Kate guessed right. It is about a just three year old squashing, elbowing, and upending the crap out of her baby sister. I’ve written about the problem and a move toward a solution before, but it’s kept up. The squishing, I mean.
The squishing comes in waves, as does my ability to deal with it calmly rather than giving in to the primal baby-protecting urge to scream like an offended mama baboon at my dear determined three year old daughter.
I had a revelation about it this week, though. Probably one of those flashes of insight that you can file under “this is news to no one but caro.” But bear with me:
We went to the almost-last of our early childhood classes on Tuesday, and not one but three kids—besides Ingrid—made Iris cry. Swiping toys from her, clonking her (with ambiguous intentionality) on the head, pushing her over. From this I learned two things:
1. Poor Iris. I was trying hard to be attentive and protect her from all the chaos, and she got tipped, squished and stolen from anyway. (Though I totally went to bat for her in a tussle with a really strong and energetic boy over a fake celery stalk that she had first. His mom had to pry us apart.)
And this is the big one:
2. It’s not just Ingrid. Three year olds do not know how to deal with nine month olds, no matter how earnestly their parents explain why we are gentle with babies.
Sibling rivalry and deep-seated resentment are probably part of what’s going on at our house, but they aren’t the whole story, and that’s both a relief (our child-spacing decisions have not made a sociopath of our daughter—phew!) and convenient explanation for my somewhat inconsistent reactions to the infractions.
See, I think this is more than one problem.
Sure, the expected sibling rivalry is part of the issue. Sometimes Ingrid tips Iris over on purpose, and it's clearly because she is mad or jealous or feeling something she doesn't know what to do with.
But those other kids on Tuesday were doing exactly the same stuff to my baby as her big sister does, and they are not mourning their lost place in their mother's heart. They have other reasons for squishing the little one. And so does Ingrid. Here's what I think some of those reasons are:
For one thing, they are figuring out what's acceptable. They know people get worked up about hitting and pinching. But what really counts as hitting and pinching, and what's a nudge or a tap? A lot of what Ingrid does to Iris, she does just to see what will happen. ("Does this hurt her? How about this?")
I also think there must be some question in the three-year-old mind as to what sort of creature a nine-month-old really is. She sidles around the house holding onto things, and she gets in the way, but she doesn't respond to "excuse me" the way a person should, nor does she scurry away from a little push the way a cat sometimes does. What's a three-year-old supposed to do with that? Do the same things hurt her as would hurt a big kid? Or is she more like a stuffed animal?
And the last thing may be unique to Ingrid: I think that sometimes Iris gets all up in her face and she is too overloaded by the sensation of being pulled or leaned on (or the drama of having her carefully arranged toys messed with) to react in an acceptable way. Even when she remembers that she shouldn't push, she's so blinded by sensory overload that she can't find a way to get the baby off her without breaking the rules.
None of this, of course, means that it's ok to squish the baby. But it means that I have, all of a sudden, a lot more—much needed—sympathy for Ingrid. I can now think about this problem without thinking of her (baby harmer!) or myself (awful second-child-having Mama!) as a monster.
And it means that, while I always let Ingrid know it's not ok to squish, bite, hit, jab, etc., I can't treat all of these incidents as though they are exactly the same problem. "Go and hit a pillow instead" doesn't help when what's needed is "Ask Mama for help when you feel that way" or "Iris needs her hands on the couch to be able to stand up" or "If someone touched you like that it would hurt, so it hurts Iris, too." Pushing the baby over in clear, intentional expression of anger gets you a four-minute time out, even if you are only just three. Pushing her out of your face when you're overstressed by having your face pulled on and don't know what to do just gets you a firm "no" and a few minutes of being ignored while I comfort the baby, and then, when everyone's calmer, a talk about better ways to get some space for yourself.
