Last night was a doozie. One of those evenings where every button is pushed, and by the end, every hair is pulled out. Tempers flared. Words hissed. Patience broke.
My youngest has been particularly difficult lately. Every other word is spoken as a whine, and when all 42 pounds of her 3-year-old body decide they don’t want to do something, it’s a back-breaking exercise in frustration. And she thinks it’s funny. And I used to let her get away with too much because, well, she’s my baby. And her older sister had me so wound up with her melodramatic preschooler-acting-like-a-preteen drama fests that I quite welcomed a different kind of naughty. But now? Now? My oldest has entered a “mommy’s little helper” phase while my youngest is daily exercising her defiance muscle.
It’s strange. How our family dynamic has changed. Not long ago, go-with-the-flow little sister would patiently wait while I tended to her hot-headed big sister. The tantrums would ebb and flow, and she was just…there. Sweet, funny and mild mannered, her antics seemed to pale in comparison to her sibling’s. Draw on all the living room walls with a pen? Sure, why not. After all, it’s not as bad as being kicked and spat on.
But as time goes on, my oldest has begun to emerge from her cocoon of anxiety and resistance to transition. Her meltdowns are fewer and further between. She’s reached an age of reason. It’s…wonderful. But that wonder hasn’t lasted for long. As if waiting to fill the void of tension in our home, my youngest has stepped up to the “drive momma bonkers” plate. And boy, oh, boy, she doesn’t miss a pitch.
Back to last night. On the bright side, we haven’t had one of those in awhile. It used to be common. My snarling up the stairs while a child was screaming down. Could I adopt better bedtime tactics? Probably. But I’m doing the best I can with the resources available. And last night, my energy and patience were already shot before teeth were brushed. Why does she fight me? Why does she squirm and flail and run away when I’m trying to put on her pajamas? Why does she clench her teeth tightly closed while I’m trying to work a brush in there? Why does she lash out and smack me on the head when she’s had enough? Why does she let me reach the end of my rope?
“That’s it! You’ve lost ALL of your bedtime privileges! NO book, NO story, NO cuddles! Straight to bed!”
I hauled her round little body up the stairs, set her on her bed, attempted to pull the covers up over her arms-and-legs thrashing body, and turned to go.
“NO!!! Momma I’ll be good! I’ll LISTEN. I promise!”
Oh…this is where it’s hard. This is where I want to forgive, forget, cuddle, coddle and smoosh her little cheeks up in big kisses. I don’t like being the bad guy. I don’t like being the enforcer. But, if there’s ever any hope of her emerging from this defiant phase, it starts now. Just like years of putting my foot down with my oldest is just now starting to pay off, I know that I’ve got to stay the course.
At the bottom of the stairs, I’m greeted by my oldest. “Mom, I feel bad for her. She’s just overly tired. And she’s not feeling well.”
Ugh, really? As if I’m not struggling enough, my daughter is playing Jiminy Cricket.
“Honey, she hit mommy on the head. After being really naughty and refusing to put her pajamas on or brush her teeth. She’s got to learn her lesson. It’s hard to hear her cry, but it’s for her own good. She’s got to learn it’s not okay to act that way.”
Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m being too hard. No. No! Stay the course. But I smiled inside. Empathy. It’s something that’s hard to teach as a parent, but when your child shows it on their own? Amazing.
Eventually, I did go back up. She stood in her doorway, tears soaking her red face, hair askew. I offered to scratch her back and sing her nighttime song. A look of relief washed over her face. She began to climb into her bed, but there was something in her way. A book. Cowgirl Rosie and her Five Baby Bison. Her big sister’s favorite book. One that had been handed down by a dear friend of mine. Only, there was something wrong. As I picked the book up, I noticed one of the pages was crumpled completely, and another was torn to bits. It hadn’t been like this 10 minutes ago.
