“Mommy, will you fill up my bottle?” She snuggled up to me and asked, tacking on after a second, “Please?”
I had been sitting on the couch flipping through articles on my phone and enjoying a lazy cup of Sunday morning coffee. I looked at her, considered it, and agreed, “Sure, Baby, but you’ll have to move off my lap.”
She moved and I got up and filled her bottle and handed it to her, then sat down at the computer. “No!” She yelled. “Fix it! It’s not full. It’s wrong! Fix it! You can’t have the computer. You have to sit. With me. Fill it up!”
“Fiona,” I said calmly, “Nicer voice, please.”
“Agg!” She screamed. “Mommy, fill up my bottle!” She threw the full bottle at me.
“Fiona,” I said, “We only throw balls.”
She screamed again and tried to scratch and bite me. I guided her hands and mouth away, and reminded, “No biting. I will not let you bite me.”
She screamed and ran to her room crying. From behind her closed-door I could hear her crying and declaring that it wasn’t full. That she didn’t like Mommy anymore. That Mommy didn’t love her, and, at louder intervals, that it wasn’t full.
I sat down at the computer and surfed the net for a while. Listening and considering and keeping my cool.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it, but I really hate conflict. For me, it’s triggering. The sound of yelling makes me anxious. I need more therapy. Especially for parenting. Especially for parenting my child. So, for a few minutes I sat at the computer and let her rage in her room.
Part of trying to figure out how to cope with the increasing number of tantrums that we’ve been facing has been trying to work out what things are triggering tantrums. And there are three things, after a week of simply not letting myself get too worked up over the intensity, while digging furiously through the internet and books, that I’ve observed: limits, communication, and perfectionism.
It’s hard. It’s hard to see past the screaming and violence when those things are triggering to me. It’s hard to see past the tantrum and the behavior to the motive, to the reasons that my child is temporarily feral. Motives and reasons that are bigger than just brattiness.
I picked up the bottle and looked at it. It was full. Not all the way up to the ring at the top, but it was full. And, at the same time it wasn’t absolutely, completely full.
She had an image in her head of what was going to happen when she asked me to fill her bottle. It was perfect. I was going to fill up her bottle all the way to the top and then sit back down where I had been and let her snuggle and touch my tummy while she drank the whole thing. When I didn’t sit down on the couch, it wasn’t perfect. When her bottle wasn’t full, it was worse. Less in the bottle meant less time to relax, less time to snuggle and it was just too much when I wouldn’t fix it when she said. She told me what she wanted and I didn’t give it to her.
To her, it was a horrible travesty of neglect. It wasn’t perfect, so it was horrible.
And, yet. And, yet, she can’t throw things at me, hit, scratch, and bite me when she doesn’t get the perfect picture that she holds in her head of what she wants. It’s not something I’m willing to tolerate. And when she doesn’t get perfection, it doesn’t mean that she should hate everything and declare her day horrible, her mommy horrible, herself horrible. Life is not an all or nothing game. There is an enormous amount of good in the world that doesn’t measure up to our internal picture of perfect. Learning to be happy with good when you can see perfect, is a vital skill for a happy life.
Knowing the lesson that she needed to hear, I got up and went into her room. She sat sobbing on her bed. I rubbed her back gently until she calmed.
“You feel really mad and disappointed, huh?” I asked her.
“Yeah!” She glared up at me.
“Because your bottle wasn’t full all the way to the top?” I continued and handed her said bottle, still with empty space at the top.
She glared at the bottle and started crying again. “Yeah. It’s not full!”
I petted her back until she calmed. “So it doesn’t match the picture in your head of what you wanted?”
“Yeah!” She said, looking at me in surprise. I don’t think she realized that mommies have idealized pictures too.
“It’s okay.” I said.
“No.” She said firmly, “It’s not right. It’s not full.”
I smiled, because this is the lesson, “Baby, I know that sometimes you have a picture in your head of something you want and when you get it just like that picture that’s called “perfect”. But lot’s of times you can’t have it just like the picture. Sometimes it isn’t perfect.”
“Yeah.” She glared at me.
“And it makes you feel disappointed and mad when it’s not perfect, huh?” I asked, gently.
“Yeah.” She agreed sadly.
“Do you think that something can be good, even if it’s not perfect?” I asked her.
“No.” She said, definitively.
“So, if you’re expecting ice cream, but you get a popsicle, are popsicles bad?” I asked.
She looked at me with squinty-eyed suspicion. “Yes.” She said slowly.
“Because your “perfect” picture was ice cream?”
“Yeah. Because I want ice cream not popsicles.”
“Okay.” I said, “But that leaves lots of times to be sad and disappointed and angry, because most of the time things won’t be perfect.”
“But, you know what, even when things aren’t perfect, they can be good and that can make us happy.”
“Yes, but it’s something we have to learn. We have to practice it. It takes work. Sometimes we have to say to ourselves, “It’s not perfect, but it’s still good.” And stop thinking about the perfect picture in our heads and just enjoy the good things.”
“But it’s not perfect.”
