J. M. Jones
I. WHERE WE’RE AT
That moment you let a two year old bring you to her level. My voice becomes a growl. What did I just say! Thunderous. Even though I know she’s testing me, I lose my cool. A minute ago, I’d resolved not to raise my voice. Now look at me. What makes this warranted? She’s playing with her dresser drawers. Tossing them open. Slamming them shut. Tossing them open, slamming them shut. I envision her crushing her fingers, tell her to stop. But she won’t. Slide and slam!
I have to leave the room a moment. I hear my wife coming upstairs. “That’s it!” she calls. “No bath, no stories! Straight to bed!” Before she reaches the landing, I return. My daughter’s tearful, sitting on the floor. Over and over, she mutters, “I hate the baby. I wish he wasn’t here. I hate the baby. I wish he wasn’t here.”
The Rules and Regulations
Cut to a week before. My wife and I are on the way to the hospital so she can give birth to our second child. We’ve left our daughter with my parents and feel confident that, although this deviates from her routine, she’s adaptable. We have to maintain focus on the newborn, but we’re hoping it won’t be too difficult for our daughter.
Things I learned about having a newborn with our daughter:
1. During the first six months, because my wife breastfed, I, as the father, was ineffectual as the child’s primary caregiver. It didn’t matter how much I intended to be involved. I don’t have lactating breasts. And since a baby eats every two hours, this responsibility fell to my wife.
2. In assuming the role of secondary caregiver, there were plenty of functions I could perform. Most of these involved the upkeep of our home, the assumption of chores we’d once split 50/50. Do laundry. Change diapers. Cook meals, preferably in bulk. Stock the freezer with leftovers so she has lunches when I go back to work and she’s home on leave.
The second time around, I had this down. The first time, my wife and I had arguments before I acclimated, but soon after we brought our son home, I realized I had to assume a responsibility I hadn’t the first time:
3. Distract the older child when she becomes overzealous and threatens to interfere with the infant’s feeding or puts him in physical danger.
There is, of course, a gentler way to phrase this. One might say my job was to make our daughter feel important, ensure she’s getting the attention she needs, show her what she can do. What it boils down to is the same thing. We’d done the prep work. We weren’t unaware that our daughter might have an adverse reaction to the baby. We read her children’s books about the exciting responsibility of becoming a big sister. We showed her episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood where Daniel Tiger struggles with his baby sister’s homecoming. At daycare, they discussed it in class, since there were a few other children with siblings on the way. But nothing prepared us for the storm of rebellion she was about to unleash on us.
II. How We Got Where We’re At
I had, in fact, gone upstairs to sit with my daughter before the incident described. It started with my daughter sitting in a soiled diaper. This is a point of contention within our house: that we’ve been unsuccessful potty training even though our daughter’s almost three. What makes it worse is that she doesn’t tell us she’s gone, and my daughter’s tendency to sit in soiled pants has led to severe bouts of diaper rash.
“Are you a baby?” I heard my wife chastise. “Do I have to treat you like a baby? Little baby’s poop their pants! Do I have to start taking toys away?”
I was of two minds about this. On one hand, I shared my wife’s frustration. It was all the more galling with a baby in the house. To wipe feces off a helpless infant is understandable. To deal with this in a person who can talk back and easily make it to the potty is irritating. On the other, my wife had asked me not to speak to our daughter this way: “I don’t think threats are going to work. I think it takes time. Sooner or later something will click.”
As I listened, I was sitting on the sofa, holding our son.
“You can sit in your room and think about it,” my wife said. She was frustrated, and I understood. The lack of sleep was affecting her. I was getting more sleep, but I was also more involved in taking care of our daughter, and this had its commensurate frustrations. My wife came downstairs.
“You’re not supporting his neck,” she said. “Sure,” I said. “I never do anything right.” “Do you really want to do this now?”
I didn’t. It wasn’t worth an argument. So I went upstairs to sit in our daughter’s room and make sure she didn’t hurt herself during her timeout.
