The other day, my four-year-old daughter abruptly stopped building her Lego princess skyscrapers to stare off into the distance, clearly lost in thought.
After a while, she turned to me and said, “You know… mummies would always have toilet paper on them.”
I laughed, which was not okay.
“That’s NOT funny!”
She’s fond of mummies, so maybe she found the mockery of their toilet-paper bodies unacceptable. Or maybe I was supposed to be wildly impressed by her deductive reasoning. Maybe anything bathroom-related is sacred, or she views not having toilet paper as a very serious issue that should never be taken lightly.
Either way, she was completely disgusted by my irreverence.
One should never mock how mummies could always conveniently wipe their butts.
As I’ve mentioned before, my two-year-old daughter Bridget is a baby Viking: a freakishly-strong blonde who lives to dance, eat, and occasionally conquer all rules of civilized Christian society by violently head-butting them with her berserker rage.
And tonight, she waged a war on the meaning of pants.
Everything had been going so well. Earlier, she’d finally asked to use the potty insteadof just using it as a step-stool or a comedy hat as she’d done for months, in what I can only assume was a blatant mockery of our attempts to civilize her.
Then she actually peed in it for the first time, like she was supposed to.
We were so ridiculously thrilled. Even her four-year-old sister Brontë was impressed, telling her, “You PEED in the potty like A BIG GIRL. I’m so proud of you, Bridge-git, because you are being a big girl more every day!”
Everyone clapped. I gave Bridget a chocolate, which she wolfed down in beaming celebration before squaring her shoulders and bellowing something unintelligible to the heavens (which I can only assume was a shout-out to Odin) before tearing out of the room…
And that’s when things got weird.
I’m not sure if Bridget worried about whether her potty capitulation meant she’d become too domesticated, or if triumphing over her bowels overwhelmed her with a sense of boundless power, but she ran straight to the pajama drawer and started yelling, “PICK! PICK!”
You see, every night before bedtime, the girls get to pick the pajamas they’ll be wearing and it’s kind of an amazingly big deal for them.
I’m guessing that’s because they don’t control most aspects of their daily lives. They don’t get to make many selections apart from whether to play with dolls or Legos, drink water or milk, eat dinner or NOT eat dinner, and which cartoon characters they want smeared across their bodies as they sleep that night.
So when I opened the pajama drawer, Bridget dove in with real purpose, finally surfacing with a Minnie Mouse nightgown in one hand and an Olivia-the-piglet top in the other.
“You have an Olivia shirt… do you want the Olivia pants, Bridget?”
“No problem. Do you just want to wear the Minnie Mouse nightgown? You don’t have to wear pants with it.”
“Okay, that’s fine too. Except you have two shirts right now. Do you want the pants instead?” I pulled out the Olivia pants and offered them to her.
“NO!” Bridget insisted while shoving the Olivia pants away: “This!”
“Okay, but you have another SHIRT. You have TWO SHIRTS right now.”
“Pants,” she grunted through gritted teeth while staring me straight in the eyeballs, just daring me to suggest she wasn’t holding pants one. more. time. These were pants, goddammit, even if my limited peasant vision wouldn’t accept it.
I sat back.
Alright. Put on those pants then.
Bridget scowled at me while balancing one foot over an upside-down Olivia shirt. She snaked her wiggling toes into an armhole before thrusting her leg all-the-way through.
Hmm. Now what?
One leg safety through, Bridget glanced down at the giant neck-hole and tiny armhole beneath her, suddenly grasping the complex dignity equation in which she’d landed herself. Not yet willing to surrender, she picked up her free leg and alternated pointing her toes at the neck hole and leg hole, aiming back and forth until she lost her balance and fell smack down on her toddler butt.
She started rolling around, jamming her leg in various parts of the Olivia shirt as though sheer force of will would magically transform it into appropriate leg wear. Finally, she somehow managed to cram both her legs into a single armhole, then, realized she was trapped, began thrashing around in a berserker rage, screaming “PANTS! PANTS! NO PANTS!”
I let her thrash until she was winded. Laying helplessly on the floor, her dignity somehow crashed amidst a random pile of brightly-colored piglets, she finally looked over and weakly gasped, “Help?”
