Lily is just now getting her first experiences with money. At a neighbor’s suggestion, we recently encouraged her to help us pick up sticks in the yard, and we gave her a penny for each stick. After a while, she’d earned $3, so we took her to the nearby CVS and told her she could pick out something that cost that much or less. (She chose glittery gold nail polish, naturally.)
Plus, a couple of weekends ago, I took her to Toys R Us to pick out a present for a preschool friend who was having a birthday party. In the past, in similar circumstances, Joe had also let her choose something small for herself, so I did the same. But the first thing she gravitated to was a Rapunzel doll that costs $20 (“Tangled” is probably her favorite movie). I told her it was too much money, and she didn’t cry, she didn’t throw a fit. She found other things, and each time, when I explained they were too much money, she put them back without a fight and looked for something more appropriate. We finally settled on a lower-key doll that was $8 – more than I initially intended to spend on her thing, but she’d been so good about all the “nos” that preceded it that I cut her some extra slack – and I told her that Hanukkah and Christmas were coming up, so maybe she’d get the Rapunzel dollie then.
“Rapunzel was too much money,” she said several times on the drive home, lovingly stroking the red hair of the doll we actually purchased. “But maybe I can get it for Hanukkah. When is Hanukkah?”
“Well, it’s several weeks away yet,” I said, looking at her in the reariew mirror. “But if you’re a good girl, like you usually are, I think you’re chances of getting a Rapunzel dollie are good, sweetie.”
OK. A lovely experience, generally, and I was proud of Lily. She hadn’t acted like an entitled brat in the store, and she seemed to be in the early stages of learning the value of money. All good.
Then, last Wednesday night, I’d wished I’d never had this conversation with her.
Lily had been a little sensitive and whiny that day when I picked her up at preschool. (This wasn’t helped, of course, by the fact that as she was climbing back to her seat in my two-door car, I popped my seat forward to get Neve’s seat in, not knowing Lily was still leaning on my seat, and she fell down hard. I kissed her repeatedly and apologized several times on the rainy drive home, feeling awful, but also feeling like she was milking things a bit, too.) When we got home, I called Joe so Lily could talk to him on speaker phone while I fed Neve, and Joe told her he’d order pizza for dinner to cheer her up.
In the interim, Lily watched a little more than her allotted 30 minutes of “Sesame Street” (a rule that’s been in place for quite some time now). Joe came home at about the time that the pizza arrived, so before the often-lengthy “Elmo’s World” portion of the show began, I turned the TV off and headed to the kitchen with Neve, saying, “Let’s eat dinner, kiddo. Pizza’s here.”
“No! I want to watch ‘Elmo’s World,'” Lily shrieked.
“Lily, I let you watch a little more than 30 minutes, but your TV time is up, and it’s time for dinner.”
She came out to the kitchen and just stood there, shrieking ad nauseum.
“All right. Go to your room,” I said, pointing upstairs.
She made no move, but continued screaming, so Joe swept her up, carrying her on his hip like she was a rolled-up yoga mat.
As usual, this escalated Lily’s sense of rage, so we were all suddenly stressed out and sad and angry while our dinner grew cold on the dinner table.
Joe took the bullet first, monitoring Lily’s attempts to leave her room until finally stationing himself inside her room, blocking the door. She continued to wig out for several minutes, screaming for me (“Mommy! I want Mommy!”) with a desperation that still tears my heart out.
Joe remained impressively patient at first, urging Lily to breathe and calm down. But she was having none of it, crying herself hoarse and repeatedly yelling for me, with no end in sight.
And it’s this moment that kills you. Rationally, you know a child can’t go on like this forever. But in the middle of these tantrums, it sure seems like they can go on for a long, long time.
Eventually, I came into Lily’s room with Neve in my arms and knelt down to talk to her. “Sweetie, you have got to calm down.”
And that’s when it began.
“Rapunzel dollie,” she said.
I pushed her hair off her face and said, “This has nothing to do with the Rapunzel dollie. This is about you screaming at us when we turned off the television and asked you to come to dinner.”
“I want a Rapunzel dollie,” she said, weeping.
“This has nothing to do with the Rapunzel dollie. It’s because you were not nice to us.”
“But I want the Rapunzel dollie!”
I held her jaw and said, “Sweetie, focus. Just look at me, and listen to me. I’d said that you need to be a good girl to get a Rapunzel doll for Hanukkah or Christmas, and this happening doesn’t mean you won’t get one – ”
“I want one!”
Eye roll. “I know, Lily. But you’re going to have to behave better than you have tonight for that to happen.”
Sigh. My own patience was growing thin. “Lily, I love you, and I want to get through this so we can all eat dinner together and stop fighting. But so help me, if you say the words ‘Rapunzel dollie’ to me one more time, I can promise you that you won’t get one.”