In Theory/In Practice
People have ideas about how they’d like to raise their children before they have them. Then they have them and struggle because their ideals are never consistent with the reality of a child.
It goes: theory » practical reality » theory » practical reality. Back and forth like that. Theory doesn’t account for a child’s inherent irrationality.
I think my idea of having children was always predicated on having older children. Children I could explain things to. Children who could see the sense in whatever lessons I tried to impart. In my dreams, I’m a father with sage wisdom. In reality, I’m a father with a daughter who zones out and gets a glazed look in her eye whenever I say something she doesn’t want to hear.
My mother says, “I don’t think you should send her to bed without stories. If she’s feeling isolated, it will only make her feel worse.”
Our daughter is my mother’s darling. My mother is being sympathetic to her cause and backseat parenting. After hours of defiance, of telling my daughter to stop poking her brother while he’s sleeping, of telling her to stop sitting in his car seat because it’s too small and she might break it, I’m less inclined to adopt this viewpoint.
“Or it shows her actions have consequences,” I say.
It’s the next morning, and I can’t explain how things escalated so quickly in a way that sounds reasonable. It’s likely we overreacted. But I stand by our decision. I’m being irrational. My mother’s advice is sound, and I should give it credence. But all too often backseat parents only remember theory and not practice. In similar circumstances, I’m certain my mother would have acted as we did.
III. The Train Incident
My daughter’s two, the purported terrible age. But until now, I haven’t found her all that badly behaved. She throws tantrums, mostly when we don’t understand what she’s asking. But my wife and I calm her down by asking her to use her words and explain what she wants.
“The twos are only bad if your kid doesn’t know how to talk,” a friend tells me. “The fits are usually because they can’t communicate.”
My daughter’s sweet, but headstrong. I don’t want to discourage her from knowing what she wants. After all, her mother’s an independent, headstrong woman as well. But I also need my daughter to listen and follow instructions (“Hold my hand when we’re in the parking lot, cars can’t see you”) without having a complete emotional breakdown. The question I pose all too often is how to balance this. Now that she’s not the center of attention, she’s not listening and this places me in a bind.
My first taste of this was when we took the train to pick up her mother and the baby. My wife delivered in a city hospital and we live in the suburbs. I had left our car in the hospital lot and took the train back and forth during my wife’s recovery. I believed this would simplify matters. I’d be home for our daughter in the evenings after daycare. In the morning, I’d take the train back to town to be with my wife and son. When it came time to bring them home, we’d take the train, and she loves trains. All the while, I’d avoid rush hour traffic. It seemed a solid notion in theory but didn’t work as well in practice.
First, my daughter wanted to stand and look out the window. The looking part was fine, but standing wasn’t.
“If you can’t sit, you can’t look out the window…”
I must have said it twelve times before she started to lick them too. “Please stop licking the windows…”
To catch the train and bring her required juggling a number of items: her stroller, diaper bag, milk cup, and stuffed animal. In the seat, I balanced her stroller between my knees. I kept her milk cup in one hand, the diaper bag slung across my shoulder, and with the other, I struggled to keep her contained. All this added a fundamental level of stress to our trip that wasn’t helped by the fact that the schedule online didn’t match the one posted at the stop, and the train we boarded didn’t go all the way to the hospital.
I thought of all the hands that touched those windows during the day, all the greasy sleeping heads resting against them. The last thing we needed at home was a sick two year old. I saw a slick trail of saliva spread across the Plexiglas.
“If you put your mouth on the window one more time, I’m going to make you sit on the other side of me.”
“No!” she shouted.
“Then don’t lick the windows.”
From the outside, it was farcical. Inside, it was anything but. When she did it again, I removed her from the window seat and sat her on the other side of me. She let loose an uninhibited howl that probably seemed louder to me than anyone else, not for proximity but for emotional heft.
“I want to sit there!” she wailed.
I looked around. It shouldn’t have mattered. I should have kept my focus on calming her, but I could sense the other passengers’ exasperation. The looks. I was that guy whose kid was throwing a fit in public.