The hard-core behaviorists out there will tell me this is wrong, wrong, wrong. But in this case—these cases, really—I don't think blind consistency is fair. Or—based on several weeks' really, really consistent time outs on the stairs—very effective. I think that all I can do is react as appropriately as I can to each squishing incident, and—more important—be really on top of the preemptive separation and redirection.
I see glimmers that Ingrid is learning what needs to be learned, but it's slow, and it's hard to imagine when it's going to end. I find myself looking forward to the day when Iris learns to squish back and I can let them duke it out on their own without worrying so much about the uneven match. Hopefully, by that time, they'll have both learned a lot of good words to use instead.
It's time made this explicit: I do not even know how to operate our camera. Today I learned that that little red picture of a hand? Means the flash is not on. All this time I was thinking it was there to say, Hi! Welcome to your camera!
If I did know how to use a camera you would be able to see right away the solid, glistening dignity of this chunk of tofu. I mean, the thing is, like, six feet and at least three hours from the last time and place tofu was eaten in our home. I am asking it, "How in the hell did you get over there, little chunk of tofu?" And it is saying to me, "I don't give a damn if you do take my picture and put it on the Internet. I am going sit here with perfect posture and enjoy my reflection, thank you very much."
Ingrid: (Stands near Iris wearing pink felted slippers.)
Iris: (Pulls at flower ornaments on slippers, tries to put in mouth.)
Ingrid: (Yells.) NO, IRIS! (Bats Iris’s hand away.)
caro: You need to find a gentler way to tell her no. You could just step back and say…
Ingrid: (Interrupts.) Here, Iris. (Sits on floor and removes slippers one at a time, handing each to Iris.) You can play with these now, and then I’ll have a turn when you’re done.
It is hard to sort out what causes what, though. Some of this does seem to have been going on for a long time, like the shyness (really intense since Iris was born—and that's nine months) and the need for every ounce of my attention every moment of the day (pretty much since birth. Ingrid's birth, that is), which makes me think of it as a more enduring temperament issue. I do think there are solutions, and times will get better.
I don't have a lot of coherent things to say about what's working, because frankly right now not a lot is. I do seem to have found a tone of voice that will occasionally talk her down from a tizzy. I convinced her the other day that instead of letting the feeling of oatmeal stuck on her teeth make her whole body feel weird and bad, she could step back and look at it "like a puzzle to work on". (The girl loves puzzles). She's even repeated that strategy on her own a couple of times. Huzzah!
But most of the time I feel nowhere near that successful. One tantrum seems to just pile on top of the next, and in between that there is endless whining, weird smells, questions to which I have no good answer no matter how many times she asks me, pushing the baby over, etc. etc. etc. And being, I am discovering, immature and lacking in inner peace, I have a really, really hard time just letting all that tantrum and discontentment wash over me. I get all riled up. Worried, mad, unhappy, etc. etc. Bad.
The 24 hours that A and Ingrid were away did us all some good. Iris and I had never had that much time alone together, so that alone was wonderfully sweet. She learned to play peek-a-boo (by covering one eye with the back of her hand, then taking her hand away and chuckling) and to open the fridge, a skill I believe Ingrid still has yet to master.
And, in addition to a lot of adorable baby snuggle time, I GOT THINGS DONE. I did a ton of stuff around the house, and Iris and I went for a run and ran errands and everything went so quickly and smoothly. It was like I'd been driving around with the brakes on all this time without knowing it.
To be fair, there is alchemy when both girls are around and awake. Ingrid is easier on her own, too. I just hadn't realized how very much easier it would be with only the baby in the picture.
So that was validating, and a good break, and now A is fixin' to leave in the morning for two weeks for work. My mom is coming for a good chunk of that time, but I've got two solo days at the beginning of the trip and four at the end without her, and I feel like an utter wimp for being so worried about how hard it's going to be, because I know people do this all the time, but I am worried and have already lined up various friends to relieve me for an evening run here and there, and warned certain people to expect random midday phone calls from me when I need to speak to another adult before I lose my shit. Perhaps you should expect some random and even less coherent than usual posts from me, as well.