I worked the Olivia shirt off her legs. She ran over to the pajama drawer, fished out the Olivia pants, and collapsed on my lap. I wadded up each Olivia leg like pantyhose, popped her feet through either side, held her hands and pulled her back up to her feet.
She laid a hand against my neck, pulled my face closer, and pushed her forehead onto mine. She pushed our foreheads together for several moments.
“Mama.” She gave me a kiss.
Eh, part of me knew she needed to learn for herself that even spite can’t turn shirts into pants, but another part weirdly hoped she’d manage to pull it off somehow.
And still another part isn’t sure whether she’d actually hoped to transform shirts, or was trying to challenge rigid definitions. Maybe we’d all just been blindly accepting rules about only wearing shirts on the top halves of our bodies and a single open-minded clothing messiah could break the boundaries of our apparel world by bravely venturing into unknown territory.
But not today. Today was about getting a little too big for your britches after successfully peeing in designated containers then realizing your jailers sometimes know more than you do about the boundaries of space and time.
Bidgie squeezed my hand and led me to her room, so she could hear her bedtime story and finally drift off into a dreamworld of dragons and Valkyries.
She was safe. Mama had saved her from herself and pants.
Ah, parenting… that stage of life where you not only have to force yourself to exercise and choke down vegetables, but also convince people far less rational than you to do the same.
Frankly, it’s hard not to give into peer pressure sometimes. Everyone in my house now campaigns for a steady diet of jellybeans and pizza… while I have to pretend that making yet another meal from scratch really does sound better than someone bringing melted cheese to my door.
But I figure the prevention of scurvy and colon cancer is part of my parenting duties, which means talking my kids into eating real food.
At first, I thought my older daughter Brontë was a tough sell. She could be defiant, especially around age 2, and would try refusing meals in favor of starchy snacks until we eventually starved her out…
But I was completely unprepared for Bridget.
We call her “Bridget the Viking.” She’s a blue-eyed blonde with a face so angelic that her cuteness made the doctors who delivered her gasp.
“I’ve delivered a lot of babies,” one told me, “And always say they’re lovely, even when they’re weird-looking, but she may honestly be the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.”
I was so flattered, having no idea I’d just birthed a Viking.
Bridget has a good heart and an overwhelming zest for living, but she was a lunatic from the start. She kept us up all hours with her berserker rage and was turning over furniture from the moment she started walking. There’s something about an angelic blonde baby throwing end tables across the room with freakish strength that just chills you to the bone.
Bridget’s independent streak borders on the self-destructive. She’ll refuse to do what you told her, simply because you told her to do it. She’d rather take the punishment than give up her options.
Bridget started drinking bottles of hot sauce just because she wasn’t supposed to. People were acting nervous about her tasting them, so her curiosity finally got the better of her… she once ate an entire packet of red peppers because her big sister yelled that she couldn’t do it, and she’s now turned drinking hot sauce into a party trick.
Don’t believe me? My cousin wasn’t sure. Knowing my penchant for hyperbole, she once dropped by my house armed with an extra-spicy bottle of habanero hot sauce covered in warning labels and just… casually… left it on a table to see what Bidgie would do.
Here’s the part we managed to capture:
I mean, what kind of thrill-seeking is this!? How will she keep topping this experience? She’ll be bungee-jumping while snorting moon rocks by the time she’s ten.
But while she’ll literally drink a cup of hot sauce, she won’t sit down to dinner for more than a few seconds before flipping around, impatiently yelling: “DONE!”
Well, having such a challenging kid has taught me a couple of essential truths about human nature. They are:
1) Having something taken away is more motivating than the opportunity to gain something of equal value
I learned this while attempting to manage Bridget’s constant bloodcurdling screaming in the car.
She doesn’t like being in the car, and sometimes we have to be in the car. So I had to listen to her unfettered Viking berserker screams for months on end. Sometimes, they scrambled my brain so hard that I’m surprised I never hit anything.
I tried everything to stop her: talking her out of it, soothing her, yelling at her, trying to figure out what was wrong, turning on music, giving her a toy… nothing worked.
