Two year old’s shouldn’t be this pensive. But Edie didn’t get that message.
After posting about Edie’s troubles at school, I reviewed what I’d said and I think the day’s frustrations obfuscated the heart of the matter; it’s not as if I am anguished over her not napping – if she could not nap and be ok, I’d be peachy keen. School, as such, isn’t the issue. Edie loves school. Her lack of sleep, however, is hurting her ability to be a kid who can be at school. And her lack of sleep is caused, I believe, by a deep-seated insecurity about the world; a constant sense of disquiet which – while always lurking under the surface – has now reached a full boil since her brother was born. I have felt for sometime that when Edie acts out when I need to take care of her brother, she is experiencing not jealousy or anger, but sincere grief. But though my heart breaks for her, I am in the middle of so very much that my cup is not always full enough to be there for her during her bouts of (loud & raging) sorrow. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that at this time, I need her in school because of the way she acts at home, but the way she acts at home is caused by the same inner-turmoil that is preventing her from being at school…. and round and round we go.
I am currently reading Raising Your Spirited Child in my never-ending, though frequently faltering, attempt to be the parent I want to be. This book doesn’t purport to be for everyone, but instead for those of us with so-called Spirited Children. Before I had Edie, I would have most likely judged this book to be a self-fulfilling prophesy for ineffective, neurotic parents. I don’t feel that way now.
The Spirited Child, so the story goes, is a child who is more intense, more sensitive and alert, and just more, more, more. There are several characteristics of these children, all of which Edie meets, some to staggering degrees. And the greatest of these: difficulty with transitions. Transitions being changes; any variance from what was or the status quo. Check plus for that one.
Edie and Changes: A Case Study
From birth, Edie did not like anything outside of her comfort zone. She could fall asleep no where but in her own house, under controlled conditions. Her pediatrician warned me when she was just a few weeks old that my baby was not good at “shutting off.” That she seemed unable to turn away from stimulation and relax, instead compelled to follow everything around her with all of her senses, quickly becoming overwhelmed and overwrought. It took me sometime to figure this out about her, and so I expected her to do what other tiny infants did. For example, when she was tired, wouldn’t she just fall asleep? The answer, I would find, was no. And I soon had a two month old baby who was awake for hours and hours at a time, with bags under her eyes, and hours-long screaming fits each day. She rarely smiled or laughed, and instead just seemed exhausted with existence. Breast feeding was one of the few places in which she found comfort, and I am so glad for it. As my midwife pointed out, when a baby is nursing, she knows she has nourishment, warmth, and her mother all right there. So it’s the best place to be. Indeed, for Edie, I believe it was essential to her thriving.
We figured out the sleep stuff, though it meant a lot more of training me than training her. I truly stayed home for months on end, leaving for dog walks and essential grocery trips, all with Edie in tow, and all with her in a baby carrier able to nurse at will, or at least have her meltdowns against my chest. We did not eat out, we did not play with friends, but she became rested, I became attuned to her schedule and helped her to sleep. Will and I did attempt to get Edie used to her dad putting her to sleep, mostly because I was going to have to leave on a trip by myself for 5 days when she was six months old. That trip, one I am still glad I took as it was for my little sister’s wedding, was nevertheless totally heart breaking. Each time we had Will put her to sleep, I would leave the house to avoid any confusion, and he would painstakingly recreate the bedtime experience. And each time, when I would return, the experience was so catastrophic that my husband could not speak to me about it until the next day. It went like this: Edie would have her wind down with daddy, get her pajamas put on in her dim room, take her warm bottle of breastmilk, begin to fall asleep while he rocked her, and then as if a ghost were shaking her awake from the great beyond, Edie would lose it. She would wail in his arms, choking on tears, spitting up her milk, and continue in this manner until she literally passed out from exhaustion, usually an hour and a half later. Edie was capable of this at four months of age, and her sweet father continued this tortuous exercise once a week for two months in our sincere attempt to get her used to him before my trip. No progress was ever made, and once the trip was over, I put Edie to sleep for every nap and every night of her life until past her second birthday. Do you guys ever get a sitter so you can go out an enjoy Munich? well-meaning friends would ask. No. We do not.
Fast-forward to nap consolidation, and Edie and I did enjoy ourselves in Munich. We made friends, played in every park and playground, dined in many restaurants, and just made sure we were always. home. for. sleep. Challenging, but doable, and we did it. As she got older, we noticed her sensitivity to change in other ways. At a year old, she had a line up of stuffed animals in her bed memorized, and you’d better get it together if you wanted her to sleep. Edie was fiercely attached to a particular blanket (so we bought three more of them). When I rotated her crib 90 degrees to improve the flow of the room when she was about a year old (I am clearly a glutton for punishment), she was inconsolable for a day. As the time approached for our move, we decided to shield Edie from the chaos as much as possible. She was eighteen months old when we moved. So for the weeks leading up, as we sold items, and packed up this and that, we confined the mess to our bedroom and kept her out. The times she managed to peek her head in, she was aghast and battered us with her baby-sized questions? Whas-sis? Whas-dat, mamma? Will took down one item in her room before I left Germany with Edie, leaving Will to deal with the movers and join us in the U.S. a few days later. It was a small shelf with hooks on it. That night, as I went to put Edie to sleep, she could not settle, pointing at the void where the shelf had been, asking me about it and her towel, which normally hung on it.
