Monday, July 30, 2012

Mommy Down

In the midst of an endless heat wave, with temperatures in the 90’s, and brief storms that thicken the air, but bring no relief, an Arts and Crafts show came to town.  I thought it might be fun to have Sophie’s grandparents come down for the festival.  We’d saunter the half-a-mile into town, peruse the booths, get a smoothie and head home where I’d make steamers for dinner. 

We didn’t get started until about one, which used to be Sophia’s naptime about a month ago.  She’s still in the process of transitioning to a napless day.  Some days she begs to go to sleep (or can’t help falling asleep).  But on those evenings—even if we put her to bed later—she will repeatedly creep downstairs, an I’m-trying-to-get-away-with-something smile on her face and say,

“I’m scared.”
“I’m not tired, yet.”
“I need (more water, more toilet paper, some glue).” 

Kevin is more patient that I am.  He reassures her and leads her back to bed.  I give her the evil eye and point upstairs, sometimes accompanied by a single stern, “Go to sleep, Sophia.” 

Thus, we push through this trying hour.  And as we walked the half-mile in 96-degree heat to town, she repeatedly complained, “I’m hot.  I’m tired. I’m thirsty.” 

I tried to reassure her, “We’re almost there.  When we get to town, I’ll get you a drink. We’ll see what kinds of fun things there are for kids to do!” 

As we approached the festival she spotted a man handing out balloons.  “Can I have one, Mommy?” she asked, running towards the man, not waiting for a response.  She came back with a red one.  “I am going to have to tie this around your hand, Sophia, so you don’t lose it.”

“No!  I want to hold it.”  We have been down this road before.  And yes, we have contributed to the demise of our planet by accidentally releasing latex into the ether. 

“I don’t want you to accidentally let go of it, Soph.” 

“I won’t!”

“I know you don’t mean to, but you have before.  Either you give it back to the man, or I tie it to your body.”

“Tie it to my wrist,” she conceded. 

Now, I had two potential hazards to monitor:  Sophie and the red balloon that bobbed in the air after her. 

It bonked several people before I insisted on holding on to it in the crowds (or return it to the man).  Begrudgingly, Sophie acquiesced. 

She took an interest in the first few booths, rushing forth to put both hands on the glass that separated her from photographs of wild animals, as if she could enter them through sheer force and wishing.  “No!  Sophie!  Look with your eyes, not with your hands!”  I’d exclaim.  Or she’d grasp at sparkling jewelry to tell me, “Oooh, I love this.  Can I have it mommy?”  And I’d have to pry it out of her hands, apologize to the artisan, and remind Sophie, “Look, honey, don’t touch.”

She eyed grandma or me jealously, each time we touched an item to check on the price or hold it to our ears.  I knew what she was thinking.  There are only so many times she can be told not to touch and observe the great injustice that those who say “don’t,” do it themselves, before concluding, “this sucks.” 

What was I thinking?  That my little bull would be content to gaze at the china around her, just happy to be at my side on one of the hottest days of the year, during the hour formerly known as naptime?

We approached a booth where people were painting silk scarves.  Sophie was rapt.  “I want to do THAT!” she said, excitedly. 

“I’m sorry, honey, you’re not quite old enough yet.  We’ll find something that you can do.” 

“No, I don’t want to,” she whined.  “I want something to drink!” 

“Okay.  Let’s get a smoothie.”  We walked into a shop and I ordered us a drink.  I got a large with an extra cup.

At the table, I poured half of the smoothie into a cup, and gave Sophie the other half.   I handed her the straw that broke her ability to hold back. 


“Sophie,” I said calmly, “we’re sharing.” 

“NO!  It’s MINE.  YOU SAID YOU WOULD GET ME A SMOOTHIE.”  I took the smoothie away from her and told her that she could not have the smoothie until she calmed down.  She tried to grab it away from me.  I moved the smoothie to my other hand, and suddenly we were playing a game.  She hopped around, trying to seize the cup, and I moved it from hand to hand, trying to extract a polite word out of her. 

Now, if I had my wits about me, I would have aborted the mission right then and there.  Somehow, I still clung to the hope that we could still have fun at the festival.  If I just cooled and refueled, everything would be okay.  I turned the smoothies over to my mother, hustled Sophie out of the restaurant and onto the street.

She was livid—hitting, scratching, and kicking me in a blind rage.  I slipped behind a building and held her in my lap, restraining her flailing limbs.    I was still fairly calm at this point.  “Sophie,” I warned, “we’re not going back until you calm down.”  It wasn’t until she leaned over and tried to bite my hands that I finally realized:  This isn’t going to work. 