Until the day I took her toy away and would only give it back when she stopped shrieking. That worked like a charm. The Bridget-screaming-in-the-car phenomenon disappeared for good.
So… the same toy that didn’t make her feel any better when I first offered it to her suddenly became vitally important to not lose. This is human nature: we are more motivated by losing things than gaining something of equal value.
2) We value things more when we have to work hard to get them
Bridget’s inherently suspicious of anything handed to her or expected of her, but loves anything she had to sneak.
I guess it makes sense… A guy who’d stalk a deer for days, in pounding rain and bitter cold, before stashing it’s trophy head above his sofa would probably be disgusted by finding that exact same deer carcass left on his doorstep.
And so it is with Bridget the Viking, who is such a walking embodiment of the forbidden-fruit-tasting-sweeter principle that I finally incorporated it into her training.
I started hiding fruit around the house:
Bananas on the counter where she could barely reach them.
Grapes on plates, just inside the bottom cupboards.
It worked. I’d hear her quietly scooting a step-stool into the kitchen, a muffled rifling through the cabinets, and wild giggling as she made off with a grape.
She’d keep this up for hours, sneaking away whole plates of grapes and bananas that she’d left touched when I’d offered them at breakfast.
And after weeks of all but refusing dinner, she was sneaking into the kitchen last night to swipe bite after bite of the pesto lasagna I left cooling on the counter:
She was desperate for those bites, straining on the highest tippy-toes she could manage to grab spoonfuls of pesto pasta above her head and balance them all the back to her face. She savored every last one of them as though she’d been starving, rolling her eyes back in her head for several moments before scrambling to nab the next.
Until dinner was finally brought to the table, whereupon she took a couple of bites of pesto pasta before dropping her fork like it was on fire: “DONE!”
My two-year-old daughter Bridget has been trying really hard to talk lately. She goes on long monologues at the dinner table, flinging her arms around and shaking her fist to emphasize her point.
Frankly, I have no idea what she’s talking about. Whatever it is, she feels very passionate about it. Something about tacos and cats, which are apparently vital issues within the baby community.
I’m so glad she’s finally learning to talk, though, because she’s been at a major disadvantage when dealing with her big sister Brontë, who is four. Brontë literally talks nonstop from the crack of dawn until I’m tucking her into bed, which must be so intimidating.
Two years is a huge advantage in toddler time. Brontë is bigger and stronger and can reach more, say more, and knows more things. She constantly bosses Bridget around and muscles away her toys whenever my back is turned.
All Bridget can do in response is scream uncontrollably or hit Brontë in the head with a nearby object. And BOTH get her in trouble.
Brontë’s got the home field advantage. She’s even been convincing Bridget she can read. She grabs the bedtime story book when I’m finished and convincingly pretends to read every page to her sister, making up a story while pointing to words.
I didn’t fully grasp her motivations until last week, when Brontë grabbed my clock radio instructions, unfolded them, then walked over to Bridget.
“It says here,” Brontë began, while staring intently at the giant instruction square, “That the bedroom is Brontë’s and Bidgie is just allowed to sleep over.”
“And number 2,” Brontë pretended to read, “The toys are Brontë’s and Bidgie is notallowed to take them. Number 3 says Bidgie can’t close the door.”
“Psh,” said Bridget.
“I dunno, Bidgie. That’s what it says.”
But Bidgie’s not rolling over without a fight. What she lacks in verbiage, she more than makes up for in sheer bravada.
When Brontë dazzles everyone with adorable stories, for example, Bridget will stun the audience by picking up a bottle of hot sauce and drinking it.
Or, Bridget will aggravate her big sister by wreaking havoc on her pretend world. Like the other day, when Brontë took Princess Pink Ballerina and the Handsome Prince out for a joyride in the fantasy pink ballerina car.
The moment Brontë ran away, distracted by something or other, Bridget crept up to the car and replaced the prince with a giant green dinosaur:
And you’d be surprised by how much attitude Bridget can work into two- or three-word sentences. Yesterday, she had the following conversation with her sister:
Bidgie is sitting in the bathtub when Brontë wanders up…
Brontë: Hi, can I get some candy please?
