Since infancy, Sophie has hated the bath. People have told me it will get better as she gets older. It hasn’t. At four, she still has a strong aversion to the indignity of being washed; experiences hair washing as physical pain; pulls her limbs from me as I try to soap them up. I’ve found ways to help her cope: I don’t do it every day. I give her fair warning. She can select toys she wants to have in the tub, and I set the timer to allow her some play time. When I can no longer delay the actual washing, I tell her stories or sing to her as I scrub. Most of the time this makes it tolerable for both of us. Some of the time, there is no amount of preparation, no degree of sugar-coating it that will make it palatable.
This was one of those times.
“Sophia, it’s time for a bath.” She was downstairs playing Beauty and Friendly Beast with Kevin, while I was filling the tub.
“I’m not coming!” I hear Kevin say gently, “Come on, Sophie,” and her feet on the steps. Once upstairs, she stomps into her bedroom and slams the door.
“Get in here. Now.” She appears in the doorway, her hands on her hips in a defiant posture.”
“I don’t need a bath.”
I am not arguing this point. It is most definitely time. “Sophia, take off the princess dress.”
“No. I won’t.”
“If you don’t take it off yourself, I’m going to take it off of you.”
“No! Don’t touch my dress!” She runs into her room. I make chase. Unfortunately, I’m under a time constraint. I have to get this done before she goes down for a nap and I have to leave the house.
“I’m going to count to three!” I warn.
“I said I’m not taking off the dress!”
“THREE!” I begin to rip the princess dress off her body. I’m all jacked up on adrenaline now. She’s pulling it down as I’m trying to wrestle it over her head, so I grab her pearls instead.
“DON”T TOUCH MY PEARLS! YOU’LL BREAK THEM!”
“Then take them off yourself.” I say, trying, trying, trying to stay in control.
“Noooooo!” I pull the elastic band of beads over her head. She grabs for them and I seize the opportunity to remove the dress.
At last. Down to the underwear. She grasps the elastic waistband and pulls it up to her chest, giving her the most painful wedgie I’ve ever seen. “Don’t touch my underwear! IT’S PART OF MY BODY!” The way she is pulling them, they have become part of her body.
I slide her feet out from under her, take her down on the bath mat, making sure her head doesn’t hit the floor, and work the panties off her. Then, I pick up her naked body and deposit her in the tub. Her limbs churn the water, instantly soaking me and the floor.
“Sophia. I’m warning you. Stop it RIGHT NOW. If you want to keep your toys in the tub, you need to stop.”
She continues to thrash, brandishes a bowl and threatens, “I’m going to dump water on you!”
“Give me that,” I say, taking it from her. She raises a large plastic water wheel over her head, about to chuck it at me. I take that too. “Now you’ve lost your toys. What a shame.” I tell her.
She goes into a blind rage. A tidal wave rises up and sloshes out of the tub. I’m soaked again. I glance at the clock. I’m supposed to be out of here in 15 minutes.
This is when I lose it. I pick up the pitcher that I use to rinse her hair. “Knock it off NOW, or I’m going to dump water on you.” I am hopeful that, like cats who are fighting, one douse will end it all.
She continues to churn the water with her legs. I dump.
She’s in shock. “Mommy! You got water in my eyes! You’re hurting me.” Then, she kicks again, only harder. I do it again. She screams, still kicking, “Let me calm down! Let me calm calm down!”
I really hope, one day, she isn’t going to be talking about this in therapy.
I pull the shower curtain closed so that she can continue to flail without soaking me, and, perhaps we can both calm down. I take a deep breath.
I am really, really tempted to spank her naughty bottom. I see how parents get to this point. Low on sleep, on patience, on time it’s easy to be gripped by rage. To let it get the best of you. To incite you to do things in a calmer, saner moment, you never would.
This is not how I want things to be, between us. This is not what I want to teach her. To model.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have done that. I lost my temper. That was wrong.” I wait a moment and then I say it again, “I’m sorry, Sophia.” I am sitting here, hoping she will take a little personal responsibility for her role in the fight.
I expect a lot from her, I know. She is only four.
“I’m not ready yet.” The curtain says back.
“Fair enough.” I reply. “Just let me know when you are.”
“Maybe in a few minutes.” I call the person I’m meeting to let her know, I’ll be late. Working this through is the most important thing I could possibly doing right now. Conflict is inevitable. Repair is essential.
The curtain says, “Okay. I’m ready now.”
I draw it back. Sophie is sitting there, eyes red, tears clinging to her face, “You hurt me,” she accuses.
“I am sorry I dumped water on you Sophia. I shouldn’t have done that. It was not nice. But, don’t forget, you had a part in this, too.” I raise my eyebrows.
“I’m sorry too, Mommy. It’s just that I wasn’t ready. I wanted to play more with Daddy.” I know. I know.
“Sophia, you’re going to be with Daddy the rest of the afternoon. You’ll have plenty of time to play with him.” She seems cheered by this.
“Okay. You can wash me now. But can you tell me a story?”
I tell her the story of what just happened between us, using this moment “There once was a little girl who never wanted to talk a bath....”
The story has a moral: Do unto mother...as you would have your mother do unto you.