When I meet fellow parents and the conversation inevitably rolls around to our children after about sixty full seconds of idle chitchat, I often like to describe my parenting experience with a little joke. You know, one of terrible one liners that maybe once were charming but have now lost every ounce of originality through ruthless repetition. This one is mine:
“Nobody ever told me when I decided to get pregnant with our second child that we weren’t having the same child.”
Sometimes people giggle a little, render a polite smile or nod their heads sagely. But as parents, we share a secret understanding. There is a terrible, obvious truth to this joke. When you decide to enter into the parenting business for the second time, you do so armed with the experience and knowledge of your reality parenting your first child. You agree to get into this awful cycle of sleep deprivation and the humility of surrendering every last ounce of your patience and free time because you understand what you will receive in return. Except this is an illusion. Because you will never get to be the same parent twice.
Remember that parent who potty trained her kid in two weeks? Whose son was so well mannered, polite and sweet that other parents would invite him over simply in the hopes he might rub off on their offspring? The parent who took her easy going three year old to Europe for three weeks riding the rails, carting him around to the Louvre, a cable car on a mountainside in Switzerland and on a night train to Rome? Well, that parent is dead. My daughter killed her.
My daughter is a difficult child. When we get invited to attend functions or meet up with friends, I began the mental arithmetic of adding up how painful she will be to deal with versus the appeal of escaping our daily pathos. She is currently on the far side of toddlerhood and certainly this complicates the situation. But in truth, she was a difficult baby, too. This is who she is. She is intensely stubborn, fiercely independent and extremely emotional. And innately aggressive. There are some ways in which she and her brother are the same. They are both highly intelligent and articulate children. Otherwise, he is the sun to her moon, the light to her dark, the cheerful ambassador to her taciturn aloofness.
I expect that I appreciate her personality not only for the challenge it presents but because I identify with it deeply. I recognize myself in her reluctance to trust others, her need for control and fear of vulnerability. She is a burning ball of intensity and strength, fearless in her confidence. My daughter will shout the house down before she gives you the satisfaction of compliance. The simplest request (“Could you pick up your shoes, please?”) is met with a cackling laugh as she sprints in the opposite direction, yelling “No, never!” While this relentless combat is exhausting, my inner feminist dances with glee. My daughter will never doubt herself unless she is taught to, will never give an inch without making you earn it. Don’t misunderstand — I don’t encourage violence or rudeness. But when the neighbor asks her for a hug and she firmly says no and comes and stands by my side, I rejoice. I never had to teach her her body was her own. I simply never undermined her assertiveness.
Of course, all this difficulty comes with its own reward. While she holds back her affection and enthusiasm from the world, she gives it wholeheartedly to the few she trusts. Most of the time, though I am the object of her resistance, I am also the sole receiver of her unwavering adoration. She trusts me implicitly. The intensity and depth of our relationship is something I hope we can hold onto in the coming years, despite interference from hormones and the outside world.
A few weeks ago, my daughter was having a typical temper tantrum about something that I’ve long since forgotten about. She had escalated fairly quickly from low grade fussing and whining to full out crying, kicking feet and flailing fists. I deposited her on her bed and told her she would need to calm down before she could come out of her room. As I turned to leave, she rushed up to me, swinging her fists within an inch of my face and screaming herself hoarse. Some parents would have restrained her, tried to force her compliance to a time out. It would be the wrong way to handle my daughter. She’d simply continue to escalate, feeding on the intensity of the reaction. Some parents might ignore her and close the door. This would infuriate her and she’d likely turn violent, pounding on the door and throwing herself on the carpet. In that moment, with her anger unleashed, I recognized something important in her eyes. She was afraid. She had lost control and the intensity of her emotions terrified her. She needed me. If I tried to force her to calm down, she might eventually do so, but I would have taught her that what she was feeling was unacceptable and should be smothered. Walking out the door would communicate that what she was feeling wasn’t something she could share with me.
So I simply dropped to the floor and opened my arms. I didn’t say a word. She fell into them with a sob and almost immediately, I saw the tension begin to uncoil in her body. All that passion is a gift I don’t ever want her to feel ashamed of. She has to learn to manage it, to funnel it into ways that will allow that energy to create something beautiful instead of something monstrous. It’s a challenge we’ll both have to work at. I have a difficult daughter. Thank God. I wouldn’t want it any other way.