I dragged her back inside the restaurant to get my phone, call Kevin to come pick us up, and let my mother know the plan.  I stuck my hands under her armpits and walked Sophie back out of the restaurant as she overturned anything in our path.  The grandparents followed, apologizing and righting furniture.  Once outside, I called Kevin to come pick us up.  Sophia scratched my mother’s chest as I gave him the coordinates of where to meet us.  Grandpa Bernie held the smoothies.

I tried to give my mother and Bernie a casual wave.  “Go enjoy the rest of the show, ”  I told them as I half-carried/half-lugged her to the library where Kevin would have the car, Sophie kicked off her shoes.  When I went to pick them up, she made a break for it. 

I was in wedge sandals.  Running after her, I turned my ankle. 

The pain was bright and immediate.  The car was still far away.  I had no choice but to grab Sophie, pick her up, and limp my way to where Kevin was waiting.  By the time we got to the car, my foot was swollen and blue.  I saw Kevin and started to cry tears of relief, frustration, and pain. 

He fettered our wild child to her booster, and helped me into the front seat. We rode home in silence.  Kevin ushered her up to her room and gave her a time out.  Sophie promptly fell asleep. 

I iced my foot watching it grow larger and turn an ugly shade of greenish-purple.  Soon, Mom and Bernie returned.  Bernie, took a look at my foot and declared it a sprain.  At least I did not to have to spend the afternoon in the emergency room to get this information.

I broke out my crutches from last year, when I had torn my peroneal tendon.  The sprain, it seems, hit that same vulnerable spot.  So, for the past couple of weeks I have been resting, icing, compressing, and elevating the foot.  Already, it’s getting better. 

All this rest had given me a lot of time to reflect.  I don’t want to be too hard on myself—it is a difficult dance, balancing my needs and desires against my child’s needs and desires.  Certainly, going to a craft show is not a need, but it is something I enjoy doing with my mother—admiring the beauty that people bring into this world, indulging in a little something now and then, supporting their art.  And this pleasure is a result of the countless art and antique shows to which my parents took me when I was a child.  One of my better memories is of running around Waterloo Village with my sister, unsupervised, while my parents bought agate pins, glass vases and a chair with lions on the arms that my mother reupholstered.  

It is not wrong to want this.  A wise person once said to me—there is no right or wrong, only conflicting needs.  Different perspectives.  If anything, I think I err in the direction of catering to Sophia’s rhythms and schedules to the exclusion of my own.  I am still trying to find the shifting border that satisfies us both.  It means making occasional misses, but not torturing myself with guilt (for indulging myself) or resentment (for indulging her).  And it means attending to these feelings as they arise, being curious about them, and then adjusting accordingly.

Our happiness is tied up with each other.  We are inextricably linked.  Her misery can quickly become my misery.  My frustration can quickly become hers.  All it takes is a little bit of awareness to move from pain to joy. 

I strongly suspect that when I listen to her, I am teaching her to listen to me. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Spoil the Child?

I really dislike the term “spoiled child,” as if a little one has gone rancid and foul-smelling, or worse, is ruined for good and must be tossed out.  But I can’t think of anything much better:  Over-indulged? (Sounds as if she is swelling, glutted with attention.)  Self-centered? (Sounds too much like she has no awareness or concern for others, which just isn’t true.)  Egocentric? (Well, what child isn’t?)

But, I am aware that my constant being “on-call,” like a doctor who can be paged day or night, has created an expectation for me to be constantly on call.  My daughter expects, nay demands, instant and incessant attention.  For the past four years, I was complicit.  I agreed with the relatively new adage, “you can’t spoil a baby with attention.”  In fact, I believed this to be true of a toddler and a preschooler as well.  Stuff, perhaps, but love?  Can one ever have too much love?  I wanted to be there for her, attune and responsive, but now that I see Sophia as a more capable, independent human being, I want her to be a more capable, independent human being. 

And she wants me to play with her.  Every. Waking.  Moment. 

At dinner if Kevin and I have a brief exchange, Sophia asks, “How come no one is talking to me?”

And from the second I wake up in the morning, Sophia, who is perfectly capable of reading a book by herself, thrusts What Do People Do All Day? into my face and insists that I read four—no five—stories. 

Then, the day is peppered with demands, “Mommy be a witch.”  “Mommy, you have to color with me.”  “Mommy, read me just one more…just one more! 

I want her to adopt an attitude of gratitude.  Where is her thankfulness?  Her appreciation?

And where is my moment to myself? 

Perhaps Sophie’s need to be constantly entertained is not unique to only children, but it is certainly fueled by Sophie’s only status.  There is no one to split her time with, her toys with.  So, even though we don’t actually give her much stuff, what she does have is all hers.    And time?   What’s mine is also all hers.

I have only first started to feel some resentment, annoyance, and perhaps fear around Sophie’s requests.  Resentment that she’s encroaching on my territory, edging out my life with hers.  Annoyance at the relentlessness of her demands, and the what-have-you-done-for-me-in-last-minute attitude.  And fear that it will only get worse. 

