“I can’t DO it!”
“Of course not. Not if you’re standing on it. Get off the puzzle, and then you can do it.”
“Nigel. You can’t grab the teddy away from Anna. That makes her sad. Please give it back.”
He hands it back, giggling. Hmph. We could do with a little empathy here. I point to the teddy in his hands. (Yes, he had a teddy when he yoinked hers. He’s a toddler. They do
shit stuff like that.)
“Is that your teddy?”
“You like to play with it?”
“Well, I’m going to take it away from you.”
“Yes.” And I do. The lip comes out. Tears bounce up. “How do you feel, Nigel?”
Silence, as he glares reproachfully at me and his bear.
“Are you sad? Are you mad?”
“Well, that’s how Anna felt when you took her bear. Anna was sad and mad. It’s not funny to be sad and mad, is it?”
“All right. You can have your bear back. Now you know that Anna was sad and mad, just like you. Next time, you won’t take her toy, right?”
BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM … “SSSSQUEEEEEEAAALLLLLL!!!!!!!!”
“Hey, you three. You may run in the house, but you may not scream.”
“But it’s a scary game!”
“You may run in the house, but you may not scream.”
“Yeah! I’m the princess!”
“She’s a scary princess!”
Well, I understand that. I find them kind of disturbing, myself. But you don’t see me pelting around the house, screaming.
“If your game makes you scream, you have to play a different game. You may run in the house, but you may not scream.”
They pound off, screamless, into the kitchen.
“It’s MY bowl! I am making SALAD!”
Anna fends off the vulture from her “salad”, a collection of wooden blocks in a metal mixing bowl.
“I want to make salad, too!” Malli’s voice is a mix of cajoling and dominatrix. She does that very well, but Anna is having nothing to do with it.
“I want to make salad by MYSELF!” Ooo, good communication, girls, but then Malli lunges to grab, so I intervene.
“You know what, Malli? A few minutes ago, you wanted to look at a book by yourself, and I told Anna she had to leave you alone. Now it’s your turn to leave Anna alone.”
“But I would like to make a salad.”
“You can still make a salad. Would you like another bowl?”
“Yes!!” Jumping up and down and clapping, her face a beacon of delight. “I can make a salad with Nigel!” igel joins in with the jumping and clapping. Oh, the hair-trigger emotional flip-flp of the toddler, how I love it. Sometimes.
“Yeah! We can make a salad for the guinea pig!”
CLANG-A-CLANGA-DANGADANGACLANG, CLANG!!!! BONGG-G-G-G-G-G….
“Nigel. Good heavens. Stop beating the bowl with that block. It’s hurting my ears.”
“But I am stirring my salad!”
“There is no salad in that bowl. Put some salad in first, and then stir.”
Subsequent stirring is a rather pleasing series of rhythmic wooden clicks and clunks.
“Oh, Emily! Are your fingers stuck?” I released the poor dented digits from the craft storage drawers and pull the traumatized tot onto my lap. She subsides from shrieks to sobs.
“Oh, poor sweetie.” I drop a kiss on the blue imprint lined across all four fingers. The other children watch with wide eyes. I see Timmy is clutching a fuzzy blue pipe cleaner, meaning that he, too, has made an illicit raid on the drawers. Must nip this in the bud.
“That is why,” I explain to the encroaching masses, “you do NOT open the drawers.” Yes, indeed. The craft cupboard forbidden zone has NOTHING to do with mess, mayhem and lost supplies. Nothing to do with adult need to know where my damned stuff is, to not be stepping in sparkles or tracking glue across the kitchen floor. Or glue AND sparkles! No, no. None of that. It’s sheerest concern for their well-being. Indeed.
“If you play in the drawers,” I drop another kiss on top of quietly whimpering Emily’s head, “you might get hurt, just like Emily. I don’t want any of you getting hurt!”
I lean forward, take the pipe cleaner from Timmy, pop it back in the drawer. And shut it.
“So from now on, only grown-ups open these drawers. You do NOT touch them. Understand?”
Solemn nods all round.
There. We’ll see if that takes. Is it wrong to hope that the next one who tries it will also pinch their fingers?