“But I want a Rapunzel dollie.”
I dug my fingernails into my palms and gritted my teeth. “OK, kiddo, let’s try a different tack. You want to go downstairs, don’t you?”
“So let’s go downstairs and eat some pizza, OK?”
Still whimpering, with her breath catching, we walked downstairs hand-in-hand, and I sat her at the table.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Joe said. “She hasn’t calmed down.”
Red-eyed, Lily looked at me and said, “Mommy, I want a Rapunzel dollie.”
“Lily, you have got to stop saying that. Seriously. You’re driving me crazy with this.”
And in the whiniest tone possible, she said, “But I want a Rapunzel dollie.”
“That’s it,” Joe said, scooping her up to whisk her away to her room again. And then his frustration crashed down like a tidal wave.
Still in his suit from work, Joe yelled, growing hoarse almost immediately, about how Lily wasn’t listening, and that I’d asked her nicely several times to quit talking about the dollie, and how, if he could, he’d go to the toystore right then and set every Rapunzel dollie there on fire so nobody ever got a Rapunzel dollie again. (We’ve all reached this point of over-the-top irrationality in our worst parenting moments, so don’t judge.)
“No!” Lily yelled.
He also yelled that he’d only gotten a pizza because Lily had felt sad and called him on his way home and said she’d wanted it, and how he’d gotten up at a quarter to six and worked hard all day, like he does everyday, to earn the money to pay for things like pizza, and our house, and … you get the idea.
Lily, to the exclusion of all else, now was screaming, “I want Mommy! I want Mommy!”
During all this, I rocked Neve in my arms in the next room, frozen with indecision about what to do. If I intervened, I undermined Joe’s authority, which I didn’t want to do. But listening to the exchange made me shake with empathy for Lily, too. So I stroked Neve’s hair and looked at the two of us in the dresser mirror, feeling that no matter what I did, it would be wrong – an unnerving, and unfortunately common, part of parenthood.
When Joe ran out of steam, I came in, handing Neve off to Joe. Joe looked at Lily and said, “Now you be nice to your mother, and you listen to her, or I can promise you that you will never, ever get a Rapunzel dollie, or any other kind of dollie.”
Joe left with Neve, stomping down the stairs. And you’ll never guess the first sad little words out of Lily’s mouth.
Oh my God. I was in hell. I held her face in my hands again, and I looked deeply into her eyes.
“Please, sweetie. I’m begging you. Please, please stop saying that. Can we just forget about the Rapunzel dollie for a while?”
Lily finally fell into my arms, still sniffing. “Why?”
“Because when you say it, you’re making it clear to both me and Daddy that you’re not listening to us. And we really, really need you to listen to us.”
“I am listening.”
“You are now, which is good. Just stop saying Rapunzel dollie. Because that’s not what this was about. Daddy and I don’t want to fight with you. We hate fighting with you. But when you don’t listen, and you scream at us, we have to do something to get your attention.”
This went on a bit longer before we finally headed downstairs to eat our stone-cold dinner. Lily told Joe she was sorry for screaming at us, and Joe apologized, too.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at you, either, sweetheart, and I’m really sorry I did that. That wasn’t right.”
And just like that, Lily was back to being her sweet little self. While we ate, Joe complained about the shoulder that’s been bothering him for months now, and this prompted Lily to get up from her seat and kiss the back of his shoulder, asking, “Is it this one, Daddy?”
Joe and I exchanged glances while melting.
Meanwhile, this first post-tantrum moment had caused me to start crying a little. “Come on, Gorgeous,” Joe said.
I waved him off and swallowed hard. “You had your opportunity to vent already. This is mine, and it will pass. Just give me a minute.”
“You have water in your eyes, Mommy,” Lily said, then came over to give me hug.
She drives me nuts sometimes, but God, I love this little girl.
The next morning, I entered her room, and she sat on her bed and looked me in the eye. “Don’t worry, Mommy. I’m not going to say ‘Rapunzel dollie.’
“Oh, sweetie,” I said, feeling like a gigantic heel. “You can talk about the dollie. It’s OK. It’s just last night, I couldn’t get you to focus on what was happening, and I got really frustrated. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ever talk about it again. OK?”
She nodded, but I haven’t heard her mention the doll again, and it’s been about a week.
If nothing else, it was gratifying to learn that although it didn’t seem like Lily had heard a word I’d said throughout that whole “dollie debacle,” she obviously had. It just took her a while to calm down enough to process it.
All of this made me think about how, when I was pregnant with Lily, I often joked with Joe that I was tired all the time because “building a person is hard work.”
And I was right. But building a person once she’s outside your body is ever so much harder.