Those people are not familiar with my daughter. Or maybe she is just precocious, already acting three and a half?
I want to write about what's hard with Ingrid right now, but I want to be careful. I know that I have
But at the same time, even trying really, really hard to keep all that in mind, there are many, many hours when I can't think that charitably about it. Yesterday I screamed at her. Screamed. I didn't use any words that I regret. But I regret the volume and the tone. I don't believe in yelling at kids. It was horrible. I was horrible.
She and A are at Grandma's for the night, giving Iris and me some quiet time together and giving Ingrid and me a break from each other. And I'm trying to think through what I know about her, why it's so hard, what I could do better. There are lots of parts:
She is sensitive. Small things bother her a lot. Socks with any sort of wrinkle or seam. Tags in shirts. Sleeves that are the tiniest bit too small. Underwear that is "sticking to her." Having a piece of oatmeal stuck to her tooth. Slight changes in temperature. There is almost never a time when everything is right. I, on the other hand, am the sort of person who might (ahem) not notice for a day or so that my husband got a haircut. I'm farsighted! And, apparently, insensitive. I try to understand, but it's a challenge to remain empathetic after the seventh sock adjustment.
She is dramatic. Those discomforts? She almost never just takes them in stride. She very, very often reacts intensely. When I brush her hair, she cries as though I am peeling off her scalp. When A clips her fingernails, he might as well be removing her fingertips. And I react with similar intensity when I find myself in a situation that's hard. (Example: A thousand pieces? Come on! All I'm doing is raising children!) So
She's pretty serious. I think that a lot of kids this age express glee often. Not so much with her. Not outwardly. And it puts me on edge. I know it's just how she is. In fact, it's how I am too. I sometimes miss jokes because I'm so busy taking everyone seriously. But I have the twisted and wrong belief that seeing her happy is the reward I deserve after (cue violins) all I do for her. She does have times of silliness and big smiles and excitement about things. For some reason, though, these don't often happen when just she and I are together, and often they feel too few and far between for me. In sane moments, I know my worry and anger about this are wrong, but in the thick of things it just becomes another part of the tangle.
She's cautious around people she doesn't know well. And by "doesn't know well" I mostly mean "doesn't live with." This shouldn't surprise me; A and I are both the reserved sort, as are most of our family members. In theory, I value shyness. But also, I deeply wish, for her sake, that she weren't shy. I guess that on some level I believe it is a lousy quality to have. It's something I don't like about myself. I wish she didn't have to be this way too, and for all my practice learning how to be a relatively successful shy person in the world, I often feel I'm just not up to the challenge of helping her manage it in a way that lets her enjoy herself.
And yet: I think she might be an extrovert. At least, she has a very strong need for social interaction. When she comes home from day care she's content, full of ideas, more ready than ever to talk with A and me and tell us long, complicated stories. I think if she were a genuine introvert, she'd be exhausted and want to just be alone at the end of a day full of other kids. But no. I think that in spite of her initial cautious reaction to people, she really needs and craves social life. And me? I have a super intense need for lots and lots of time all by myself. Do you see how that's the perfect storm? Her small social circle plus need for relationship, my limited social energy...exhausting.
I miss the relationship that she and I had before Iris was born. I miss it a lot. I remember even then feeling I didn't have enough energy for her, couldn't give her enough. But it was enough so that, if I got enough breaks, we could really enjoy each other. I felt connected to her. I felt like we knew each other. Right now it feels like we are lost to each other. It feels rotten and sad.
I do have some solutions and some ways to think about it that help. I'll write about some of those next. It helps just to untangle it enough to describe it, rather than be caught in it all the time.
A's suggestion last night at the end of a long discussion about this was that I "take some type of meditation course to learn about inner peace." Which is funny because I am the one who brought all the Thich Nhat Han books to the relationship. I am the one who's spent years and years reading about the gazillion types of enlightenment, and, oh yeah, I'm the one who's been praying by accident all year. And he is the one who refuses to go to church because all he needs is to walk in the woods. And he tells me I need to work on inner peace?
