Sophia, in her nascent yearnings for world domination, enlists me in pretend play where I am the subordinate and she is my superior.
“Let’s pretend I’m the mommy and you’re the baby.”
“Okay.” My voice is a bit wary, as it is likely I am agreeing to a browbeating.
“Today, we have Kick n’ Flips, baby.” Kick n’ Flips is her gymnastics class at school, where, for $400/year, she gets two turns to summersault each week.
“You have to wear pants.” Usually, my directive.
“NO! I don’t want to wear pants! I want to wear a dress.” Usually, her response.
Sophie replies, her voice sinister, a near-perfect imitation of me, “You have to wear pants. You can’t do gymnastics in a dress. Now, I don’t want to hear another word.”
Or she’s the teacher and I’m the student.
“Sit down, Melissa, and do your workbook.” I sit down, and she plops a book of crossword puzzles in my lap. This is a happy turn of events. I get to do a crossword puzzle while playing with her? I set to work. I just start to get into it when she rips it out of my hands.
“That’s enough!” She announces. Sophia is not a warm-and-fuzzy teacher. She’s the kind that doesn’t smile until Christmas.
“But I just started it!” I protest.
“I said you’re done,” she shrieks, mad, with the self-bestowed right to shriek at me under the guise of “educating” me.
“All right,” I sigh, defeated, and hand over the puzzle.
“Its nap time. Lie down.” Again, I feel hopeful. Any game where I get to lie down is welcome. I spread out across the couch, she tucks a stuffed raccoon in the crook of my arm and turns out the light. But no, just seconds after I lie down she flicks the lights back on.
“Okay! Nap time is over! Get up!” And then I am obliged to participate in a whirlwind of other preschool activities, as if she’s pressed the fast-forward button on our time together. Only this frenetic play goes on for hours and hours.
I guess I go to the School for Short Attention Spans.
When we are engaged in these scenarios, I sense that she needs them. Standing over her in the morning, issuing directive after directive: “Sophia, you have to stop playing now and put on your clothes. When you’re finished, go downstairs for breakfast. Please hold still while I brush your hair, etc., etc.” I feel the heat of her resentment as she staunchly refuses to do what I say. She yearns for autonomy, the ability to do what she wants, when she wants to. Play, I suppose, is a safe way of getting to wrestle back some of the control she sees me as hogging. She’s trying to assert her will over mine. To dominate me as I have dominated her.
I can relate. Certainly, as a child I had my own acute sense of powerlessness. My own resentments. But I was far more compliant, seething quietly in my journals or sneaking off elsewhere to do the things I wasn’t allowed to do. Like read Judy Blume’s Forever at my friend Christine’s house. Or eat Frosted Flakes.
Perhaps it’s healthier for her to be so openly combative? Maybe it means that she’s not swallowing down her angry feelings, only to resurface in her adolescent years as a full-scale rebellion. Sinking grades. Experimental drug use. An affair with a man twice her age.
I also wonder what role I play in all of this. If there isn’t a little retribution in dictatorial play. Tit for tat. A bit of glee in “getting me back.” Am I too harsh? Am I too insistent? Are my demands somehow turning her into a bully? Is this how she will treat other children, as she perceives she is being treated?
And then, there is a moment that sets me straight. I wake up with my eye sealed shut. Sophia finds me standing over the bathroom sink at my pink eye. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” she asks.
“I have germs in my eye that makes it really itchy.” I tell her. And without another word, she balls up toilet paper, turns on the faucet, moistens the paper and holds it out to me, “Here, mommy. Put this on your eye. It will make you feel better.” She pats my leg, gently as I do it.
Sure, she’s still taking control--she’s mothering me--but with tenderness and empathy. She’s emulating my other mother face. The mother I strive to be, as much as I possibly can. Patient. Interested. Engaged. Attune.
My boss rarely acknowledges when I’m doing a good job, but she rewards me in unexpected ways.