As my daughter approaches six years old, I have been chagrined at the continuing sass, whining, and uncooperative behavior we encounter from her daily. Trips out in public often end badly, with her begging for treats or toys or complaining about some perceived inadequacy in our outing. Frequently the negativity in our house leaves me feeling sluggish and irritable. I feel I do a relatively good job of dispensing my behavior “corrections” in a neutral tone, yet Izzy has begun to regularly complain that she is “always in trouble”, or that someone is “always mad at her.” Recently she announced to me that if I had her life, I would think it was terrible. She was always getting yelled at. Ouch. Here is my problem: I latch onto the grain of truth in her statement (It is true that I have been a bit of a nag, but if she would stop making such ridiculous choices, I wouldn’t have to be!) and let the guilt propel me over the cliff with her. I then feel it is my mission to prove to her that I am not an unreasonable tyrant, and that we are not in fact mad at her all the time.
I am afflicted with a condition that will likely not shock you: I talk too much. For the past three years, I seem to have been hell-bent on arguing Izzy under the table. I have been suffering from the great delusion that eventually I will convince her of her own unreasonable-ness, and open her eyes to the great wisdom of Mommy. Ask me in another twenty years how that turned out.
Since the baby was born, I have (not surprisingly) been experiencing a lot of guilt about my relationship with my oldest child. The days of having only one child seem like a distant memory, and I now awkwardly do my best to accommodate both their needs. If you have more than one child, you no doubt understand how this often turns out: somebody always loses, and the most dependent child usually wins. Izzy has been generally patient and understanding, and very rarely seems bitter towards her sister. (On one occasion when Izzy and I snuck out for pedicures, she expressed her relief that we would be leaving “Mr. Whiny Mc Doo-Dah” at home with Daddy.) My guilt came to a head on Mother’s Day, when Izzy presented me with a giant card she made at school. Inside were the adult-written words “My Mom is the Best Because…..” Izzy had written: “She takes me out for ice cream,” and “She lets me watch TV when she is putting the baby down for a nap.” Adorning the front of the card was a drawing depicting Izzy sitting in front of a giant TV. By herself. Awesome. Combine this sentiment with our current state of disharmony, and it’s no wonder I felt distraught about the state of our union. Perhaps especially reflective of the ever present dichotomies in the mother daughter relationship, no matter how disharmonious our interactions have been, Izzy is fiercely protective of me. If she perceives that anyone is wronging me in any way, her claws come out. Whenever Daddy is foolish enough to tease Mommy, she appears out of nowhere, indignantly shouting, “Shawn Spreennerr!!” From time to time Izzy will pull me aside to whisper conspiratorially, “You’re my favorite person in this family.”
One weekend I decided we needed some quality mother-daughter bonding, without Daddy and without baby sis. So we headed off to the movie theater to see the Disney Pixar movie Brave. Those who know my daughter will realize what a monumental event this was; being very sensitive to noise, her last several attempts to go to a movie theater were embarrassing at best, disastrous at worst. It was fitting that our latest effort was the aptly named Brave: it was truly an act of courage for us to venture back into the loud theater. We came armed with earplugs, headphones, and our blankie, and deliberately arrived late enough to miss the often freakishly loud previews. To our great surprise, Izzy didn’t use her earplugs or headphones once and only burrowed under the blanket twice. We were both thoroughly engaged in the delightful film, and it became quickly apparent that the subject matter was most appropriate for our current dynamic.
As Merida’s mother nagged her with a barrage of criticism about how a princess should behave, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. Mental clips of me crossly prompting her to put her shoes away, hounding her to brush her teeth, repeatedly exclaiming reminders to be gentle with her sister rang painfully in my ears. Sometimes I feel like 90% of our interactions involve me telling her NOT to do something. As the movie progressed, Izzy moved into my lap because she felt cold. I savored the experience of holding her warm body in my lap and laughing together at the funny parts and wondered how many more years I had of holding her in my lap at the movies. During the scene where Merida and her mother rediscover each other’s company in a new way (trying not to be a spoiler here) and frolic together in the water, I felt my heart swell. Izzy swiveled to look at my face. “Please don’t cry Mommy!” she urged, but of course I did. I snuggled her closer to me and breathed in the scent of her tangled hair, smiling at the image of the mother and daughter playfully reconnecting. Our trip to the movies was a success, and I felt a powerful reminder of the importance of enduring affection and loyalty in our relationship.
|Some sister bonding
After an enlightening evening with members of my moms’ support group, I had a realization. A substantial part of my dismay with Izzy’s greedy, entitled rudeness has stemmed from the fact that I feel that she shouldn’t be that way. I feel embarrassed and slightly disgusted that my offspring would exhibit such a lack of concern for other people. I secretly believe that this somehow means she is an awful person, or more specifically that we as parents have somehow failed to raise a caring, respectful human being. Listening to my friends discuss their similar challenges with their five year old daughters, I realized that other perfectly functional adults had also failed to produce entirely kind, patient, grateful children. Please don’t misunderstand; I am not implying that the values of patience, respect, and thankfulness are insignificant qualities for our children to have, nor do I think it is acceptable for our children to treat us rudely.
But here is what it does mean: my child is doing her job. She is using her trusting relationship with her parents to locate and test her boundaries, to find out what is acceptable, and to “try on” different attitudes and ideas. She is learning. The fact that she is frequently lazy, selectively deaf, and seemingly ungrateful does not mean that she will turn out to be a sociopath, and neither does it mean my husband and I have failed in our most important of jobs. My brother and I were horribly negative, annoying, thankless pests for much of our childhood, and we turned out to be a psychotherapist and early childhood educator respectively. Apparently we picked up some empathy and social niceties along the way.
To sum it up, I stopped taking Izzy’s attitude personally. I can continue to address behaviors I find problematic and advocate for my own rights as a human being in our household, but I no longer had to engage in her drama and wring my hands in despair. As in Brave, when Merida and Elinor were reminded of the tenderness between them, I was mindful to make the effort to preserve our fragile and sacred mother-daughter relationship. Several days after this pivotal discovery, our family went to the downtown aquarium specifically to see the mermaid exhibit. After we left, Izzy threw her aquarium entry wristband onto the ground and stomped on it, in a silent protest of some injustice that befell her during our excursion. And instead of feeling a wave of disgust, I rolled my eyes to myself and cheerfully reminded her, “You’re a Junior Ranger, Izzy. You made a promise never to litter. You may pick up your wristband.” I felt free. And in that freedom, I found a little more space to enjoy my daughter.
*Does anyone else struggle with the dichotomies in their relationships with their daughters, or perhaps with their own mothers? I would love to hear your perspectives if you feel like leaving a comment!