Wednesday, May 25, 2011

picking my battles

Last week out of the blue she announced that she would be calling me Francine, and she would be Olivia.* And what I thought would be a short-lived session of make-believe turned into a recurring theme of weirdness where she will approach me, hold out her hand for me to shake it, and then say, "Nice to meet you Francine." After introductions, we proceed to interact in our usual fashion (making dinner or doing laundry or playing with blocks, etc.) all the while maintaining our alter-egos of Francine the very proper pig (who eats her lunch with a SPORK, thank you very much) and Olivia, lover of all things impetuous and red and dramatic and delightful. I've been Francine at the grocery store, Francine at the hotel pool, Francine during dinner, Francine during bathtime. A few times I've wondered if its wrong to let her call me something that is not Mommy or Mama--- like some kind of weird undercurrent of disrespect.

*(For those not in the Olivia know, Francine in Olivia's sometime friend, sometime competitor.)

- - -

Its late in the afternoon, the sun coming through the high dining room window in a slant. She woke cranky and unsettled from her nap, crying for a sippy that sat forlorn on her dresser. She could see it from her bed, but still believing in the invisible bonds of bed-dom, that once she's placed in bed she can't get out unless released by a parent. When I heard her cries at 2:30, I walked to her bedroom quickly, hoping I could climb in bed with her and calm her into another 30 minutes of shuteye. As soon as she saw me, her tear-streaked face crumpled, demanding the sippy. "The sippy right there. Right there!" I sighed inwardly, knowing nap time was O-V-E-R, spelling it out in my head. Now we're sitting at the kitchen table. I'm trying to read something on the computer while she busies herself with play doh. I don't know why I try to get her to do it on her own--- play doh is an Alice Directed activity, wherein mommy rolls and molds and cuts the dough to Alice Directed Specifications. Without my help, she's rolling minuscule amounts of the blue lump toward my elbow. Now the table is covered with the stuff and she's irritated, voice rising into octaves reserved for mice and small girls. I tell her that I will play with her in five minutes, ticking the five off with my fingers. But she is adamant in her pleading and I let it go, close the computer, pick up the play doh and ask, "What should we make?"

- - -

Yesterday I caught her saying that something was stupid. I sunk to my knees, pulling her toward me, "We don't that word in our house, Alice. We don't say 'stupid.' Do you understand me?" When she nodded, there were tears in her eyes.

- - -

She asks for the marshmallow cereal, code for Lucky Charms---though I'm too cheap to buy the real thing, I think it's Marshmallow Mates or something equally ridiculous that I pull out of the cupboard. When I sit her down with the cup of cereal, I tell her to eat it all. A bit later she finds me in the kitchen, the cup in her hands. She asks for more. The cup is still three-quarter's full, just brown oaty squares and no marshmallows in sight.

- - -

It's bathtime. She's been playing for a good long while, has surrounded herself with floating foam letters and numbers. When I ask her to put them away, she moves slow---and then slower, putting letters in a pink bucket I hold. Now she has the last six letters held tight in her arms, insisting that she keep them with her while I wash her hair. I tell her no, she can hold two-- just two letters. But she wants more: five letters. Five letters, mommy. As I restate my offer of two letters, I feel the line settle here in front of us--- the insistence of here is the limit, here is the place where I dig my heels and hold my ground. And as her voice wavers and rises, I have the same thought that I always do in these moments: how I'm not sure if this is really the particular time and place to prove a point, how I want to teach Alice about discipline and obedience but don't want to be a tyrant. I wonder if bath letters are worth all the fuss.

- - -

Sometimes the battle is over cereal. Sometimes toys. Sometimes we set up opposing camps over the insistence of a cookie. And each time, I wonder what my victory is worth: the tears, the sadness, the frustration? I understand more and more that the point is almost never the cereal or the toy or the cookie or even holding foam letters during her bath--- the point is the exercise, the practice of saying no and hearing it, the act of following instruction.

I never knew parenting would be just as arbitrary as I once imagined it when I was the one desperately fighting for foam letters in the bathtub.

1 comment:

Alicia said...

I struggle with this a lot. It's one thing I just don't have a good intuition about with parenting, I think... when to fight battles and how to pick them ...

Case: One of our children is currently very much a LIAR. He lies all the time, about everything, so long as it suits his purpose of getting/doing what he wants. I have a REALLY HARD TIME WITH THIS. On the one hand, he's just four (on Sunday), and it's likely developmentally appropriate (although we've never experienced this with any other kids to this extent). I don't want to make a huge deal out of it because I know that could exacerbate it. But at the same time, I have a really difficult time stepping back and not making it a battle every time.

I never know the right answer. I never know, if I fight this battle now, will it help or hurt in the long run? And in the short run, do I even have time/energy/dedication to fight it? I don't want to fight just to fight.