“Oh, Emma! Emma! Emma!”
“Someday I will go POO!”
Let the bells ring out.
It’s garbage day. Emma cracked her mirror last night. I’ll just pop that out to the curb before the trucks come. The sidewalk is clear, I see, so I slip on some Birkenstock wannabe’s and proceed down the steps. The rain, it drums steadily on the porch roof above my head, but it’s a short few paces from the steps to the curb where the garbage bins await pick-up. I’ll be fine.
At the bottom step, the rain cold on the back of my shoulders, I pause. The pavement in front of me glistens in the dull not-quite-light. Hmmm.
Poke out a tentative toe from the security of my sisal-covered step. My foot leaps away from my body. My GOD, it’s slippery. Like greased glass. And I’m going to walk across that carrying a large piece of actual glass? I think not.
One of the cats, seeing me open the door, scurries towards me from across the street. “Oh, hurray! I’m being rescued from this wet!” And she SLIPS ON THE ICE. Front legs went port, rear legs when starboard. Have you ever seen a cat slip? Lose their footing and actually fall on their belly on the ground? Me, neither. Until just this morning. It’s, uh, pretty funny, in fact. Where’s the other cat?
A change of footwear and a liberal sprinkling of salt allows my safe passage, unsliced by shards. More salt in an attempt to see the tots arrive in one piece. I hope their parents are not so foolish as to try to carry them in from their cars. A tot who slips on their well-padded, snow-suited butt is going to be far less injured than a tot who plunges to the ice from a height of four feet. And is then crushed under their loving but not-quite-thinking-this-through parent.
It’s slightly above freezing at the moment, but the forecast calls for the temperatures to plunge ten degrees over the day — which means flash-freezing and ice, ice, ice.
I think today will be an “inside day”.
I stood in my kitchen that winter morning in 1991, my 5-year-old and my 2-year-old playing at the table behind me. Perhaps I was doing the dishes; I often listen to the radio as I wash dishes. And over the radio came the news: the Americans were bombing Baghdad.
I was not surprised. A friend, who was working in the newsroom of a local radio station, had deliberately extended her shift that night, so certain was she that “something dramatic” was going to happen, and soon. She was right.
I was not surprised, but I was shocked. My daughter’s voice, chattering to her brother, was a dissonantly cheerful backdrop to the instant picture in my mind: children screaming in terror and clutching their equally terrified mothers in the dark, as their world shook and shuddered with the impacts, the mothers gaining strength through the act of soothing, even as their hearts threatening to pound right out of their bodies, mothers uttering noises of reassurance when their minds are too filled with chaos to manage words, as their children scream.
These pictures flashed in an instant through my mind — visceral, tearing — and I sagged against the counter and the tears flowed. Tears for those terrified women and children. At that point, I cared less than nothing for the reasons behind it, for the possible rights and wrongs, the necessity or gratuitous-ness of the action.
People were dying. Other people’s children were being terrified and killed. Right now. While I stood in my comfortable Toronto home, listening to my beautiful, perfect children play behind me. Peaceful and safe. And I cried for those mothers and children, terrified in the dark.
Which is why, when I read Joanna Streetly’s essay “Treading Lightly” in the book I’m reading this week, I cried again.
She writes of her response, as a mother, to a Russian hostage crisis in which 331 people, most of them children, were killed by Chechen rebels:
“Dead children! This was monstrous! Motherhood stripped me of the filters that keep such atrocities from piercing the heart. I wept and wept. I felt as if these were my children. What is war, I realized, but humans killing each other’s children?”
“Motherhood stripped me of the filters…”
It’s true, isn’t it?
And you know what? That’s a good thing.
One of the mothers gave me a book for Christmas, a collection of essays on motherhood. “Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth about Motherhood”, edited by Cori Howard.
I was dubious. For starters, there is no one “truth” about motherhood. And generally, books like this are filled exclamations by Earnest Mommies, sweet and saccharine cliches that leave me with a level of impatience and exasperation that is hard to describe.
