When getting a toddler dressed becomes a triumph of the will

Working as a theater critic, I find myself having to leave home at 6:30 or 7 p.m. a couple of times a week to see a show. On these days, I’ll take Lily to daycare in the morning; get some extra sleep (so I can make it through the nightshift) and take care of some errands and chores around the house; then spend as much time with Lily as I can before heading off to work.

Truthfully, I loved having this “free pass” when Lily was a baby. You never knew what Lily you’d be dealing with on any given day then, which drove me crazy, so going off to work was a kind of escape. Now, though, Lily is a walking, talking, aware little person, so leaving her a couple of evenings a week has become exceedingly difficult, for her and for me.

Part of it is she’s more fun, so leaving her makes me a little sad. Plus, Lily generally responds with anything from a tragically sad, quivering-lip expression to outright wailing when I pull on my coat to go. (The most soul-crushing variant involves Lily happily rushing to her own coat and hat, thinking she’s coming with me on a trip, only to be disappointed. Poor little peanut.) Yes, she generally gets over being sad, according to Joe, within minutes, and I know this, but the guilt nonetheless gnaws at me for a while.

Last night, for instance, I’d taken Lily to the library, and when Joe arrived and Lily saw me putting on my coat, she assumed this toddler posture of grief, doubled over a small chair while staring inconsolably into the distance. I knew Joe was taking her to one of her favorite places – nearby restaurant Cowley’s, where she LOVES the mac and cheese – but the melodramatic image stayed with me throughout the evening.

So after seeing the play and writing the review, I found myself, at 3 a.m., irresistibly tempted to peek into Lily’s room and see her. As dumb luck would have it, at that moment, she stirred and saw me through the bars of the crib, then thrust her little hand toward me. Crap. 

When Lily wakes from a bad dream, she does this so we can hold her hand while she drifts back off to sleep. So I settled myself on the floor next to the crib and took her little hand in mine, hoping she’d nod off to dreamland quickly.

No, no. Wide awake, she stared down at me, happily tapping her fingers on my hand. A few times, she whispered, “Mommy, up!” and I said, “No, it’s still nighttime. Mommy tired. Mommy sleepy.” She tossed and turned, and a few times, her breathing made me hope she’d fallen asleep. But when I’d look up at her, I’d find her staring down at me. Dear God. I was going to have to bore her to sleep, I guess. And since I was home the next day, too, I felt I shouldn’t fob this off on Joe for a shift, since I’d made this particular bed for myself – on our uncomfortable hardwood floor.

After nearly two hours of this (I KNOW), at which point my contact lenses were pretty much dried permanently onto my corneas, Lily was FINALLY asleep, and I made my escape.

And although she slept in a bit, I’d only gotten three hours of shuteye when she awoke again, and she was in a contrary mood. I placed her on the changing table to get her out of her footie pajamas and change her diaper, and she pulled the zipper right back up, saying “No!” OK, she often needs some warm-up time after waking up, so I gave up on the idea temporarily. 

Lily wanted to wear her favorite too-big, hand-me-down mary janes over her footies and stomp around the house, which she did, and when she said she wanted to go outside, I got her back up on the changing table. But she didn’t want the pants I’d chosen, pulling them off after I’d struggled to get them on her. Breathe. OK. How about these pants, with apples on them? That’s more agreeable to her. But the socks are a no-go. She’s going to put them on herself – easier said than done. As she tries and tries to get them over her toes, I start to pull her hair up into a hairband, only to have her wave me away and say, “No!” 

I’m so freakin’ exhausted that I fell back into a nearby chair and say, “OK. Whatever. Let me know when you’re done, or when you want some help.” After a few minutes, she asks for help with her socks, but then won’t let me take her pajama sleeves off. (Don’t lose it, I think, just push through this.) Minutes later, she’s fine with it, though she wants to put the shirt on herself. And forget the mary janes, she wants to wear her boots. (Clench teeth, then carry on, mommy.) She pulls on her coat and we zip it up, then she decides she wants to wear the vest jacket, too, so we have to get her out of the coat again.

We’re never, ever leaving the house, I think, and I’m going to fall asleep during tonight’s play. Grrrrr.

It strikes me in these trying moments that even though parents are physically bigger than their children, and could thus always overpower them, you fight against the urge to resort to this nuclear option. You want to teach a child, from early on, that the way to work through things is through verbal give and take, but boy, at this stage, that’s a tall order sometimes.

The obstacles continued piling up. since – even when Lily was satisfied with her ensemble and accessories – she insisted on pushing her stroller, with a baby doll in it, rather than riding in it herself. We’ll try it, I tell myself. We’ll see if she can make it.

And although the pace was slow, she did, and I finally crossed the finish line, telling the women working in Lily’s room at daycare that our appearance, though an hour later than usual, demonstrated a triumph of the human spirit. And while they chuckled at my joke, on some level, I really, truly meant it.

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