Unfortunately, these have become two words to describe what I see in my five-year-olds more often than I’d like to.
It never fails that they are petty and unhappy when I pick them up at the end of each day, no matter how strongly I commit to cheerfully arriving at daycare with hugs and unconditional positive regard for them. This afternoon I spent my last $20 on everything I’d need to make their dinner. I need gas and I’d like a cup of coffee I don’t have to make myself in the morning, but I wanted more than either of those for them to have a meal they enjoyed and for us to have an opportunity to sit around the table as a family and reconvene.
Family dinners, with engaged conversation, are a priority for me, with them. There are no phones. The television is off. We ask each other about our days – our pits and our peaks – and we talk and laugh and eat and bond.
In my head, that’s what happens. Usually, it’s just an extended, concentrated exercise in hostage negotiation on my part and a chance for them to push another boundary. Even when it’s a meal they like we’ve gotten to where I have to haggle on a certain number of bites they have to eat and they seem to think that dessert after dinner and snacks before bed are just automatic. And it’s my fault. I know it is but God the cellular-level weariness of life and the emotional bankruptcy of raising fierce twin girls alone leaves me just dead in the water more often than not these days. There’s only so much one person can take before she has no choice but just to give in.
Picking your battles, I hear it called.
I have to demand even the slightest amount if respect, and not just from them but from everyone involved in our lives it seems at times.
Tonight, Juniper threw an entire soft shell taco onto my very carpeted dining room floor because her plate was dirty between taco one and taco two and I refused to get out a new plate for her to dirty just because. Of course she was given a time out. Removed from the table. The whole nine. Consistent consistent consistent.
And it consistently doesn’t seem to matter, she’s still hitting her sister and screaming at me and then going to school and being perfect.
There are no words for the feeling of failure that comes with a child who can be the cream of the crop outside your door and the absolute Dickens for you when you’re at home, abjectly alone. “It’s a good sign,” the experts say. “It means she knows that she’s loved unconditionally.”
Great. I’m doing such a good job at parenting a securely attached child that she’s throwing taco meat on my floor because there’s one spot of grease on her plate.
I’m so encouraged.
They are mean and spiteful to each other, and to me. And I’m not perfect, by far. But I feel like the more effort I put into trying to de-escalate and model calm problem solving to them the more demanding, entitled, and defiant they’re becoming.
Until I finally lose my patience and holler.
It doesn’t help that they’re both brilliant. One had the highest DIBELS score in her kindergarten class at the initial assessment, about four or five weeks in. Ninety-five percent, if memory serves . The other is every bit as bright, but almost exclusively internally motivated. How do you shape behavior when the child doesn’t care that she’s sitting in a cold wet pair of pants that she peed in an hour ago and never told you because she didn’t want to stop lining up her plastic zebras with meticulous precision.
But she was negative on an ADOS, so just relax, mom. She’s not on the spectrum. She just sits in the floor of Applebee’s screaming nonverbal nonsense because, you find out 45 minutes later, when you’re making her a cheese sandwich in your own kitchen because you spent six dollars on two juiceboxes you didn’t even get to finish before you left the restaurant ashamed and red faced, that it was because her sister got a blue crayon but she only got green and orange.
It’s really difficult to be two different parents at the exact same time to kids who seem to have developed a set of neural pathways – manifested by habitual behavior – that is oppositional, argumentative, and persisetently negative.
It’s even harder to recognize that you eventually begin, as an exhausted and overstimulated mom who’s spread entirely too thin, to reinforce it.
I try to be easy on myself but my default is on the side of perfectionism. Because I know behaviorism and development, I am engaged in both moment to moment strategic decision making and evaluating my decision making moment to moment, simultaneously.
Metacognition, thinking about one’s thinking, is a curse, not to mention a wicked bad habit.
I’m so tired by the time we’re all finally sorted into our own rooms, but I also feel like a cat clinging to the ceiling and puffed out in a stress reaction. I feel like my autonomic nervous system is perpetually on. Part of it is just the traumatic events of the semi-recent past remaining unprocessed. Part of it is the fact that I live a stressful life and it’s hard to de-escalate when every morning comes so soon after the night before, and it comes in the defiant shrieks of independence from two strong willed nasty women in training, who roar to life every morning renewed in a way I don’t think I’ll ever be again, no matter how much sleep I get.
It’s so hard, being the one who bathes and dresses and feeds and tucks in and cleans up after and helps with homework and buys from the fundraisers and sells plasma to afford Christmas gifts, and loves unconditionally, so much it physically aches, and, most importantly, the one who parents entirely alone, but the one who is shouted at and defied and tested and fought and worn down with relentless intensity and almost never a break or a moment of empathy or even sympathy.
I’m not the one who gets to play parent. I’m not the one who gets to take my daughters for the occasional junk food dinner. I’m not the one who gets to play games and then walk away. I’m the one who has to do all of the dirty work, on a third of the paycheck, with three times the bills, and none of the down time. And I’m the one who gets the fighting and the spitting and the scratching and the biting and the ferocity. I’m the one who gets the worry. I’m the one who gets the exhaustion. I’m the one who gets the hard decisions and the hard work. And because I’m the one who parents, I’m the one who gets the resistance and the clapback and the hard-headed obstinance.
And I’m the one who gets the judgement. If they grow up and break bad, I’m the one with all the responsibility. I’m the one with the ‘splainin to do if they grow up to need therapy. I’m the one. I’m the only one and there is no one there at the end of the day to reassure me. Most days, I never have to answer the question “how was your day.” I don’t remember the last time someone asked me that question.
And it’s okay. Really, deep down, I know that it is worlds better to be entirely alone on this Earth than to have the wrong person asking “how was your day” and not actually giving a shit what the answer is. It’s better to be alone than to have just another transactional, conditional relationship to have to nurture. But at times it just feels so unfair.
No one is entitled to the comfort of having someone to lean into. The feeling that I’m being shorted on something I’m due is foolish and inaccurate. But sometimes it’s hard not to resent a world in which every single human being isn’t entitled to a half second of unconditional fondness a day.
It’s so morose, I know. It’s fucking just whiny and indulgent and emo and stupid. But it’s honest. It’s an honest revelation, which is all, at the end of endless days and long, protracted evenings like this one, that I have to give.
Even to myself.
Honesty. Even when it’s ugly.