“Motherhood is so hard!” they are almost certain to say. And yet, (and yes, I know I’m lucky, blessed, fortunate, skilled, whatever), I never found it so. That distinction goes to trauma of the fearsome and gut-wrenching changes demanded of me by my divorce. (My necessary divorce, which I do not regret for an instant. But hard? Oh, it was hard.) Mothering is challenging, it is all-encompassing, it is demanding. Unlike any other task I’ve ever tackled, motherhood goes beyond “something I do” to “who I am.”
But hard? No. I’ve generally felt that I know what to do next. I’ve generally felt confident in my decisions. Yes, there have been times when I’ve been overwhelmed by indecision and uncertainty, paralysed by a sense of helplessness, but these are the exceptions. Generally, I’ve known where I was going and how I was going to get there.
I get a great deal of pride and satisfaction from my children, pretty nearly daily. Yes, they also irritate the crap out of me bytimes. I’ve been exasperated, and bored, and frustrated, and angry. There are aspects of their characters that cause me concern, and I worry how these will impact them as they leave home to establish independent lives. But mostly, I am proud. The consistent undercurrent of feeling regarding my kids is one of satisfaction, of pride in a job well done.
So, essays of hand-wringing about the fearsomeness of grocery shopping with a three-year-old? Paralyzing angst about the possibility of a three-day trip with a friend? I have little time for this.
The foreward was not propitious. The pre-mother whose story it tells did absolutely nothing to inform herself of the experience that awaited her, in fact, seemed to actively avoid thinking about it, and was then — imagine that — blind-sided by reality. Things changed! She didn’t expect them to change! “I expected I would give birth, figure out how to feed, clothe and bathe the baby, give it a few hugs and get back to work. Really.”
This is beyond stupid. I mean, yes, we’re almost all astonished by the depth and breadth of the change, but to not understand a change was coming? At all? Where had she been living the past 30 years?
She manages to learn the basics, she goes back to work, and then, when her son is a year and a half, she has the opporunity to go out of town for a few days. To say that she was ambivalent is a gross understatement.
She buys her plane tickets. She cancels them. She buys them again. (She obviously has MUCH more money than I do.) She cancels them, again. She buys them A.Third.Time. (Much, MUCH more money than me. We poor folk do not have the luxury of this kind of
neurosis indecision.) Her friend, whose book launch is the cause of all this fraught-ness, tells her not to sweat it, to do what seems right.
She goes, and has a miserable time. She learns some useful life lessons. Sometimes we all have to learn lessons the hard (and expensive) way.
But did I have any confidence that a woman with so little self-awareness and such a grand sense of the drah-mah of it all was going to compile a set of essays that would have anything to say to me? No. Frankly, I expected it to irritated the shit out of me. But it was a gift from a woman I like. And it was a book.
The first essay (by Maria Jimenez, war correspondant) was nothing like the foreward. Sure, this woman felt profound anxiety about leaving her baby, but she was leaving him to travel in a war zone, not to pop to New York for a book launch. A war zone, with real bullets and bombs and actual danger. Anxiety seemed the only normal response.
I was hooked.
These essays are great. They don’t all resonate with my experience, and yet, even when they don’t, they often do. (Am I making sense yet?) What do I know of being a war correspondant? Nothing. But do I know about the pull of not wanting to leave a child? The fear of dying before you see your child turned adult and launched into the world? Sure I do. These feelings don’t prevent me from doing things, from going places, from seeing that my needs are met, but feel them I do.
And that’s how it proceeded. These essays are rich, they are real. They don’t skim the surface of popular cliches about mothering; they plunge the depths of individual mothers’ experiences, and come up with truths for all of us.
I am two essays into the section titled “Guilt” at the moment. (After “Ambition” and “Anxiety” and before “Devotion” and “Redemption”.) And now, if you’ll excuse me, the tots are arriving and I’m about to be interrupted. Tomorrow I’m going to share with you the paragraph that made me cry.
All the children are at the table. We are colouring fire. The bowl of crayons in the centre of the table is filled with “fire colours” — red, orange, yellow. We are talking about fire, how it’s hot and makes light and cooks things. We are talking about scribbles and filling the whole paper with fire. We are talking about red and orange and yellow. We are using words like ‘flame’ and ‘flicker’.