Of course, he's probably right. Jerk.
Have you read this whole thing, Internets? Does it sound to you as though my daughter and I are doomed? Have you got anything to offer me besides "work on inner peace"?
For now, just let me say, all the images in my mind are about getting through very tiny spaces. This story keeps popping up on my gmail headline banner, and I keep thinking about how it feels to raise my arms and make my shoulders as narrow as possible, make my armpits disappear like Ingrid does mid-tantrum when I'm trying to pick her up and there's suddenly nothing to hold on to.
And IUDs and tampons, serving out their little lives inside small spaces, and equipped with handy strings for removal. Are they the only things like this? It's such a useful feature, that string. What else could we use it for?
And I read Malcolm Gladwell's article on big ideas earlier this week, and what stayed with me is this:
One rainy day last November, Myhrvold held an “invention session,” as he
calls such meetings, on the technology of self-assembly. What if it was possible
to break a complex piece of machinery into a thousand pieces and then, at some
predetermined moment, have the machine put itself back together again? That had
to be useful. But for what?
What, indeed? I'm thinking it would be useful for birth. Do you suppose any of the learned men (men only) in the "invention session" brought that one up?
In a more metaphorical and less gory sense, I feel like no stranger at all to self-assembly, to being in a thousand pieces. I picture my arm shoving my foot through the eye of a needle, then scooting back through for a handful of hair, a breast or two, an ear. I see us all, all the parts of me, on the other side, reassembling. Do I have everything I need? Did we all make it?
A woman drives her boyfriend's eight-year-old daughter to a pawn shop. She doesn't know how to make her happy. The girl falls in love with a mountain bike that it turns out the woman can't afford, and she ends up trading the guy her prized ostrich-skin boots for the bike, then wedging the bike into the trunk of her old car and, lacking any rope, removing her bra from under her shirt and using it to tie the trunk closed. The last line of the story is something like I wonder if I would have made the same trade for my own daughter.
I am poorer than I want to be at knowing what a writer means, and before having kids I never would have interpreted it this way, but lately I feel like what happens in this story is, oh, pretty much exactly like being a mother. Don't you feel like you're driving home shoeless and braless, with someone in the back seat you hardly know but have cashed in something precious for, hoping like crazy that the trunk stays shut and the bike's not a lemon, that this moment of harmony can last, that what you've just done—the least you can do, all you can do—is somehow enough?
If I’d been the toast-making type and not so busy scraping rice out of Iris’s hair, I would have said something elegant to thank Ingrid’s inner circle for all they’ve done to make her the magnificent and mostly happy girl she is. There’s probably no adequate way to convey the great, sloppy, absurd depth of my gratitude to these folks; I believe it is their love for Ingrid and for our family that’s gotten us through the past year and more. If there are words good enough for that, I was too distracted to think of them and too shy to say them.
Instead we made sparkly birthday crowns, blew bubbles in the yard, ate and ate, and sang a loud round of “Happy Birthday” to the happiest-looking girl in the world, who expertly blew out her three candles, then removed them from the cake, carefully licking the whipped cream from each one.
The hung over feeling is not related to anything consumed at the birthday party, alas, but from lack of sleep. Last week I lost the travel drive I use to carry all my files back and forth to the office. I had most files backed up, but late yesterday evening realized I’d lost several more hours of work than I’d thought, and those several hours needed to get done between, oh, ten and one last night. (This is not the first time I have lost a dramatic amount of data. I feel the need to mention this when it happens. PSA! Digital Loss: It could happen to you! Back up everything, not like me!)
I have some things to say about regret and friends and spring and desperation and what I was thinking about the Chris Offutt short story “Second Hand” while I was running the other day (Hi Eva!), but now I’ve got to finish the work I was too bleary to get to at one a.m. and then look for a clean shirt for my staff meeting this afternoon.
