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.

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