And Timmy, in the centre of this fiery maelstrom, takes tiny bits of paper and twists them. Twists and twists little bits of paper. He does not pick up a crayon. He does not join the conversation. He twists little bits of paper into tiny skews, smiling to himself all the while.
What’s your response to this?
“He charts his own course.”
“He’s not very socially aware.”
“He doesn’t follow instructions.”
“He’s more tactile than visual.”
“He doesn’t listen.”
“He lives in his own head.”
“He’s not too bright.”
Any, some, or none, of those could be correct. How do you choose? Through careful and objective observation of the child? Maybe. Or perhaps, like most people you’ll just choose the one that meshes with your biases and pre-conceptions, not even realizing that you’re doing so.
So the very out-going person who loves to be mixing it up with others will determine that this child is socially unaware, a little oblivious. This observer may be amused or annoyed by the oblivion, but will be quite firmly convinced the root cause is social — because that’s his/her primary motivator.
The person who values independence and creativity may well see those traits being displayed in this behaviour. The person who likes method and order will see inattention or inability to follow instructions or the example of others.
And each of us who observes him and reaches our conclusions thinks we’ve nailed it. It’s so obvious! It’s ‘just the way he is!’
You have to be aware of your biases in this job.
Oh, I dunno. He’s just a weird little dude sometimes. Cute, but weird.
The plague continues unabated. Well, partially abated. The children are recovering nicely. Nary a nose needed to be wiped, for full half-hours at a stretch!
Mine, however, demands attention every minute or two.
The children’s energy levels have also picked up well. No more solemn tots, blinking from a corner of the couch. More’s the pity. No, they’re all charging around like mad fiends, hopping, skipping, galloping, giggling. I’m the one blinking from a corner of the couch.
This is not to say that the children are being ignored! Far from it! Because I can’t get away, can I? They are there, bounding around, and there I am, blinking, too weak to fend them off. I have wrapped 400 dollies in receiving blankets this afternoon. Well, okay, so it was THREE dollies. One hundred and thirty-three times each. I have read 700 stories. I have
sung croaked sung 200 songs.
They are not being ignored. Oh, no. Nor am I. Booo.
I discovered that if Anna is trying to climb up the other couch, rather than haul my weary butt off my couch to lift her, I can instead reach out with one foot and give her padded butt a poke to help her up over the cushion. That was so much fun that she abandoned her efforts to scale the couch and instead stood leaning against the couch so that I could continue to prod her in the small of the back with my toes. And THAT was so much fun that soon there were three of them lined up for the privilege.
“Kick me with your foot next, Mary! Me, me!!”
I can hardly wait till they tell their mommies and daddies what fun games they played at Mary’s house today.
You’re welcome to come on in, but keep your voices down, okay? My head’s a bit fragile. And it’s pounding. Throb, throb, throb. No, no. Didn’t go on a weeknight bender.
My eyes itch, too. And my eye teeth? They feel kinda … swollen. I know, I know. Teeth don’t swell, but that’s how they feel, what with the five kilos of SNOT backed up behind them.
The centre of my upper lip is charmingly pink. That’s from all the snot that is pouring OUT of nose. Which makes my eye teeth feel marginally better for a moment or two, but doesn’t help my nose or lip.
Every so often a cough rattles my upper chest and throat. Excruciating, it is. I now understand why Anna was clutching her chest and saying “Hurting!” whenever she had a coughing bout. Hurting, indeed.
Yes, I’ve caught the plague. (Version 1. Version 2 turned out to be food poisoning, brought on by some iffy shrimp. Desperately nasty, but not – thank goodness! – contagious.)
Will I work today?
I’ve been a mother, see. (Still am, come to that.) A SAHM. When I got sick, the kids were just … there. There was nowhere else for them to be, there was no one else to care for them. You’re at home, you have no place to go. You care for them because you
have no choice love them dearly. I was sick. They were not. Which is a right royal PITA, I might add, having all these pictures of health bounding around your sick-couch. Because you don’t go to BED when there are children about, do you? No, you languish on the couch where you can see them tearing the house apart.