Oh, and yesterday was also Mothers' Day. A belated happy one to you and yours. In celebration, A bought me a purple rhododendron bush (ok, so we are into botanical commemorations around here), gave me a card with a picture of the ocean on it, and didn't blink when I spent way too much on plants on Friday.
I'm giving the fourth one to my mom for Mothers' Day. She grew me inside her body, lost years of sleep raising me, held my vomiting head over the toilet, etc. And you read my blog. And you both get the same gift. That's fair, right?
The pattern was from this book, which is so full of classy cuteness it makes even me feel crafty.
We are, as of this evening, the owners of a 2004 Honda Civic. Black. The safety ratings are good, the mileage is great, and the trunk is bigger than I thought it'd be. This car is so shiny and black, I feel a little conservative in it, like we need a sheaf of lefty bumper stickers to balance the thing out. But I bet that soon it'll feel like ours. And boy is it awesome to drive down the highway without feeling like the whole body of the car is going to crumble off as we go.
It's been pointed out that if we continue our habit of driving cars far into their decrepitude, we may well see Ingrid behind the wheel of this thing. Over the next couple of years, though, I guess we'll just be working on creating a good under-the-backseat layer of Cheerio detritus.
So they gave us a gift certificate for a local nursery, and we had the winter to figure out what to plant for this girl.
A couple of months ago, we found out there is a variety of peach tree that's hardy in our area. We are suckers for all things edible, and what could be a better way to honor our round, mild-tempered, red-headed girl? So last weekend, on Iris's nine-month birthday, we planted this:
For the first couple of seasons, we'll pull off any fruit that sets right away, so the heavy peaches don't snap the young branches, and so the tree can work on growing strong to get through the winter. It will be right around Iris's third birthday before we get our hands on the sweet, fuzzy, rosy fruit. For now, we'll have to settle for this:
It's a Welsh name, Welsh blood being the only trace of anything like "heritage" I've got. In my family, English and Scottish and German and who knows what are lost among Coal Miner and Pioneer and First Mayor of Portland, but somehow a flicker of Welsh identity survives, mainly in the form of being cantankerous (more so in old age) and eating leg of lamb with mint sauce at every opportunity.
All things Swedish and Norwegian—via A's family—tend to dominate around here, and it was only for fear of our home seeming like a farm for wee Scandinavians that we resisted naming our second-born Berit (a name I love and regret not using) or Freya. A Welsh middle name seemed only fair.
For years, my tough, witty grandmother lived right about here in a cabin that she and her long-time love built together on the power of gin and tonic. Photos show her, wiry and tan at nearly 50, raising roof trusses wearing cowboy boots and a leopard-print bikini top.
Unlike my other grandparents' spare, classically tasteful homes, this place was appointed in glorious mid-1970s style. Thick, orange carpet. A firm white pleather sectional couch. A stack of three-legged tables, easy to distribute where needed to hold drinks and ashtrays.
Did you look at the photo in that link? The place was splendid. You could hear the river all the time. The woods were thick and musty and ferny, full of life and rot, and on the best days the mountain seemed close enough to touch. I learned there how it is to be somewhere beautiful. How to find watery orange salmonberries in the roadcut. How to spot the biggest banana slugs at the edges of puddles.
And in the other world inside her house I learned to enjoy things my parents—my mom, especially—seemed to consider dangerous: the smell of tobacco smoke, the stacks of forbidden-seeming magazines (Redbook! Sex was mentioned!), the more than occasional use of four-letter words.
My grandmother called that place Bryn. I believe she thought it meant beautiful. I understand the real Welsh meaning is mountain, or—more likely—hill. To me, Bryn is a place where you learn to be a little wild, a place where you can hear the mountain singing. A place where all around are things bigger than you. And that's what we gave our baby, right in the middle of her name.