“You weren’t listening,” I tried. “If you listened, I wouldn’t have had to move you.”
But the crying continued.
“I need you to stop. I need you to act like a big girl.”
But that didn’t work.
“I’ll take away your toys if you can’t stop. Your stuffed animals.”
Was I supposed to let her go and hope she tired herself out?
I couldn’t think straight. The best thing to when she got like this had always been take a step back, walk away. But there was nowhere to go. I could feel the anger welling up, and before I knew it, I spat: “I’m going to smack your little face!”
I didn’t do it, of course. I never would. At once, I felt ashamed of myself. I was the worst father ever. I’d hissed it under my breath, but the train wasn’t crowded and I wondered if anyone heard. Would Sophia tell her mother? I don’t believe in corporal punishment, and yet these words had issued from my lips, and I couldn’t deny they’d come because it was what I’d felt like doing then. I’d become so flustered I’d given voice to my baser thoughts. I clutched her close and held her and whispered: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’d never do that to you. Daddy would never do that. Never.”
The Measure of a Man
Complete strangers often pass judgment when they witness a scene like the one on the train. And they’re not always wrong. As parents, we sometimes fail. The most difficult thing about parenting is that there are few obviously correct choices. But observers often fail to cut parents slack based on context, especially observers who haven’t parented before. All they see is the breaking point, not what led to it. I’m not saying circumstance gives me a pass for what I did. But I’m not the tyrant a brief glimpse of that moment would make me seem.
What others except of me matters. I can’t pretend it doesn’t. I spend a great deal of time thinking about my performance as a father. But I expect a lot more of myself than anyone else does, and this is why I felt so ashamed. My success isn’t based solely on whether I participate, take my daughter to the park, buy her ice cream. It’s also based on how I handle the times when my daughter needs a firmer hand, when she requires understanding, guidance.
In moments like the one on the train, I can’t help wondering, Is screwing up like this going to screw her up? Will moments like these stay with her? How badly do I have to screw up to do real damage? Because when I fail, I try to regroup, reset. And I hope in trying again that we’ll raise her to be a good person. My wife agrees, and we discuss it now that our daughter is acting out.
“We need to remind each other to have patience,” my wife says. “I’ll remind you, you remind me. If we see each other slipping, we’ll just say something.”
IV. A Resolution for Now
It gets tiring to feel like you’re saying “no” all the time. So we try to pick our battles, stop her when it looks like she might hurt herself or her brother or break something. We let other things go—eating dirt, say.
On picking her nose, we’re divided. My wife asks her to stop. I don’t. Firmness, discipline, they’re sometimes required. We’re trying not to let her turn us into two year olds ourselves. And sometimes we’re short-tempered with each other but we let that go too.
Earlier this evening, we were settling in for the pre-bedtime winding down. My wife was at one end of the sofa nursing our son, I at the other with our daughter who’d asked me to read stories.
“Can you read me stories?”
“Yes,” I said.
Saying yes felt good.
She picked a book about musical instruments. Each page has a description of an instrument and a button to press to hear what it sounds like. When we reached the violin, my daughter got up and started to dance around the living room.
“Press it again,” she said. And I did.
“Clap for me,” she said. And my wife and I clapped. We could see our daughter’s attitude change as she got attention. And she was getting attention for something good. I pressed the button again and she danced.
“Dance with me, daddy,” she said. I got up and started to mimic the ballerina moves she’d learned from a cartoon. My wife kept pressing the button, and we kept dancing.
I’m going to fail again. This problem won’t be solved with one impromptu dance recital. I’m not sure it’s meant to be solved. But I needed this and so did my daughter. This, too, was a moment when a two year old brought me to her level. But I didn’t mind.
“You were good with her tonight,” my wife said. The most I can do is put failure behind me, string together a series of moments when I focus on my daughter. It feels good, I remind myself, to do more than show up. It feels good to get something right.
J. M. JONES works as a writer and editor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His essays and fiction have appeared previously in Passages North, The Southeast Review, The Portland Review, Barrelhouse, and The Normal School.