I waited. Letting her think. Letting her decide. Letting her absorb the idea of good being enough. She stared at the bottle of water in her hand, the wheels in her head turning loudly, a mutinous frown on her face. She sighed and a look of giving up crossed her face and she settled against me, drinking her bottle.
“I love you, Baby,” I hugged her close.
It’ll take time, probably a lifetime, of fighting the desire for things to be perfect. When you can see how great things could be if everyone danced to your tune and everything went just according to your plan then it becomes exponentially harder to just be in the moment and take the good and enjoy it. But it’s worth the fight. Because popsicles are tasty and the good life is wonderful and perfect will only ever leave you disappointed.
One of our friends gave Fiona an early birthday present. A subscription to Discover magazine. Now, Discover isn’t a kids magazine (Though there is a Kids Discover Magazine). It’s a fairly accessible general science magazine though. And Fiona loves it.
So, last night we started reading it as a bedtime story. The article that Fiona picked was on dark matter and the nature of the expanding universe. Yeah. So, I read a paragraph and translated it into kid friendly language. And read. And translated. And tried to explain the pictures and graphs in ways that she could understand.
And part of this, was explaining the Big Bang. Which went something like this, “Once about 13.7 billion years ago, that’s a really long time ago, everything that ever was was a tiny speck in the middle of space and then it went BOOM! And everything flew apart really fast. And after years and years gravity pulled all of the stuff together and it turned into stars, and planets, and moons and everything that is.”
And she said, “Nothing went Boom and it was the Big Bang and it made stuff?”
And she got really quiet. I watched the wheels turn in her head. She looked at all the pictures and thought and asked me the question that I think everyone has, “Why did nothing go boom?”
“I think it was more like everything was trying to be in one spot.” I said.
“Well why did it go boom?” She persisted.
“We don’t know yet.” I smiled. She always seems to see straight to the heart of things. “There are lots of scientists who are trying to figure it out.”
“Oh.” She said. The wheels were turning so hard I could almost hear them.
Finally she relaxed against me, “Mommy, I like science.”
Me too, Baby. Me too.
I am suffering from dissonance.
“Namaste,” She says laughing lightly and shaking her head in a gentle side-to-side figure-eight motion as I laugh at my own obvious ignorance. The figure-eight head shake is a gesture much like our American nod. It means yes and agreement.
I laugh and nod my agreement, “Of course, Namaste.”
I had asked how to say hello in Hindi, which as it turns out is only one of hundreds of languages spoken natively in India. It is not her native language.
My new friend and I are sharing a quick cup of coffee before we walk up the street to the park. On our way our children ride their tricycles side by side, blond curls next to dark straight hair. We pass Chinese grandmothers with babies in strollers. Women in long Burqas, both colorful and black. Men and women of every ethnicity in business clothes, on their lunch breaks. These are my neighbors. This is my community.
It feels very far from the things that I read in the news. The events of Boston, and the vitriol that splayed across the news and the internet, are terrifying. And infuriating. And heart-breaking.
So, we close out the outside world. I refuse to expose Fiona to the news at times like these anyhow. She has no need to know about the fear and anger and violence that humanity can produce. Not yet. Later she’ll have to, I can’t bubble wrap her forever, but not yet.
Still, I am suffering from dissonance. A discordant jangling at the nerves that tells me that right now, right here, we are out of synch with the rest of the country. We are insulated from the violence. We are strangely untouched by the fear that seems to separate people. That fear and desire for security that seems to make people believe that a difference of race, or culture, or religion caused these horrible events.
I want to shout at the world. No! Fear and Anger and Powerlessness are what cause this! It’s what always causes violence. From the arguments that escalate between people who love each other to the counties that go to war. This is caused by fear. And you cannot stop fear and anger and powerlessness by marginalizing, separating and hating.
You can only stop it through love. And listening. And empowering. And friendship.
Today, I watched two children who were born in different countries, who eat different foods, who have widely differing culture and parents, and they put their heads together and they giggled and they ran. Two children who have no idea about religion, or culture, or violence, but know everything about love and friendship. And I wish today that I could bottle the sound of their laughter and pour it out across the world because it might just be a balm to ease the fear. To give us all a little hope.
When we first moved into our new apartment, we were a little nervous. We didn’t think we would necessarily fit in. See, most of our neighbors are Indian. Many are spending their first six months here in the United States as my neighbors. And, though we aren’t bothered by diversity, we hadn’t ever lived in a place where we were immersed in it. And so we were a little nervous.
We shouldn’t have been.
Every day it amazes me how friendly my neighbors are. Those of us who are home at this time of day have little kids, too small for school. Usually too young for preschool. And, so, out on walks with our children we meet, we trade names, that we all promptly forget because they are just a little too different from the names we’re familiar with, and we begin the process of getting to know each other.
It’s interesting to me, the bravery of my neighbors, because I’m not sure I could do it. I’m not sure that I could pack up my small child, entrust all of my belongings to a moving company, and fly across the ocean to live in a country where I was not native. The culture shock must be daunting, must be almost crushing sometimes. And also the joyful curiosity. And the determination that it must take to each day keep reaching out in a country where reaching out to your neighbors has become the exception rather than the rule.