Bridget (handing her pretend candy): Here!
Brontë: Thank you! This isn’t enough candy though. I come here all the time. Can I get more candy?
Brontë: Can I get some strawberry ice cream?
Brontë: Thanks! Do you have any chocolate ice cream?
Brontë: Can you make some?
Bridget (crossing arms): Buh-bye.
Honestly, I was a little relieved when this conversation ended. I thought it might take a turn down “around the corner fudge is made” street.
That’s such a likely scenario with my kids, I can only assume Bridget didn’t have the goods.
So, I caught my daughter smacking her own butt this morning while yelling, “BAD! You’re WRONG! You need to STOP IT!”
It was a perplexing situation, one I hoped to better understand. So instead of telling her to cut it out, I tried to uncover what strange manner of 4-year-old psychology had driven her to this desperate point…
Me: Umm… what are you doing? Why are you spanking yourself?
Brontë: I’m NOT. I’m spanking MY PANTS.
Me: I see. Okay… why?
Brontë: Because they won’t do cartwheels and somersaults the way I want them to.
Me: That’s an interesting dilemma.
Brontë: They’re being WRONG pants!
Me: Well… you do realize that *you’re* actually the one that does cartwheels and somersaults, right? And that right now, you’re really just spanking yourself?
Brontë’s eyes got big for a moment before she swiveled around and stomped off, muttering, “DAMN IT, stupid pants!”
As I thought: Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh…
Because I really shouldn’t encourage swearing, even when executed perfectly and to hilarious effect.
But I can definitely see why she’d be mad at those pants. First, they mess up her cartwheels and somersaults. Then, they trick her into smacking herself and looking silly in front of her mom.
They were definitely being WRONG pants that deserved everything they got.
Being a parent teaches you a lot about human psychology. Toddlers, for example, think the world revolves around them.
I’m not trying to be critical here, because this is a normal stage of kid development. It’s not malicious, they just live in a self-focused universe where everything is one giant movie starring them as the main character with everyone else in a supporting role only existing to advance the plot.
Sometimes this causes a breakdown in communication, like when I ask my husband about his day at work and he can’t answer because our four-year-old daughter Brontë keeps interrupting with, “I DIDN’T GO TO WORK, I’VE BEEN PLAYING ALL DAY!”
And sometimes, it can be downright hilarious.
Take, for example, the surreal confusion that recently ensued when our two-year-old daughter Bridget was wandering around the house, looking for me.
It went like this:
Bridget (wandering around): Mommy? Mama?
Brontë (from the next room): I’m not mommy, Bridget. I’m “Brontë.”
Brontë (walking in): I’m NOT mommy. I’M JUST ANOTHER KID.
Bridget (looking around): Mommy?
Brontë (speaking slowly as she puts her hands on Bridget’s shoulders): LISTEN TO ME, Bridget… I’m NOT your mom. I’m your SISTER. My name is “BRONTË.”
Bidgie blinks and Brontë throws her arms in the air before stomping off and grumbling, “HOW does she not know this by now??”
Brontë was so frustrated by her sister’s cluelessness, she even looked a little scared. Like she was pondering whether or not her baby sister actually had a screw loose.
And when I explained that Bridget was talking to me, Brontë only looked more scared. Like maybe everyone in the house, except her, had lost their mind. Because we were clearly both there for the whole conversation where Bridget couldn’t recognize her own family members, so how is mom not understanding how serious this is?
I couldn’t help laughing, which only made things worse.
Being a parent is a little like being a social scientist. You’re an anthropologist studying a strange tribe of lawless pygmies, trying to uncover why they need to take a single bite of every piece of fruit in the basket or rub spaghetti sauce into their hair.
Or you’re a psychologist, studying how the human brain behaves before all the rationalizations and social conditioning. You figure out, for example, that two-year-olds feel compelled to scream “NO!” when asked any question.
Doesn’t matter what it is. They’ll scream “NO!” when you ask if they want water, then cry in frustration when you take the water away. You give it back, only to have them push it away and scream “NO!” again and again.
