her there herself. So Sophia went to the bathroom. But again, she didn’t have to go. And again, Mommy made her go back to the table to finish her supper. Finally, on the third night, Sophia was eating her dinner when she realized she really did have to go to the bathroom. Again, she said, ‘Bathroom!’ but this time Mommy and Daddy did not believe her at all and told her she could not get up until she finished her dinner.”

“’But I really have to go,’ Sophia begged. Still, her Mommy and Daddy would not let her go. And do you know what happened?”

“She had an accident!” Sophia’s face bore a look of demonic pleasure.

“Yes she did. She pooped and peed in her pants, right there at the table. Poor Sophie. She was so uncomfortable. But she had said ‘bathroom,’ so many times when she didn’t have to go, that her parents didn’t believe her when she was telling the truth. And do you know what the moral of this story is?”

“I don’t know.”

“You shouldn’t tell lies, because people will think you are a liar and won’t believe you, even when you are telling the truth.”

“Again!” cried Sophie.

Kevin says she gets it. I am less sure. Still, I tell it. Because stories have a way of boring into the unconscious, of staying with us in ways of which we are unaware. If we tell ourselves a story over and over again with great conviction, over time the story becomes an integral part of our reality.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mean Mommy

We are late for nursery school. Again. Sophia is refusing to put on her sweater. Since I have already told her that she needs to put on the sweater, even though whether or not she wears the sweater is really not a big deal to me, I feel I can’t back down.

Kevin and I had a parenting discussion the other night. He noted that I have been some bargaining with Sophia: setting a boundary and then letting her negotiate me down from it. It’s true, I do this, particularly in front of others because I don’t like appearing like such a hard-ass all the time.

But when I’m alone, and there is no one I feel I need to appear sweet and understanding in front of, I turn into Mean Mommy.

Thus, when Sophia tells me, “I am NOT putting on that sweater.” I say, “Oh yes you are,” stick her in the depression formed by my crossed legs and thrust each of her arms into a sleeve. As I reach in front of her to fasten a button, she gets an arm free and hits me.

Yes. My daughter hits me.

I see red. “YOU DO NOT HIT,” I yell, remembering with shame that I used to say I couldn’t imagine ever yelling at Sophia. “YOU NEED TO GO CALM DOWN!” Why am I still yelling?

Because I need calm-down time.

I pick her up. She’s kicking and bucking in my arms as I carry her to the bedroom, drop her in her toddler bed, and tell her, “Take a few minutes to calm down.”

“I need Snakey-Pie to calm down!” she sobs.

I give her Snakey-Pie, turn out the light, close the door and go to the living room to take a few deep breaths.

I lost it that time. I am deeply disturbed by the fact that, sometimes, more and more frequently, I don’t enjoy parenting. Maybe because I’m constantly feeling like I’m the heavy. Setting boundary after boundary. Making her bathe, dress, comb her hair, eat, go places—do thing after thing that, in the moment, she just doesn’t feel like doing. The deep breaths aren’t working. I start to cry.

What is happening?

It’s true that for the past three years most conflict between Sophie and me was preventable. I made sure she was well-rested, adequately-fed, appropriately dressed…and she went with the flow.

But now, suddenly she is getting her Own Ideas. She wants to do what she wants to do.
For example, it’s hard for Sophia to conceive of a future that is better than the present. She’d rather stay right here and read books than go through the trouble of donning her sweater, boots, coat, hat and gloves to get in the car and drive half-an-hour to nursery school. Even if they are acting out Goldilocks and the Three Bears today, one of her most favorite stories.

And though that makes sense to me, it’s not acceptable.

So I push through her resistance, physically making her do what I want her to do, feeling a mix of sorrow and resentment: How long do I have to keep doing this? When will it be fun again?

I have to remind myself: feeling utterly powerless, children crave power. But once they have it, they don’t know what to do with it. It feels all wrong, terrifying. If I want her to feel in control of herself, I have to be in control of myself. Of her. Of us.

Right now, I don’t feel in control.

As her will grows more formidable, her ideas more expansive, as she begins to assert herself in the world, I , who was her primary playmate have become her primary combatant. This is hard to come to terms with. I’m still the same; why does she have to change?

I try to reframe it in terms of what she needs. I can remember how much happier my students were when I held the boundaries, stood firm, gave them something they could push back on, but not push over. I need to reach deeper, to find something stronger, to stop taking this so damn personally. I need to act from what I know to be true and not what I want to be true.

I retrieve her from her room. She is contrite and compliant. At nursery school, she gets to be Goldilocks. At the end of the day, she is happy and spent. We are driving home when Sophie suddenly says, “I could also be your mommy.”

“Oh?” I say, glancing into the rear view mirror, “What would you do if you were my mommy?”

“Take care of you,” she says, simply.