“Did you do this? Did you tear up this book on purpose because you were mad? This is your sister’s favorite book! It was a gift! What if she tore up the pages of The Foot Book? Would you like that? What were you thinking?!”
She shook her head up and down, and I broke again. Any tenderness I’d regained was torn much like the multi-colored pages of that book. I retracted my offer of a back scratch and song. I was angry. Her sobs ramped back up into a full-blown hysteria when she realized she’d blown it again.
I went back downstairs, certain my oldest would also be in tears soon when I told her about her precious book. But it was best to be upfront now, before she found it on her own.
“Sister tore up your favorite book. That’s why she’s in trouble again. I’m very sorry. I’m not sure we can fix it either.”
Only, her reaction was one I didn’t expect. Calm. Cool. Collected. Something I wasn’t.
“It’s okay mom. She’s just little. And even if she’s not sorry, I still forgive her.”
Are you kidding me? I don’t deserve this awesome of a child. I’m so flawed as a mother, and yet somehow, I’ve managed to not completely screw up. My kid is incredible.
After letting my temper cool, I went back upstairs to my still-screaming child. I picked her up, and held her on my chest. “I want to tell you something. Do you know what your sister said when she found out that you ruined her favorite book?” She hung her head even lower, waiting for bad news. “She said she forgives you. And I forgive you too.” She wrapped her little arms around me even tighter, the river of tears flowing from fear to the grace-filled current of the forgiven.
“Take…me…downstairs,” she sobbed. No. I couldn’t let her. She still needed to go to bed. What was she trying to get away with? “I…want…to…hug…sister.” Well, now that’s a horse of a different color. I wasn’t going to get in the way of sibling reconciliation. I stood up, her legs and arms both wrapped around my middle now. We found sister, and the two exchanged a sweet embrace. We even found The Foot Book, and I offered to read it to them both. I was done with fighting. I just wanted a moment of peace. So did they.
As they snuggled their heads together on the same pillow and exchanged kisses, hugs and giggles, I felt a swelling sense of contentment. Amid all the chaos, all the drama and trauma, all the mess and clutter and scattered Cheerios left on the floors for days, a family is emerging. One that loves and forgives and sticks together, as flawed and broken as we are.
“More and more feet. Twenty four feet.” The sing-song of Dr. Seuss soothed our frayed nerves, but there was still that part of me that had my eye on the prize. The quiet. That sacred space when all heads have found a pillow and a mother finally has a moment’s respite. No butts need wiped. No milk needs poured. No battles need mediated. Just quiet.
“Mom, I can count to twenty four. One…two…three…” I almost stopped her. I almost didn’t have the patience to let her finish. Why? What’s wrong with me? You know how long it takes to count to 24? Why, 24 seconds exactly. And 24 seconds soon turns to 24 hours soon turns to 24 years. Yes, I had time. I had time to watch her mouth form every number. I had time to notice that she skipped the number 15. I had time to remind her what comes between 14 and 16. She’ll need to know that come kindergarten in the fall.
Big sister and I made quite a team. Calming and soothing little sister until she was ready to nod off on her pale blue pillow. We tucked her in, gave final kisses and hugs, and thought the final sounds of that episode would be the creaking of our feet on the carpet-covered hardwood stairs. All was calm. For maybe two minutes, the stormy sea was smooth.
Sigh. She’d fallen out of her bed. Hard. Here we go again. Back up the stairs I went, and I can’t say the rest of the night went smoothly. It didn’t. But eventually, everyone fell asleep. They always do. And eventually, I had my moment. One that I hoped would be filled with blog writing and productive things. No, I was too tired. I climbed into bed next to my sleeping husband, exhausted from a sun-up to sun-down work schedule, and let God rock me to sleep. I asked for forgiveness for my lack of patience, and gave gratitude for the undeserved grace I was given. We’d had a precious moment. One where two young sisters and their mother had 24 seconds to spare. And 24 years from now, I’ll want every one of those seconds back.