As I sit and write on a sunny Friday afternoon in Minnesota, I watch my adventurous, strong-willed, independent girls splash in the lake outside, practicing swimming and playing with sand. It’s a joyful kind of peace that children engaged in a healthy activity brings. Watching them play, needing minimal assistance from me, feels somewhat like the Mecca I’ve been searching for these last years of mothering two. But after a time something always happens to break the peace, to disrupt the quiet harmony of playing together; some poor decision or other eventually draws me into a battle of wills and negotiations with my five and a half year old.
I’ve come to an important realization this week. I have been operating for a long time under the mistaken impression that my children speak the same language I do. I just assumed that speaking English to them their whole lives would mean they would be children who spoke the same kind of English. But I have come to realize that the root of most of our disagreements, mutual frustrations and arguments stem from the underlying problem that the words coming out of my mouth are actually incomprehensible to my offspring.
I should have figured this out sooner. I should have interpreted the myriad blank stares on my daughters' faces as simply a lack of comprehension instead of my first assumption that they were actually ignoring me when I asked them to: get their shoes/ take off their wet clothes/ leave their muddy rain boots at the door/ wash their hands/ let go of their sisters’ hair/ take that toy out of their underwear, or countless other seemingly simple, one step commands that have, as of late seemed insurmountable to my children.
It’s a relief to know that this whole big struggle is nothing more than a lack of ability to comprehend each others language and not, as I for so long worried, an inability on my part to persuade my children to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Thank Goodness!
Of course as a practical matter, this communication gap still creates a lot of difficulty in functioning as a family, keeping the house clean, getting everyone fed, washed, to bed on time or out the door on time or really anything on time, and even keeping my daughters from hurting each other. Virtually no task is easily attained under the circumstances.
“Choose two books and climb into bed,” I implore each night knowing that when I come back from filling my water glass, my daughters will be squirting lotion onto their hands in my bathroom, brushing their teeth with eye cream or bending over the side of our tub, gargling with faucet water. Their jammies will most certainly no longer be dry and their teeth may well need brushing again. For a while this really bothered me. I explored many “natural consequences” for these choices like taking books away at bed time, taking away “treats” for the next day. Of course losing treats in the future is an abstract concept that means little to my children since I rarely allow them to have treats even when they are behaving and taking stories away ends up being a punishment for Ryan and me because bedtime gets even more drawn out when trying to settle the kids down without the benefit of reading stories. I finally concluded that there isn’t a natural consequence to ignoring your mother.
So you can imagine my relief to discover that not going into the bedroom and choosing stories was not so much disobedience as simple lack of understanding. I made the mistake of giving instructions in my native tongue, English when apparently my children speak an unknown language that is completely foreign to me. The question is, how do I live with children who I can’t communicate with?
Of course the flipside of having independent children who speak their own language, dance to their own music, and have their own ideas is that I have been granted unusually large amounts of free time this summer. Every time I turn around, Twila and Jada are poking holes in an old shoe box and searching for worms to fill their worm house, or carrying small gardening shovels into the woods to dig for treasure, or rehearsing for their “water show” (I don’t know what this is because it hasn’t opened yet—the rehearsal process has been extensive) or hopping on their scooters and racing down the driveway, or climbing trees or collecting bugs or racing frogs. I open the kitchen door a half dozen times a day to wet, muddy, scraped up girls, and for that moment as I look at their torn up clothes and the joy on their faces and the sparkle in their eyes as they hold up the latest creature they’ve found to rehabilitate, I could not be more proud.
But, then I ask them to leave the frog outside and I get blank stares and confused looks as they step passed me into the house, muddy shoes on feet and wet clothes dripping on the floor.
“Leave your shoes at the door!” I say, “Pull your clothes off before you go in,” “Get that frog OUTSIDE!” I shout at the top of my lungs before any response is elicited from either of them.
It’s a ‘chicken and egg’ question that maybe every mother asks, “Is it because I shout too much that they only respond to shouting, or do I shout because it’s the only way to get them to listen?”
