Mothering a three-year-old is not quite as easy as, say, demolishing a brick house with my forehead.
“Natalie,” I explain. “You need to blow your nose. It will help you breathe!”
She shoots me a look of petulant exasperation. “But I don’t WANT to breathe!” Huff.
She’s developed her own brand of logic that runs headlong against mine like a sumo wrestler, ridiculous but unmovable. It wouldn’t be so bad, this earnest illogic, except for the flammable emotions spilling out during each encounter. Tears gush. Drama overflows. Three-year-old PMS sinks its fangs into every other moment, gnaws, flings, thrashes, and leaves it in a mangled heap on the floor.
“Natalie?” I mumble through half-open eyes. “I’m not ready to get up yet. Why don’t you go play with your toys for a while?”
“Noooooo!” she wails, melting into a pool of little-girl despair. “Nooo, I don’t want to! I CAN’T! All my toys are BROKEN!”
I know very well how mothers and daughters can push each other’s buttons. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of female intuition, and shared blood tends to amplify shared grievances. I really do know. I just thought I had another ten years or so before we’d be slumped under the covers, crying from different sides of the same frustration. I thought that these young years would stay light and happy, that I would be the fun playmate-mom and she would be the cheerful Stepford-daughter.
“Why are you crying?” I ask.
“Because I don’t want to sleeeeeeeeep,” she wails from beneath her covers.
“Well, you need sleep so you can be happy tomorrow.” (Again with the logic.)
“B-b-b-b-but,” she sobs, “I AMMMMMMM happy!”
I cringe every time I use the words “need” or “have to,” proof that I consider her opinions inferior to mine. (Even if her opinions are that she should have chocolate ice cream for dinner and stay up all night watching “Toy Story” and balancing glass plates on her sister’s head, they’re still valid. They’re still an honest and valuable expression of her desires, even if they’re wrong. Right?) I worry that she’s developing too slowly because I haven’t been reading with her, playing with her, teaching her enough. (She should know Italian better by now, not to mention be fully potty-trained… Or, at the very least, be able to read at a second-grade level like our friend’s daughter of the same age. Right?) I sink under the guilt of days when I’m too tired or too “down” to give her the attention she craves. (I should be able to put on a brave front for her sake. Right?)
“Natalie?” I sigh. “I have a headache and need you to be quiet for now.”
“But!” she shrieks. “But don’t you wanna hear my song? My really, really, really long song? Listen! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE! MAYONNAISE!”
Of course I don’t see the humor until later, when I’m detailing the hardships of my day to Dan (“…and then my head literally exploded into little bits all over the rug because she wouldn’t stop singing about mayonnaise”), and he doubles over laughing. I wonder some days if my parenting skills have expired, if I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life as a sour-milk mom. I gravitate toward hopeful theories too, when I’m in less-pessimistic moods, like she’s just going through a stage or I’m still medically classified as a post-partum mess. (And this too shall pass.) Who knows? Maybe all that matters is that I still love her enough to hurt over our battleground relationship, and that when she starts school in September, I will look back on these emotional flambé days with nostalgia.