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?