This afternoon the shouting started when, after hours of peaceful and cooperative play in the shallows of the lake, Twila scooped up a big pile of wet sand from the lake and piled it on top of Jada’s head. I calmly stepped out on the deck.
“Twila, please help Jada wash that sand off her head, it will hurt if it gets in her eyes.”
Pause. “How do you know?”
She floats a little further away from Jada.
My blood starts a slow simmering boil. “Twila, please wash the sand out of Jada’s hair.”
Twila moves in closer and begins wiping sand off the top of Jada’s head.
But why does it take a shout? Why does she hold out for it each time? Does she like when I shout? I’ve often wondered aloud. She says she does not. Yet it seems she always waits to see if what she’s doing (or not doing) is angering me enough to earn a shout, a stomp, a firm hand on the arm.
Why does she wait? If only we spoke the same language, I could ask her. If only we followed the same cultural customs, I might understand these strange beings called children.
Sometimes it seems their very enthusiasm gets them into trouble they simply and innocently don’t see coming. This almost six year old age is amazing with its insights, curiosities, adventurousness, reasoning. Twila is literally never still except for the ten hours a night that she sleeps like she is in a coma.
She dances through the kitchen, kicks her legs up to see if she can reach across the expanse from one counter to the other, hangs from the refrigerator handles, attempts to scale its side. She summersaults down the Minneapolis skyway, hangs from anything she can get a grip on.
As much as she’s grown physically, she’s grown even more mentally. She is reading and writing, asking thoughtful questions and explaining her spiritual ideas to Jada who listens with rapt attention. But then out of nowhere her energy and non-stop chattering causes injury, mess, frustration and strife. I don’t think she sees it coming anymore than I do.
As we pulled into a gas station yesterday for an emergency potty break for Jada, I asked Twila to hurry. The caveat to the fact that she seems never to stop moving is when I actually ask her to move. Then she seems suddenly inert, unable to get to the spot I need her to be at. It’s as if she is moving through very deep sand or water or is in an anti-gravity chamber.
She slowly stepped through the piles of toys and snacks and clothes that had accumulated in my car in the thirty six hours since I’d last cleaned it out. She paused to look at a book, to pick up a baby doll.
“Twila, GET OUT OF THE CAR! JADA NEEDS TO GO TO THE—”
Right then she leaped out of the car landing all fifty pounds of solid six year old weight directly on the plastic buckle of my sandal that, because I never tighten them, was turned sideways.
This concentrated point of hard plastic hammered with the force of her body weight into the bones of the top of my foot.
I screamed, and lifted her off my foot by the soft under part of her arm. Now she was badly hurt too. I didn’t have time to process what part of her I was grabbing. The blinding pain in my foot made me momentarily illogical.
I was hurt, she was hurt; I was frustrated, she was scared.
It wasn’t that she was trying to do anything wrong, she just didn’t think. There is so much action coursing through her body and brain these days that there seems no room for forethought. Indeed it seems an incredible act of willpower for her to take responsibility for her words and actions these days. She is a ball of moving, talking, reacting, testing, pushing, arguing, questioning energy. I find myself exhausted from the effort of keeping up with being her sounding board, trying to temper her desires with request after request to think first, to slow down, to make better and kinder choices. I repeat rules over and over until I’m sick to death of my own voice:
“Use your kind words”
“Don’t be like the rooster who pecked at all the chickens and had to be separated from them” (Waldorf language).
“Make it right.”
“Think of how you’d feel…”
“Don’t push me until I SHOUT!”
Many things have gotten better and easier this year. And new challenges arise. I have a suspicion that this is the ebb and flow of raising children that will carry us through their adulthood. In motherhood, as in life we have to take the good with the bad because next week we’ll trade our bad for a new good and lose the good we didn’t even know we had and gain another challenge in its place.
The nearest I’ve come to understand mothering is that its best when we take it slow and try to understand our children as we continue striving to understand ourselves as parents. In this slow and humble way we might someday come to understand each other.