So, when we walk and we come near our home, I invite them in and offer water, or coffee, or tea. I tell my neighbors to knock on my door any time and we’ll go for a walk or have a cup of coffee. I let them know that I’m here too, and honestly I’m a little out of my depth too, and that I’m far from my family too, and that I understand that they are too. (Though I know that it’s vastly harder for them.) We learn about each other and talk and get to know each other. And they’re shy, and they’re outgoing, and they have degrees in Chemistry, and Physics, and Computers, and Math, and they’re stay at home moms. And they worry over their kids and they want to see them play and bond and connect with those around them.We’re slowly making friends and connecting. And even though the conversation sometimes falters (Primarily because while my neighbors English is good, my Hindi is non-existent.), we all carry on sometimes letting a topic lapse and sometimes muddling our way through with gestures and errors.
The best part though is our children. Our smart, curious, unstoppable children. They play together. They chase and giggle and teach and learn and somehow never need to share a common language to do it.
And we mommies learn from them. We share a smile. We share a little laughter. We talk about food and schedules and schools. And slowly, but surely, we become neighbors. We become friends. We find a way past our differences to all the things that are just human and it’s wonderful. And, though it’s silly, I can’t help but think that Mr. Rogers would be proud of all of us.
We recently moved. I cannot begin to describe to you how many boxes this produced. I think they might have started emulating rabbits when we weren’t looking. And, it being five days before earth day, and me being me, and the world being what it is, I didn’t want to toss all that perfectly recyclable cardboard into the trash.
I just couldn’t bring myself to.
So, the piles of broken down boxes got bigger. And there were more of them. And more of them. And I’d already filled my trunk with boxes. So many, many boxes. I lack the words.
So, I had to find the recycling center. In fact, I’ve needed to for a couple of weeks now. And I kept putting it off because driving around here is a little daunting. I mean really, people, turn signals and stopping distances. Also, that red light does mean stop. Really, truly. Promise.
Today, the desire for floor space without corrugation outweighed the desire to avoid the lunatic drivers of the Silicon Valley. So, we loaded up the car and set out.
Or rather, after an “I can’t dress myself” tantrum played itself out and she effortlessly dressed herself, we set out.
We found the recycling center. We recycled our boxes. Yay!
Which brought us to our second, highly anticipated, errand. The car wash.
The car looked a little as though we had an aggressive vendetta against the local bug population and that it (the car) was our preferred weapon. It was coated with a layer of bugs. And dirt. And chocolate. Don’t ask. I don’t even know. But yes. Chocolate. All over the trunk of my car.
The car wash is one of those things that Fiona really enjoys. Unfortunately for me, she’s likes the automatic drive through ones. And, for the life of me, I can’t find one of those in this town. I tried. Google failed me. Yelp failed me. I haven’t met enough people to have someone to ask. I thought about putting it off, but… chocolate. So, I took her to a diy place.
She loved it. She followed me around the car, staying inside the washing bay, dodging the water and giggling until she almost fell down when the mist from the spray caught her. I’m pretty sure that it’s important for me to say that as intensely as she feels the negatives in life, that she feels all of the good stuff just as much. So, when she giggles it’s infectious and irrepressible and pretty much the penultimate little girl laugh.
So, we washed our car to the tune of joy unrestrained.
Then we vacuumed. Which also desperately needed to be done. How do these things even get inside my car? Really, confetti? Really? I don’t even know.
And she helped me vacuum. I showed her how to move the seats (electronic) and she moved the seats back and forth for me so that I could get under them and she helped put the trash in the trash and the junk in the bag that I’d brought for it. And honestly, she made the whole thing easier. This wasn’t your average toddler “helping”. She actually helped.
I know. Cue my amazed face.
And we got into the car and I remembered that I need to swing by the store today and get more shaving cream for the husband and more bananas. So I told her, “Fiona, next we’re going to swing off at the store and grab a couple of things. It’ll be quick.”
And she told me, “Not the store. I don’t like the store.”
Now, you might not get why this is so important to me. She doesn’t really ever tell me what she likes or doesn’t like unless I ask. And she never calmly tells me when she doesn’t want something. Never. She usually just starts crying. Or yelling. Or says nothing and then is completely impossible. So this is big for me.
“You don’t want to go to the store?” I asked her.
“No,” she said.
“Okay,” I agreed. “How about we just go home, and I’ll go to the store after Daddy is home and you can just stay home with him?”
“Yes!” she smiled at me in the rearview mirror, “That’s great! I get to hang out with Daddy!”
And we came home. And it was good. And I didn’t drag my girl through a store. And she didn’t throw a tantrum. And I’m no longer fighting a sea of corrugated cardboard. And my car is no longer wearing chocolate and insect guts.
And it’s the little victories that make all the difference.
I gave Fiona a piece of paper and a marker and told her that she could write her own story. This is what she drew and what she told me as she was drawing.
“This is the story of the spooky forest.
In it d’ere were monsters. They were hairy, but kind of cute.
They were crocodiles and they were scary,
but they played with the puppies and then they were nice.”