You ask if they want candy, just to see if they’ll break down, and it won’t work. They’ll just scream NO, right before throwing a massive fit about Not Having Candy. These kinds of constant protests about anything and everything make getting through your day kind of hard.
Well eventually, most parents figure out how to get around the “NO” thing by offering their kid the choice between two acceptable options…
Instead of: Do you want to get dressed? (NO!)
You say: Do you want to wear the red pants or the blue ones? (Hmm, the blue!)
It works like a charm, because it really all comes down to control. The kid wants to feel as though he or she has some say in what happens to them. Offer them a choice, and suddenly they’ll forget that refusing to get dressed is a third alternative.
Strangely enough, this trick will work on adults as well.
Toddler obsessions can be strange and mysterious. Like lately, Brontë has been consumed by the significance of the bathroom in which you choose to pee.
So, for example, if Brontë is out somewhere with her dad, she will absolutely flip out about him taking her to the bathroom. Because that would mean peeing in a boy’s bathroom, which is NOT OKAY.
If he won’t take her to the girl’s room, she won’t want to go at all… no matter how many times we’ve explained that she’s allowed in the men’s room with her dad, while grown men aren’t allowed in the women’s bathroom.
Well, she’s not buying it and furthermore, she’s not happy about the whole unisex deal we have going on at home. She’s taken ownership of the bathroom closest to her room and keeps piling dresses and princess toys in there like some kind of feminine territorial display.
She’s okay with baby sister Bridget using it and actually seems flattered when I do. She’ll wander in after me, asking if I like her bathroom, checking to make sure there’s still toilet paper and pointing out her fancy-smelling soap. She seems to take pride in the place.
And every single time, she’ll make pleasant small talk with me before requesting I put a girl’s bathroom sign on the door–one of those public restroom stick figures with a dress on–so daddy will quit going in there. Because it’s a GIRL bathroom.
Her peeing obsessions have worked their way into her humor lately too, what with her asking me last week if I wanted to go to China with her someday. I told her I’d love to and asked what she wanted to do there. She plans to eat rice with chopsticks, drink tea, and “PEE IN A CHINESE BATHROOM IF THE POLICE WOULD LET US,” she told me while wiping tears from her eyes and breaking into uncontrollable laughter.
“Pee in a Chinese bathroom,” she kept saying again and again, laughing harder every time. I have no idea what kinds of hilarious shenanigans she envisions taking place in Chinese bathrooms, or why she would imagine the Chinese police wouldn’t prefer people peeing inside the bathroom, but she found the idea hysterical, just the same.
This weekend, we were driving through Sacramento when we went past the coffee shop where John and I first met. John pointed it out to Brontë, telling her how we had cafe lattes and a seven-hour conversation at that table, right over there…
Brontë was fascinated. She loves to hear about her parents’ early relationship and likes to talk about what our wedding was like. She found a picture of us on our wedding day at her grandparents’ house which she stared at for ages before begging for a copy in her room. “You wore a white dress,” she reminds me sometimes, “And had white earrings and pink flowers. Can I see your ring?”
We decided to stop there for coffee. Brontë begged us to drink it there and found a nice table on the patio. Chewing on some lemon pound cake, she pointed out the men with strange beards playing chess in the corners before saying she needed to use the bathroom. I got up to take her.
We grabbed the long key next to the coffee bar and went into the single, unisex bathroom with long open windows. Brontë crawled up onto the toilet and relaxed, her little feet dangling over the bowl.
Suddenly she froze, her eyes enormous. “WAIT,” she said, staring me hard. “Wait wait wait… Hold on: Did you PEE IN THIS VERY SAME BATHROOM on the day you met my dad?”
“Umm… I don’t remember, but maybe… I probably did.”
Brontë stared in amazement for a few moments before heaving a deep sigh.
My four-year-old daughter is currently in love with all things dark and creepy. She is all about Scooby Doo mysteries, haunted houses, and Tim Burton cartoons.
She calls them “smooky,” which I assume is a toddler variant on the word “spooky.” Maybe because spooky things seem to involve a lot of dry ice and fake smoke. I don’t know.
