Mommy’s got something to prove – to whom?

When Lily was a newborn, one of the only things that consistently soothed her was being toted around in a sling – so we walked around town with our “baby in a bag” quite a bit.

On one occasion, a neighbor, after peeking inside the sling to see our then-sleeping new addition, admonished me and Joe to “cherish this time,” because we’d never get it back, and it would all go so fast.

We nodded gravely, but Joe and I exchanged subtle glances that conveyed that we were both mentally circling a pointed finger aside our heads in a “cuckoo” gesture. Was this guy meshugge? Having your sleep constantly and randomly interrupted; being screamed at for long stretches, and feeling absolutely helpless to soothe your child; being shat and spit up upon regularly; and not being able to eat a meal together in peace (let alone eat a meal, or take a shower, when flying solo with the baby) – this was the apex of parenthood? Seriously?

Joe and I shook our heads while walking back to our house, agreeing that, from what we could tell so far, the baby phase was something to be endured rather than “cherished.”

Now, of course, our family lineup has changed, and we have a boundary-pushing 3 year old as well as a newborn in the house. And this long-past, casual conversation with a neighbor has come to have far more resonance for me.

This is partly due, surely, to the fact that Neve is a low-key, sleepy, easily comforted baby, and I’ve enjoyed the baby phase much more the second time around (when the anxiety is generally lower, anyway). But I think the primary reason I’m recalling this exchange lately is because I’m realizing that handling a newborn, despite its challenges, is relatively simple when compared to the self-doubt/guilt/misery spiral involved in disciplining your average, volatile 3 year old, who’s prone to operatic, irrational tirades.

During the past two evenings in a row, one of us has carried Lily, screaming at an ear-splitting pitch that I WISH only dogs could hear, up to her room for a time out; but once there, the tantrums only seem to escalate as she screams and cries louder and longer, and Joe or I strain to keep our own patience in check and talk her down. We repeat ourselves, telling her to take a breath and calm down, but she doesn’t hear us at all at these times, saying over and over again that she wants to go downstairs. (And, in one of those moments that would be funny if you weren’t in existential agony, she shrieks, “I’m calm! I’m calm! I’m calm!”)

One recent shriek-fest kicked off when I asked her not to do something, and not only did she continue to do it, she made a spitting sound toward me in response. Another began when, after she weepily complained of soreness in the Pull-up region of her body, I’d applied Desitin, only to have her wail and frantically wipe it off with her hand, claiming she didn’t want any medicine applied, while also kicking and throwing the new Pull-up to the ground; and the most recent came about when she held a pom-pom over Neve’s head and face. I asked her to please refrain from doing it again, and when she ignored me, I took the pom-pom from her. She screamed for several minutes, begging to get it back, and then, in anger, threw her arm between me and Neve, whom I was feeding at that moment.

In each of these instances, I’m the one who snapped and pronounced Lily “over the line” in terms of what was acceptable behavior, thus sealing her “time out” fate. And for this reason, I’ve struggled, for several days now, with feeling like I’m both too harsh AND too lenient with this little, developing person I adore. It’s maddening, and I lately feel like every instinct I have, and thus every choice I’ve been making, is dead wrong.

While kvetching about this with Joe, and asking, “Have I been overreacting?” he said that lately, I seemed to have more of a hair trigger temper with all this than I normally would, and that it seemed like I had something to prove.

“That certainly could be true,” I said. “But to whom? To you? To Lily? Or to myself?”

The answer likely combines all three. Joe, too often, feels like the heavy, the perpetual “bad cop,” who comes in second place with Lily in the end, even when I’m the enforcer. Lily drives me bat-crazy when she disrespects me and my authority (or lack thereof) – often while smiling at me and laughing. And finally, I want Lily to know that Joe and I stand together in disciplining her. And because I hate that Joe feels like the villain in all this; and because I fear that my own lack of backbone and aversion to confrontation will result in raising an out-of-control, spoiled brat, proving something to myself may indeed be the strongest underlying motivator.

Hopefully, we’ve just hit a bad patch, and things will get better soon – at least until we hit the next bump in the road. But the issue is literally keeping me up at night, even when I get the chance to sleep.

One of the things in my recent, heated exchanges with Lily that drives me crazy is what I call the “I can’t” defense.

For instance, when Lily was in time out last night, she spit on the hardwood floor in her room (this spitting thing seems to be a recent, unfortunate lesson from her pre-school peers). When she calmed herself enough for me to go in, hug her a few minutes, and talk with her, I got a tissue and asked her to clean up the spit from the floor. (I certainly wasn’t going to do it.) In halting, crying breaths, she kept saying, “I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I can’t.”