“Are you going to stop that, or do you want me to come over there and COUGH/sneeze/puke on you??”
Ah, but I’m playing to stereotypes here, and it’s not fair to my children. Generally, when mummy was sick, they lavished her with care and attention. Whispered conferences amongst them about who was going to get to carry the tray of toast and juice; snuggles and stories; offers of favourite toys; puppet shows and pictures. It was really rather sweet, though it did tend to interrupt my naps.
So, NOT tend to children just because I’m sick? Bizarre. I’ve had a whole lifetime of practice!
My husband always shakes his head. “You have sick days in the contract. Why don’t you TAKE one?”
“What? Waste a sick day being sick?” Can’t bring myself to do it. Where did this bug come from? The kids. I don’t need to worry about infecting them — they’re all immune now, aren’t they? I’m not so sick as to be couch-bound. If I really couldn’t function, I’d take the day off (and still see it as a mild cop-out, though earned and deserved).
Today, however, I’m not really sick. I just have this ten-pound, itchy-eyed, swollen-toothed, constantly-streaming head. But I can move around, I can sit on the floor and
sing croak sing, I have today’s craft set out already.
Why wouldn’t I work? I did exactly the same over twenty years of parenting. And these days? These days I get PAID for my pain…
“She’s going to be a popular girl.”
Emma and I have been watching the children interact. I nod my head, and agree. “Yes, I’m afraid you could be right.”
In our household lexicon “popular girl” is not a compliment. It’s not something to aspire to. The “popular girls” are that clique of classroom ‘It’ girls, the ones who head the social pack. The predatory ones. The conscious-less ones.
We all know them. They have some quality that attracts followers, whom they use and abuse, entrance and discard, as the whim hits. For some reason, despite their manifold unpleasant traits, they attract the most attention; others desire their approval, aspire to their company.
Emma, still watching, comments. “She’s pretty, she has lots of nice clothes. She expects everyone to do what she says, and she’s rude and bossy with the other kids, it doesn’t bother her if she makes someone sad. She’ll be a ‘popular girl’, for sure.” I think other families call this kind of girl a “Heather”.
I remind Emma that this child is awfully young to be making those kinds of judgements. All sorts of things could happen between now and grade school.
Popularity is an odd thing. However it’s defined, it’s just not something I’ve ever wanted for my children. Popular kids are more likely to be oblivious to the emotional hurt they can inflict. How could it be that bad, when ‘everybody’ still wants to be their friend? And the power of a dismissive word or a sneer! Corrosive, that power. De-humanizing.
Popularity puts you at the mercy of the social currents. Your value is determined by others, by the concensus of the group. The group could turn on you, stripping you of your identity, leaving you alone. You have to stay on top. Who needs that kind of vulnerability? I’d far rather my kids be outside the popular core, I’d even rather they feel a little outcast and downcast at times, so long as their identity comes from within.
And of course, when your identity comes from within, you are far less vulnerable to the rejection of certain of your peers. You know your own value.
I wonder how this little miss will weather school. She already struggles hard to be the focus of all attention. She cannot enjoy a game unless she is being watched. She does not stick to a task without frequent praise. Well, she does now, but it’s the result of determined effort — on my part to wean her from the praise addiction, on her part to force it from me for every hiccup and blink. She wasn’t happy with me for a while, but now she knows, I hope, that occasional praise which is truly earned is worth more than a stream of patronizing fake-praise for non-accomplishments.
All toddlers thrive on attention, of course, but her need for attention goes well beyond what is standard for the age.
Someone whe needs the attention of others to take satisfaction in her achievements will never do anything for her own satisfaction. Someone who needs the focus of others’ eyes to make her real in her own mind has no reality when no one watches. Imagine the vulnerability, the fragility, of self-esteem based on others’ attention and approval.
Every day in a dozen small ways, I try to wean her from her craving for eyes upon her, to teach her that she is, even without the focus and adulation of the masses, that satisfaction can come from bringing happiness to someone else. I try to pass these principles and goals on to her parents. I hope I am successful. I hope, for her sake, smart and pretty and stylish though she may be, that she’s never a ‘popular girl’.