Sophia just told me that she wanted to go to the pool, which—in my mind—justifies the fact that I am holding her down and vigorously applying sunscreen to her tender baby flesh.
New skin is perfect. Smooth, poreless, incredibly soft. I would stroke my child all day long if she let me.
It is my duty to protect this skin!
I am half sitting on her, one hand gripping her arm, the other smearing white sticky goo up and down it, intent on my mission, deaf to her protests.
Then, from beneath me she cries. “I AM NOT A TOY. I AM A PERSON. STOP TREATING ME LIKE A TOY!”
Is this a ploy? Is she trying to arouse my guilt for trying to shield her from the searing North Jersey sun? Or could this be how she feels? Manipulated, like a doll, as if she is not real. As if I have no respect for her feelings. Her humanity.
I feel sick. I let go of her.
She is still livid with the injustice. Clawing at me. Hitting me.
Unfortunately, we are not alone. I have an audience. My friend Pam is there, along with some of the other parents and kids who share our cabin at camp.
Pam says calmly, “What do you usually do?”
“Give her a time out until she calms down, but how do I do that here…?” Here, at camp where no space is private. Pam acts swiftly, picking Sophie up and depositing her into an adjacent room full of bunk beds. It’s where the adult campers with disabilities have been sleeping. But right now it is empty. As Pam closes the door I hear the thud of Sophie’s sandal against it. Pam chuckles.
This is the second tantrum Pam has witnessed. The first was in the shower, when I tried to wash Sophia the other night. As I soaped her up, she squirmed away, as slick and slippery as an eel. Pam held her and told me, “You know, you’re much too thorough.”
It’s true. Whether I am washing Sophia’s body, brushing her teeth, wiping her butt, combing her hair, or applying sunscreen, I make sure I get every nook and cranny. It feels obsessive as I’m doing it, but I can’t bear the thought of missing a spot. It rises from my gnawing perfectionism. From the fear that I might be remiss as a mother—any pimple, cavity, snarl or sunburn evidence of my failure.
But the truth hurts. I couldn’t hear her. Not then, in the moment, frustrated and overwrought. “Can we talk about this later?” I asked her, not kindly. In that moment, I just wanted her help, her extra hands. The patience every mother has for a child that is not her own—not her advice. Pam got it. She gave me what I needed. We got through it.
And now, my daughter is raging in the other room, and I am ready to listen. I need another pair of eyes. An objective, unemotional view. Wisdom from someone who has been there.
She tells me that she used to fight every battle, until it was killing her. She tells me how she has learned to let things go. I’m listening. I believe her. I have known her to be every bit as hardcore and unyielding as I am.
She suggests that I let Sophia do more on her own.
You mean, give up control? Let a four-year-old wash herself? Brush her teeth? Comb her hair? I have tried to let Sophia do some of these things, with less than stellar results.
I would have to be okay with that. I try it on. I feel the muscles in my arms and chest tighten with resistance.
Then I hear a voice inside my head telling me to question anything I hold dear.
“Okay.” I tell Pam, “Thank you.” She hugs me. We check on Sophia. She has fallen asleep. I have not learned the lesson my broken foot was meant to teach me.
She was exhausted.
When we get home, I give Sophia a bath. I hand her a washcloth and tell her that we’re going to try something different. This time, she’s going wash herself, and I am going to help. She likes the idea, proudly soaping her chest and legs—letting me get the hard-to-reach places, like her back. She still dilly-dallies. She still resists me. But it’s less combative, more collaborative.
And now, a few weeks later, I realize that Sophia has not asked me—not even once—to wipe her butt after using the toilet.
More importantly, I haven’t offered.