But, as with all behaviors one wishes to change, awareness is key.  I am conscious of my irritation.  Spoiled children are only spoiled by complicit parents.  There has to be a spoiler and a desire to spoil.  I want to stop.  Starting now. 

So I am initiating a campaign to bring about change, foster greater independence.  I call it, Go Play by Yourself.  I set her up with scissors, glue and old magazines and let her go to town.  I stick her in the living room with a pile of books while I’m cooking and insist that she read by herself.  I put her in her bedroom for rest hour and shut the door.  I can play with her only after.  After I get the laundry done.  After I finish sending this email for work.  After I clean up the bathroom. 

To my surprise, Sophie has been responding not with anger, nor resistance, nor even simple complicity, but excitement and even a little pride.  When I set out to wash the floor this weekend, I gave her a few copies of South Jersey Magazine, a glue stick, her scissors and some construction paper.  A half-hour later she emerged with cards for each of her friends.  She had made collages of images she thought they would like.  True, some had images of women bouncing in bikinis on beaches or real estate photos of mansions on the market, but they were sweet.  Thoughtful.  Gracious.

“Mommy, can you help me write some words to my friends?”  Now it was “after.”  I was ready.  Present and relaxed. 

“Sure kid.  What do you want to say?” 

“Margo, sweetheart, you are so lovely.”  I write down her words.

“Madeline Crazyhead.  I love you.”  I write this down too. 

And as I do, I think to myself, perhaps my fears are unfounded.  Maybe she is yet unspoiled.  There is no faulting her for wanting what she wants; there is only shaping it into a new form.  Helping her find satisfaction in other ways.  And gratitude at four is not expressed as “thank you.”  It comes in small unexpected acts of love. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

How Sweet It Isn't

Temptation is everywhere. 

It is in the breakfast cereal aisle, in the form of something called Kellogg’s Chocolately Delight.  I rush quickly past, let Sophie grab Kevin some Life, and make a hard right towards the frozen foods.  Since when is it okay to have chocolate for breakfast?

It is served at snack time. Pretzels covered in whipped cream and sprinkles at 10 am, because it is the fourth of July.  How can we celebrate without sugar?  Then a there’s popsicle at 3 (Mommy it turned my tongue blue!) because the kids must be  brought back from their blood sugar crash with a second infusion. 

It drives by my house, every day, just before naptime, now rest hour, eerily tinkling a nursery tune.  Mr. Softee, the pied piper of summertime, stalking the neighborhood, luring children from their afternoon siestas.

It is at the bank, the MVC… anywhere children are expected to wait while adults must submit to paperwork, and lines, and plastic chairs anchored to the floor.  Lollypops, the true opiate of our young masses.

It is not unreasonable to say that Sophia can be offered or confronted with the image of a sweet five or six times a day.  Often more. 

I say no so often, it is like a mantra.  No.  No.  No.  We eat healthy food.  This is junk.  It’s fine to have an occasional treat, but your body needs vegetables, and protein and fruit. 

I yield far more than I would, if we didn’t live in such a sugar-obsessed society.  I don’t want her to be the child cramming her mouth full of Twinkies at the neighbor’s house.  I’ve heard all the stories.  But I open the door a crack, and suddenly, it blows open:

“You can have the snack at school, but then you can’t have a treat at the party later,” I warn.  And then at the party, everyone is having two or three treats, can’t she please have one?  Just one?  And then when I turn my back, one turns in to two. 

How to stem the tide? 

We are eating more refined sugar than we ever have in the history of people, and, I believe, are in complete denial about the ill effects.  The percentage of teens with pre- and Type 2 diabetes has more than doubled from 2000 (9%) to 2008 (23%).  And obese children aren’t the only ones who are vulnerable.  One does not have to be overweight to develop insulin resistance. 

This is a problem.  A preventable problem.

If Sophie was older, I think I’d have her do an experiment—measure the exact amount of sugar she consumes in a day.   Encourage her to research its impact on her health.  Then give her a sugar budget that she could work within.  Something reasonable but limited, where she’d have to decide how to spend her grams. 

But she’s not.  So, until she’s capable of rational thought in the face of temptation, I must set these limits for her.  It is hard to know where the tipping point lies.  This elusive line of demarcation between deprivation and indulgence.  How much is too little?  How much is too much?

How do others make this decision, I wonder. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hard Knock Life

I have just finished showing Sophie a few YouTube videos of the original cast of Annie, singing songs on Broadway, circa 1977.   (My first show, which for five dollars I stood for several hours to watch, and afterwards, endured months of my younger, curly-haired sister sing the words to Tomorrow as loud as her tiny lungs would allow.)