Transitions, on the whole, have not gotten easier. After we moved to the U.S., she became upset at any and everything changing. She cried when the moon when behind the clouds so that she could no longer see it. Edie begged us for “meow, meow,” with tears pouring down her face, when a neighborhood cat walked away out of eye sight. Trains coming, and then, sadly, going, were causes for meltdowns. These days, when I change her sheets, she spends five minutes fawning over every new detail, thanking me and commenting on each change. Her teachers tell me she cries when either one of them goes on break. She yells at me with true indignation if I drive her father’s car or wear his shoes. I recently replaced the bottle of soap in her bathroom, and weeks later, still hear about that. I bought a new stroller this weekend, and even though we are still keeping the old one and promised her this one was just for when she AND Eli needed to be in the stroller at once, she was thrown for a total loop by its existence and had to be cajoled, begged and bribed (perhaps strong-armed, too) to get into the new wheeled-beast. My daughter notices if I change my shirt, wear shoes she hasn’t seen in a few weeks, buy new cereal, or put out a fresh box of tissues. Edie doesn’t want to go to sleep, doesn’t want to wake up, please don’t make her put down that toy, and god forbid you need to get her into the car.
That Edie has difficulty with transitions is no surprise to learn, but I’ve never pondered on it specifically before. We’ve done pretty well with coping strategies, from empowering her with certain choices to always giving her a heads up about upcoming changes in the day or in life. As far as her brother’s existence, she was at my side through each of my prenatal visits. They were performed on my couch, and my midwife would generously let Edie be as much a part of them as a two year old could be. We explained that a baby was coming, and I believe all of this preparation did do something. But it wasn’t going to be enough for Edie. You can’t prepare any kid for a shift so jarring and fundamental as having to share your mother’s world with another human being of equal rank. And you especially can’t expect my Spirited Child to like it.
The Root of It All: A Look in the Mirror
One interesting part of reading this book is that it’s made me reflect on my own nature. And, news flash, me – you are the WORST at transitions! It’s difficult to describe, but even down to the most mundane, I feel an utter sense of dread and inertia at the prospect of many even minor changes. Even when those changes are bidden by me, totally inevitable, or routine. I still cry when leave my parents’ house after a visit. I had insomnia for a period of time in college due to my inability to cope with the fact that days kept slipping away into nothing and nighttime meant the end of yet another. As a child, I would stay in the car after arriving home for a prolonged period, continuing to read my book or just sit awhile. I still did this before we had children – much to my husband’s frustration, and only do not these days because it is simply impossible. No matter how tired I am each night, I have to be dragged to bed because I just don’t wanna. When friends or family come over, I find myself being cold and averting eye contact – totally in spite of me begging myself to act nice! – until I have a chance to adjust to their presence. I spent the first year of my marriage telling my husband that we’d made a huge mistake and we should just end it now. And then I would have nightmares most nights about losing him. (My crazy brain couldn’t figure out which change was scarier with that one.) I experience pit-of-my-stomach grief when a good book ends. And when my children were born, it is now clear to me that a lot of what I felt was neither sadness nor happiness, but simply a rush of emotion that I was not equipped to deal with because the change that had just occurred was so huge. For days (weeks?) after Eli was born, I often found myself in tears and if asked why, I could only manage that it was all “so much.” And I didn’t mean the work, or the lack of sleep. It was the bigger picture shift. It was, and is, hard to put into words.
So, um, sorry little girl. Mommy didn’t do you any favors with this one.
Well, let’s be real. I read this book in 5 page increments because that is all I have the energy for. It ain’t over yet. BUT, I feel good about it. Right now, I don’t have my plan of action in place. What I am appreciating, though, is a sense of forgiveness that it has allowed me to bestow on myself. And then when I consider the fact that in the past three years I’ve lived in California, Germany, and now Tennessee, utterly starting from scratch each time, going from zero to two kids in the meantime, I try to cut myself a little slack because this way we’ve been living has been hard on me.
I must forgive my own frustration. I am starting to forgive my imperfect parenting, and acknowledge that Edie – though easier than many children in certain ways – has presented me with challenges in this respect. I do forgive Edie for her inability to process change – and will continue to remind myself of this. I will try to forgive myself for being so triggered by seeing her react in ways that I see reflected in myself. And in the process of forgiveness, the dam starts to come down and I am a tiny bit better for it already.
We still have a way to go. But we’re getting there. We’ve got to get somewhere, what with impermanence inconveniently defining existence and all. And I will not be buying any new furniture or dying my hair a new color in the meantime.