I can still remember the way she looked on my chest. Wet from the womb, her eyes wild and her chin, strong and angular, jutted out at me as if in an immediate assertion of dominance. She’s always been strong. Strong minded, strong willed. So strong, in fact, that she left a large, deep bruise on my left breast after a faulty first latch, such a painful encounter was our first as mother and daughter. “Good luck feeding that barracuda,” the nurse joked. How right she was. I gave up nursing after three weeks. Cracked nipples and scorching thrush meant that each feeding session was excruciating. I’ve always felt guilty about giving up on her, and perhaps I carry that guilt with me today.
Fast forward almost four years, and my encounters with my daughter are still sometimes painful. And while she no longer (usually) leaves physical bruises with her mouth, the emotional ones hurt just as bad. But I don’t blame her. She’s young, so young, but yet her vocabulary, imagination and ability to remember events and details from as young as 18 months old boggle my mind. My mother’s instinct tells me she’s not typical. She’s normal, yes, but not typical. Sure, she throws fits just like any other preschooler, until she throws fits unlike any other preschooler.
Like tonight. While these episodes occur less frequently now, they’re still jarring and leave me emotionally broken afterwards. So what set it off this time? Candyland. Dora Candyland to be exact. We’d played one pleasant game, and it was time to pack it up and get ready for bed. Only, bedtime wasn’t in my daughter’s plans. “Please, mommy, one more? Pleeeeeease?” I denied her several times, until I let my part-time working mommy guilt get a hold of me, and I gave in. After all, what would one more game hurt? Aren’t we supposed to “enjoy” our children and live in the moment? It would take ten minutes, tops.
I stacked the cards up, and suggested we play a “speed” version. “You go first,” I offered. But her reaction wasn’t appreciative. “No, mommy! You can’t stack them! You have to lay them out!” Oh, no. The OCD Monster was kicking in. This was the first sign. “Honey, mommy is letting you play one more game, so let’s not worry about how the cards are stacked, okay?” But I knew this wouldn’t work. Once she starts getting into her mode, there’s really no stopping her. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say I eventually had to end up restraining her and forcibly brushing her teeth. Something I’m not proud of, but going to bed with unclean teeth is not an option when you’ve just been hit with a $3,000 dental bill for crowns.
It was awful. Her emotional breakdowns are painful to witness, both for my heart and body. While it’s gotten better, she still resorts to lashing out in any way possible. She’s mad, mad, mad! Crazy mad. At its peak six months to a year ago, my husband and I not-so-joked that we needed to call an exorcist. It wasn’t funny. But tonight, I decided I had to take a different approach with my daughter. After all, I can relate to this child. I know what’s she’s going through, because I’ve been there. I can remember flailing on our pink living-room carpet as a child, unwilling to be calmed down. I wanted, as I called it, “to go psycho” for awhile.
And here she is, my sweet green-eyed, blonde-haired daughter, who looks and acts, just like me. Her imagination runs rampant, and her need for control dominates her desire to behave. Control. This is really at the heart of the matter. “I don’t want you mommy! I hate you! I want you to run away forever! I don’t like you!” These verbal barbs aren’t uncommon, but they sting just as bad each time. “Sweetie, I want to help you. I’m your mommy and I love you and I’m not going anywhere. I am staying with you until I find out what’s really going on here.”
After several more rounds of kicking, screaming, her tiny fists pounding on my willing back (anything to help her get the demons out and stop scratching at her own body), I find a break in the maelstrom, and finally ask her, “Is this all about control? Do you feel frustrated because you’re still little, but you’re smart enough to feel like you can control the situation?”
Instantly, eerily, her sobbing stopped. “Yes. I just want to be in charge.”
And there it was. My daughter, not even four, was finally able to verbalize why she gets so bent out of shape, so broken. She feels a lack of control in her tiny little world. I felt relieved. It was good to talk to my daughter. To finally be working toward a solution. But then I worried. Is this normal? “Do you trust mommy and daddy? Do you know we love you and always want to do what’s best for you?” Her head shook up and down. Good. At least she knows.
We finally came to the sweet place post tantrum where she returned to the little girl I not only love, but like. We hugged, and kissed, and apologized to each other. Her, for disrespecting her mother, and me, for not always understanding and throwing my own tantrums when I can’t “control” her behavior. I don’t want to my daughter’s adversary, I want to be her advocate. Her constant source of love and support, no matter what. It’s not easy, though. I worry about what happens down the road, when a heated debate turns into not an unwillingness to brush her teeth, but an unwillingness to come home at curfew. She and I are so much alike, and this is what drives us apart sometimes. She reserves her least appealing behavior for me, but perhaps I should be honored. I am her safe place to lose control.
Lord, forgive me for not being the mother I should be. Help me to show your love and light, even when I don’t feel like it. Give me the tools and resources to navigate my strong-willed child through this rocky landscape, and eventually, to hand her the reigns on her own life. Help me to trust her, and trust myself. Help me to see her as you do, and use my own struggles as a child to better relate to her challenges and needs. Help me to know when to put my foot down, and when to simply open up my arms. Amen.