What I find particularly interesting about Brontë’s dark obsessions of late is how they represent such a complete turnaround from last year. She used to be terrified of sleeping with the lights out and no amount of glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars or night lights seemed to help.
And the Halloween before last was a complete bust. I’d hoped her love of dressing up and the first candy exchange would move her past all the dancing skeletons and deranged jack-o-lanterns, but it was a disaster…
She yelled in abject terror when our first neighbor opened the door and ran screaming with both arms in the air across the second neighbor’s yard, dumping her candy bowl during her mad escape attempt. Halloween was over.
But a conversation this past October unexpectedly turned everything around. It went something like this…
Me: We are going to the pumpkin farm to get ready for Halloween. Halloween is fun! You get to dress up and go trick-or-treating. People give you candy.
Brontë: I no like Halloween. It’s scary.
Me: There are scary decorations, but it’s all pretend. You get to dress up in a costume!
Brontë: I no like pumpkins. Pumpkins are really scary.
Me: Don’t be scared! We are going to go to a pumpkin farm and you can pick out whatever pumpkin you like. Then we are going to go home and carve it and make pumpkin pie, then carve a face and make a jack-o-lantern. It’s okay…
At this, Brontë froze. Her eyes grew enormous while she pondered what I had just said.
She swiveled around and looked me straight in the eye as a wide smile grew on her face.
“I NOT SCARED OF PUMPKINS!” she shouted. “My momma is gonna CUT A PUMPKIN with a KNIFE and EAT IT!”
I blinked at her and nodded.
She began walking again, muttering, “My momma CUTS pumpkins and EATS them… we gonna get a pumpkin and CUT IT!”
I followed, finding her revelation both comforting and disturbing. There was an unmistakable twinkle in her eye every time she talked about CUTTING the pumpkins… with a KNIFE.
Hmm. I suppose she had spent the first few years of her life terrified of monsters and the dark. Maybe it wasn’t so weird to find the idea of powerful knife-wielding mom somewhat comforting.
Brontë lived in a primitive realm crowded with dragons and nightmares, one that logically required a mother as protective as she was nurturing.
Because what good is a delicate mother who lets you be kidnapped by errant, maniacal gourds? Okay Brontë, we’ll slay that pumpkin together…
We went to the pumpkin farm, where Brontë took great pains to select the perfect pumpkin. She circled the field over and over until finally pointing: “This one!”
We took it home and carved it up. She demanded a “happy pumpkin,” so I made a smiley face with triangle eyes before putting a candle inside and setting the grisly trophy on the doorstep as a warning to all would-be menacing pumpkins.
Brontë followed me everywhere, watching the ritualized pumpkin dispatch. When the pumpkin pie had cooled, I served her a triangle which she bit into with deep satisfaction.
Then she was ready for Halloween.
She donned her pirate costume, grabbed her candy bucket in one hand and my hand in the other, and stood up tall. We walked out the front door with dad and baby sister trailing behind.
As she approached the first house, she squeezed my hand harder. “Say ‘trick-or-treat’ and they will give you candy,” I told her as she nodded.
We rang the bell. Brontë squeezed my fingers.
The door opened and we stood for a moment before Brontë whispered “Trick or treat.”
Our neighbor smiled before dropping some miniature Snickers into Brontë’s and her sister’s bowl. We said thank you and walked away.
Brontë’s grip loosened as she smiled triumphantly. Each house was easier. The kids’ candy bowls were overflowing by the time we returned home.
They spent the night watching spooky cartoons while eating themselves sick on chocolate. Halloween wasn’t so bad, after all. You put up pretend spooky monsters and then strangers give you free candy while talking about how adorable you are.
“Next Halloween,” Brontë told me, “I want a mean pumpkin. And a scared pumpkin.”
And the funny thing is, Brontë isn’t afraid of the dark anymore.
Or scary monsters, or haunted houses, or spooky cartoons. She no longer saw any reason to feel threatened after conquering the Grand Tournament of Official Scariness known as “Halloween.”
Brontë didn’t even mind mean pumpkins hanging around the house. Because what pumpkin in its right mind would mess with the daughter of a pumpkin-slayer?