Mar 4 2009

Parental Therapy

De-facto was bringing home the bacon this week. He got an assignment in London, which means I’ve been flying solo with the girls for a few days. In the old days, I’d have hired the babysitter for a few extra hours, just to me_n_girls cushion the full-on press. But these are the new days. Work isn’t exactly streaming in, and like everyone else, we’re feeling the weight of this bleak economic climate. So I was on my own.

This is not a severe hardship. But as any parent will attest – and let me express the extreme awe I have for single parents for whom this is business as usual – being the lone adult with little kids can wear you down. When there’s nobody to whom you can hand off the baton, even for just ten minutes here and there, nerves get frayed.

This morning, the three-ring circus that is our breakfast routine was running a bit behind schedule. I knew I needed to pick up the pace or we’d get derailed and never get to school on time. But children are wired with an innate contrary metronome. When they sense that you want to speed up, they slow down. Buddy-roo chewed her pancakes in slow motion. I rushed Short-pants upstairs to get dressed.

The first mistake I made was asking her what she wanted to wear. I’m of two mindsets on this. De-facto thinks they don’t have enough choices in their little lives, so he’s always creating some: “Do you want apple juice or milk?” or “You can go to bed now and I’ll read you a story, or you can stay up for 10 more minutes but then there’s no story.” I understand his reasoning, but I don’t always follow it. I think limits are a good thing and this is sometimes best expressed in the form of one firm option. And yet despite the rush of the morning, I offered her the choice.

“Do you want to wear a dress or pants?”
“A dress,” she answered, pointing to her pink striped one, “this one.” pink_striped_dress
It was draped over the wicker toy chest, where she’d left it last night when she took it off to put on her pajamas.
“You could wear that one,” I answered, my voice conveying disapproval, “but you wore it yesterday.”
“I can wear it again,” she said, “please?”
“It’s dirty,” I said.
“No it’s not,” she said.
“I’d really rather you wear a different dress,” I said, “how about the red one?”
“No,” she said, “this one.”

We went back and forth like this a few times. The more I cajoled, the more she insisted. We were at an impasse. I was getting angry and she was nearly crying. And then I said it: “If you wear the same dress two days in a row, everybody might make fun of you.” She burst into tears.

Why on earth did I say that? If she wants to wear the damn dress two days in row, if that makes her happy, who cares? And so what if the kids at school make fun of her? And who says they will? And why am I planting this fear in her little 7-year old head? Like, who’s issue is that?

Parenting is the most transparent form of therapy.

Later, Short-pants sat at the table, wearing the pink striped dress, finishing her pancakes. I’d sent Buddy-roo upstairs to get dressed. “Wear whatever the hell you want,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)
Short-pants was bravely trying to pull herself together, but having a hard time swallowing because she kept re-erupting in to tears.

“Usually people don’t make fun of me,” she said between sniffles. “I know,” I said.

I wrapped my arms around her narrow frame and pulled her close. We held this embrace, longer than the usual hug.

Our responses to life’s little events can be so automatic. This comment about kids making fun of her, perhaps it’s a reflection from my childhood, or maybe it’s my worst fear for hers. It was a reflex; I blurted it out. But what she heard must get filed away somewhere in her consciousness. Is it ever forgotten? Maybe if I’m vigilant not to reinforce it, this little seed of self-doubt will slip away, a one-off remark lost in a sea of a thousand other more positive, esteem-building sentences I’ll repeat over the course of her emotional development. Twenty years from now, sorting through my blog archives, she’ll read this post with no recollection of our exchange this morning. But will the residue remain?

Whether we mean to or not, we hand our fears and prejudices to the next generation. The reinforcement of a belief from parent to child is tangible; it is the source of cultural pride and heritage, but also the reason for hate crimes and religious wars. It has funded the psychiatric industry for decades.

But I guess we’re only human, bouncing and bounding off the things that happen to us in our lives, doing the best we can, and (hopefully) wearing whatever we feel like wearing.