“That’s nonsense. Of course you can.”

“I can’t. You do it.”

“No. Absolutely not. You’re a smart, capable girl, and there’s absolutely no reason you can’t do it.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Please try.”

The sublimely frustrating “I can’t” defense usually comes into play when she’s asked to calm down, and when she’s asked to apologize to her father or to me. (Normally, though, she does eventually say that she’s sorry.) She tries to make the case that we should apologize to her, actually – God help us, she’s a little budding lawyer already – and sometimes, we concede, if there are legitimate grounds. But generally, my hope is that by stressing that she’s a smart girl with agency, she’ll soon get over this whole “I can’t” thing.

The other really difficult thing to absorb is the fact that inevitably, when a 3 year old moves on from a rage-filled tirade, it’s suddenly ancient history to her. Like the whole thing never happened. The parents, meanwhile, stew in their own miserable juices for the rest of the evening, quietly seething and snapping at everyone around them, suddenly sporting the thinnest of onion skins around their writhing emotions. The child has let it all go in a heartbeat; the parents, however, simply don’t have the ability to do so.

So when Lily did her usual, control freak, 3 year old thing at dinner (post-tantrum), whining that she didn’t want ketchup on her plate, I roughly took the plate, noisily cleared it off, washed the ketchup off, and tossed it back onto the table. When she said, with irritation in her voice, that she didn’t want a fork, I threw it down hard on the far side of my place setting, onto the table. And after consuming about one bite of food, Lily said, “I ate a good dinner. Could I have candy or chocolate?” Joe sighed and said, “I want to shoot myself,” to which I replied, “Join the club.”

Shortly thereafter, a kind of martyrdom face-off occurred, wherein Joe held the baby while loading the dishwasher, which is normally my chore. “Please let me do this,” I begged him. “Why?” he asked, annoyed. “Just – please. I need to do something,” I said, unable to articulate anything more sensible. And later, though he didn’t need to, Joe did some work on the computer after Lily went to bed.

I think we were both so desperate to feel competent again – competent at something that had a straightforwardness and a simple logic to it – that we retreated into ourselves and these chores.

On evenings like this, it’s only too easy to see how couples with young children come apart, through no fault of their own.

Which is why, when we finally got to bed, I made a point of curling up next to Joe for a few minutes, even though our conversations had generally been tense and strained all evening.

I think I need to remember to keep making the effort to re-connect with Joe throughout the tough times of parenting. Like a lot of people, I have a tendency to close myself off when I’m scared and upset, rolling myself into a ball of self-pity and gloom. And I’ve been doing that a lot lately, obviously. But if Joe and I are going to get through the next several years of this together, like I obviously want us to, I need to keep reaching out and humbly asking for the help, comfort, and reassurance that I need to push through, while providing the same for Joe.

Yes, martyrdom may FEEL virtuous; but it also seems to produce some pretty miserable, lonely parents. I don’t wish to join their ranks.

5 thoughts on “Mommy’s got something to prove – to whom?

  1. Rina Miller says:

    My heart goes out to you. Thanks for your amazing honesty! I wonder what Lily will think when she reads this say, 20 years from now? I wish you both strength and sleep.

  2. Kelley Callies says:

    Cut yourselves some slack and remember you are not alone in feeling all of this stuff. Children add a lot of stress to your every day and they sometimes seem to delight in pissing us off. According to the “experts,” though, children at Lily’s age aren’t really trying to make you mad, they are only attempting to test their boundaries. Your consistency will pay off! You and Joe are doing a great job raising your beautiful girls. Also, just keep in mind that NONE OF US KNOW WHAT WE’RE DOING! The ones who claim to know are lying. 🙂

  3. Carol says:

    Yes, setting boundaries is hard and, of course, necessary. In my experience though, the only true antidote for the outrageous tantrums and maddening irrationality is maturity, which can only be achieved through the passage of time. The key is to somehow not become unglued in the meantime, as a family, as a couple, and as an individual.

  4. Sheila says:

    Jenn, some of this is very familiar territory for me, and if you’re interested, I’d be happy to share (over email or phone) some actual strategies we’ve learned for dealing with this kind of behavior. (courtesy of being in counseling w/R for 1 1/2 years.) Let me know. Hang in there! xo

  5. Judith says:

    Jenn, this is so familiar to me too. Very brave of you to share – and helpful. I sometimes think “maybe it’s just me/us.” I guess I’m figuring it out as I go along and hoping I’m not scarring them for life (more than normal!)

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