It’s our weekly ritual—my sensory-defensive daughter holds out her hands and compliantly allows me to snip her nails, while she’s mesmerized by YouTube clips of musical numbers.  Her favorite is Verruca Salt singing I Want It Now, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

I clip the last nail and snap my laptop shut as Sophie pleads, “Just one more…please?”  I still have to brush her teeth and I am tempted by the ease at which this task could be accomplished if I allow “just one more.” 

So I do.  A chorus of orphans lament their fate in Hard Knock Life.  The toothbrushing is going well, but the song ends just before I finish. 

Sophie snaps her mouth shut, barring entrance.  “Just one more?” she asks again, through clenched teeth. 

“Sophie, just let me finish.”  This is how I am rewarded for my leniency—with blackmail.

“No.  I want one more song.” 

“Sophie, let me remind you that ‘letting Mommy wash me,” is one of your rules; and that includes toothbrushing.  You’ve had a great morning.  If you let me finish, you will earn a star.  I’m going to count to three, and I want you to open your mouth.  1...2…”  I pause.  She stares at me.  Smiling, dimples flashing.   “Three.”  I say, and try to force entry, but her lips are sealed.

“Sophie.  I’m warning you.  If you don’t let me finish brushing your teeth, I’m going to have to hold you down while I do it.” 

I realize that this may sound really extreme.  For a long time, Sophie would fight toothbrushing, clamping down and thrashing about.   Holding her down was absolutely the only way I was going to get a brush in her mouth.   Eventually we graduated to distraction—reading a book, while I brush.  Because it works, I continue to do it.  Every day, twice a day.  But when it fails, I don’t hesitate to revert back to my more persuasive methods.  Usually, just the possibility of being restrained is enough to turn the tide. 

Not this time.

She smirks, and so, I move swiftly to action, holding her down, squeezing her nose shut so that her mouth opens instinctively.  I quickly thrust the brush inside and she starts to laugh.

She thinks this is a game. 

I swallow back my anger, finish the job quickly, and let her up.

“Mommy?  Do I still earn my star?”

Do you still earn you star?  Do pigs fly?  Do cats swim?  Do I go back on my word?

“No.”  I say grimly.  “You do not earn your star.”  My voice is full of anger. 

Sophie’s hopeful face quickly transforms into a mask of rage and sadness. Tears fall in large drops.  She wails as if her heart has broken.

And I feel guilty.

She cries bitterly for a moment, and then takes a swing at me.  “Go STRAIGHT to your room,” I say in my most serious voice.  This time, she listens. 

I still feel guilty.  I wanted so badly for her to pull it out.  To simply open her mouth and let me give those remaining teeth a couple quick strokes.  I gave her every opportunity.  She brought this upon herself, and yet she is surprised. 

Kevin, who has been standing by the sink, washing up his lunch dishes and observing the whole incident reassures me, “You did the right thing.”

Then why do I feel so awful?

A few minutes pass, and Sophie comes down stairs, contrite, “I’m sorry, Mommy.”  It comes out as a sob.

“Do you want to talk about it?”  I ask?  She nods her head.

“Are you sure you’re ready?”  I am wary because she is still weepy and emotional.  I know how quickly this can turn back into rage. 

“Yes, I’m ready.  Can we go on the couch and snuggle?”  My heart twists.  She wants to repair, and so do I.  We make our way over to the couch and she curls her little body into mine. 

“Mommy.  If you yell at me, I am going to hit you,” she begins.  Not exactly the apology I had been anticipating.

“You don’t like it when I yell at you.” I say.

“No.” Her face screws up and she cries a bit more. 

“I’m sorry.”  I tell her, “I was angry and I lost control.  I shouldn’t yell at you. But when I ask you to do something, I expect you to follow my directions.  When you don’t listen to me, I get very angry.” 

“Well, I was angry at you, because you wouldn’t let me see another video.”

“I know, Sophie.  But I had let you see several videos already.  I just wanted to finish brushing your teeth.  All you had to do was open your mouth, and you would have earned your star.  I gave you multiple opportunities to do it, but each time you refused.” 

She sobbed with regret, and then begged, “Please read me a book.” 

“Do you understand what happened?”


“What did you learn from this?”

“Not to hit you.”

“Well….that wasn’t quite what I had in mind.  Sophie, when I ask you to do something, I want you to do it.  I’m asking you for your own good.  To take care of your teeth.”

“Okay.  Now can you read me a book?”  She needs this book to know we are okay, and so I read to her.  But as I do, my mind wanders elsewhere:

Why isn’t this sinking in?  How many times must we dance this dance?  Cause each other pain?  Why does she seem to delight in provoking me, only to despair when I snap?  And why do I snap?  Why can’t I unhook, emotionally, from these battles? 

Why must the smallest, simplest things be so hard?