June 28, 2018
When Will asks me for a banana, I break out into a cold sweat. Bananas are delicious and healthy and a wonderful snack for a toddler to request, but bananas also require peeling, and Will is not capable of peeling a banana himself, which means I have to do it for him. And as it turns out, there are roughly 89 different combinations of ways to peel a banana, and picking the right one is like playing Russian roulette with him. He doesn’t have the language to articulate whether he wants me to take the entire peel off, or peel it halfway down, or only peel back one piece and let him do the rest, or peel it down far enough to see if there are any bruised spots, or dance while I’m peeling it. Whatever he wants on Monday, he’s sure to want something different on Tuesday, and if I do it the “wrong” way or if — heaven forbid — the top half of the banana breaks off while I’m peeling it, Will’s displeasure makes itself swiftly and dramatically known.
What makes this even more aggravating is that he can be so darn cute while he’s asking for the banana. He points his chubby little finger, calls it a “nana,” and jumps up and down with glee while I grab it for him. But in the course of about five seconds his glee can turn to rage, and I’m left scratching my head with one hand and holding an incorrectly peeled banana with the other.
Here’s the deal. My older kids, they are the cat’s pajamas. I start to hit my stride as a parent around the time they’re preschool age, and (so far) I keep enjoying them more and more the older they get. But I’ve never been a “baby person,” and the truth is I’m not a “toddler person” either. While I love my babies and toddlers fiercely, the fact is I don’t always enjoy them.
Our home is a very happy place, but it is not an exaggeration for me to say that with a toddler around, I feel a subtle but nearly constant undercurrent of tension, wondering when my adorable little darling boy is going to suddenly explode into an enraged banana monster. And whether he’s being darling or monstrous, he is a kid who makes sure to inject himself into nearly all aspects of my day. I get ready in the morning and there’s a toddler who needs my attention. I fix breakfast and there’s a toddler who needs my attention. I drive the kids to school and there’s a toddler who needs my attention. I try to write and there’s a toddler who needs my attention. I run errands, do housework, help the older kids with homework, read to them, play games with them, fix dinner, talk to my husband…..and there’s a toddler who needs my attention.
I think maybe it’s been like this with each of my kids (at least to some degree), but with Will, this toddler season has felt particularly wearying. I don’t know if that’s because he actually is more demanding than the others (we did name him Will, after all…), or because of the way it distracts me from feeling fully present with my older kids, or because I’ve done this four times now and I’m just kinda over it. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that I love him like crazy, but there are plenty of times when I stare into his defiant, screaming face, and it’s rather hard to like him.
So a little while ago I started making a point of telling him that I like him. I say it out of the blue at breakfast, or while I’m putting his jammies on him, or when I’m buckling him into his car seat — as long as he’s not crying because I’m doing it the wrong way. When he is being cute and affectionate I tell him, or when he’s sad, or when he’s laughing. When he screams about a banana I raise my voice so he can hear me tell him that I like him. As often as possible, I say it when things are good and I say it when things are hard.
I’m not lying to myself, or to him. In saying those words, over and over again, I am deciding what the ongoing theme and reality of my relationship with him will be, instead of letting his naughtiness dictate it. For better and for worse, words have power. The more I say something, the more of a reality it becomes. If I talk about a problem all the time, that problem becomes a fixture in my life. But if I make a habit of giving voice to feelings of gratitude, or of love, or of appreciation, then those words weave their way through my thoughts, into my heart, and out into the way I behave. As long as I kept saying “that kid is annoying and he’s driving me crazy,” that was who he was to me. But as I started telling him I liked him, he became more and more of a likable person to me.
A side effect of me telling him this so often is that now he says it all the time too. It’s super cute when he randomly blurts it out, but it can also feel a little rhetorical, like he’s just saying it because I do. Case in point: a couple weeks ago I was singing him a song at bedtime, and he kept whispering “I like you, Mom,” and I’d pause and say “I like you, too” and then go back to singing, but he started getting madder and madder until finally he was practically weeping as he kept saying “I like you, Mom!” and I kept saying “I like you too, Will!” (Affectionate words angrily shouted at one another — one of the many absurdities of parenthood.) Finally I figured out that he didn’t want me to say “I like you, too.” What he wanted me to say was “I like you, Will.” Seriously. Once I said that, he nodded and let me finish the song, but by that time I don’t know that either of us actually felt like we particularly liked the other.
Things are looking up, though. Besides my own choice to consistently speak words of affection to him, he himself is showing signs of emerging out of toddler-hood and into the greener pastures of preschool-hood. He is speaking more and more clearly, which means he can articulate his feelings and questions more and more often without resorting to tantrums. (Not always — a few paragraphs up I chose to just keep writing while he cried and cried because the wrong person had turned off the television.) He is recently potty-trained, an accomplishment that seems to have instilled him with a little more maturity and self-sufficiency, not only in his personal hygiene but just generally, in life. These days, I can sometimes give him a banana, peeled in the way I see fit, and he simply says “thanks, Mom.” Not always. We’re still a far cry from “always.” But there are more and more “sometimes.”
The other night, Will came walking into our room at three in the morning and climbed into our bed. I don’t know if he’d had a bad dream, or if he just woke up and wanted to see us, but I was too tired to walk him back across the house to his room, so I let him snuggle in. He’s been getting taller and slimmer and less baby-like in most every way, but as he nestled into me, I was struck by how little he still is. He put his forehead against my cheek, and as I wrapped my arms around him, he whispered “I like you, Mom.” I squeezed him tight and said “I like you, Will,” and I meant it.
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