Despite many good intentions, it’s been a while since I’ve last posted anything. I suppose there are several reasons: a few short summer getaways, leaving a job, finding my new “at home more” rhythm, trying to start my own business (an unexpectedly s-l-o-w process), and, of course, getting lost in some summer reading too many late nights.
But most recently, it’s been because I had to turn my attention to someone else that simply just needed more of my time. In a perfect world, the distractions between April and August would have been centered in my garden, with me cursing idly picking away at the weeds and nurturing tiny seedlings that are prone to dry soil and sharp beaks. And while I certainly did get to spend some time out in the dirt–as evidenced by the sea of ripening tomatoes in my kitchen–my time over the past few months has instead been spent helping M grow into young girlhood and the ups and downs that come with it.
Who knew that at just 41 inches tall that she’d be tackling so many social and developmental milestones at once? In the span of just four months, M has gone from taking baths to showers. Moved from a toddler bed to big bed. Supervised treks up our steep stairs are now solo adventures to her bedroom without us in tow (good riddance gate at the bottom of the stairs!). She’s writing her name, give or take a few extra “d’s”. Granted, nothing truly Earth shattering there, but when you add in that her three best friends have moved away (two on our street and one at her preschool), that she has heard some not so nice words hurled her way at school by her buddies (standard preschooler fare like “you look ugly in that dress” and “I’m not going to be your best friend anymore”) and that M seems to be on the sensitive side of the spectrum*, it all manifests itself into a little bundle of worry, loneliness and sadness that sometimes needs a little more attention than usual. Indeed, my little flower has seemed a bit wilted of late.
It’s funny how many linear feet of parenting books are devoted to the many milestones that happen between birth and 2 years old: smiling, crawling, walking, talking, potty learning, eating solid foods and much, much more. And for that reason, it’s easy to see why you feel like you can coast for a bit after those things have been accomplished, save for the occasional tantrums that all 3 year olds have that make you feel like a neophyte again. But then you look down and see that there are some emotions and conflicts that your young child is working through that seem to come out of nowhere, even though in the back of your mind you knew they were coming and are just part of growing up.
On the one hand you want to stop everything else and give undivided attention to your droopy little flower, and throw in a few special treats or outings for good measure. And you do. You do those things because you don’t know what else to do and you want to her petals to perk up a bit.
But then you realize that too much fawning and attention can take away from opportunities for her to let her roots grow a little deeper, a little stronger, making her more self-reliant and self-assure. It’s the same with growing tomatoes. At a certain point in the growing season, if you keep watering every day, the plants never grow roots deep enough to handle dry spells or when you’re away on vacation. The plant doesn’t grow in a way that allows it to find water and nourishment deeper down in the soil. It relies on you and shallow watering in order to thrive. Those tomatoes are never quite as big either. But if you let the plant face a little adversity now and again–which is easy to do when you forget to turn the sprinkler on, like I am prone to do–then it can usually weather the thunderstorms and a few visits from a bandit skunk. Getting through the growing season also requires an abundance of patience and the ability to see that some minor mid-season setbacks are just temporary, and that there will still be a glorious bounty at the end.
These analogies are equally fitting for the parenting gazpacho du jour in our house.
It’s hard to say whether she’s antsy about her upcoming birthday, still figuring how to be at home with me more and less at preschool, or working through her friends moving away, but one way we can tell M is stressed is by the number of times she will need to use the potty before bed. Lately, it’s been averaging about 5 to 8 times over the course of the 20 minutes between lights out and eyes closed. Mind you, she’s been diaper free during the day since before 2 1/2, and started sleeping in underwear not too long after turning 3 (both her choice and under her directive, not ours). She has NEVER had an accident in either case, except for the one time she peed on me in the kitchen after we got home from her first day of no diapers at daycare–I quickly learned that a trip to the potty before heading home is always a good idea, despite the reassurances of the potty learning set. And it really isn’t a tactic to stay up — she’s never been that kid.
Notably, she’s recently learned that two of her friends either still sleep in pull-ups or have had an accident at school–and her first question in both cases was, “how old is so-and-so?”. As luck would have it, both are 4 years old. So the translation in little M’s mind is “oh, so that means that *I* might have an accident now too since I’m turning 4, so I better go to the bathroom every 5 minutes before I fall asleep just to make sure I don’t”. Dealing with this can only be described as an epic exercise in Zen patience, for me at least. As much as I want to yell “YOU JUST PEED 3 DROPS FIVE MINUTES AGO, YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO!!”, I don’t and just stand patiently and neutral because I know, eventually, it will subside. Indeed, she had a similar 3 week period before Halloween last year, apparently afraid of the holiday because the very next day, *poof* no more incessant trips to the bathroom. But given that she’s accepted that A, E and J have moved, and that her 4th birthday is only a few weeks away, better buy your stock in toilet paper now and sell, sell, sell! before September 6th because I’m hoping that she will soon see that turning 4 does not equate to uncontrolled peeing or a lifetime without friends.
So, as much as I want to keep her from feeling the feeling of being stressed out, left behind and lonely (and the zings of some grumpy preschool arrows) by taking her on outings out of view of her pals’ former house and doling out endless marshmallows, I know that instead I need to let her grow through these experiences. Distracting her and offering shallow nourishment is not the best solution, though we did indulge a little wallowing and milking it the first day or so. But to let her truly grow, I need to let her confront these uncomfortable feelings and talk about them, and share similar tales from my own childhood. It requires just me and her dad being truly present and undistracted when we’re with her. Going through this has been hard for her, but I think it’s working. She’s digging deep and sending out stronger roots so that she’s increasingly able to right herself amidst these late summer storms and those yet to come.
And so that’s where I’ve been this growing season.
* For many reasons that go beyond this post, I decided it was time to see if maybe M could be considered a “highly sensitive child” and how I could possibly tailor my responses in certain situations, so I very recently started reading The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them, by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. The author also has a website found here. I am still reading the book and forming my conclusions about whether this label applies to M (and I hope to have M’s dad read it too for consensus), but it does offer tips for how to handle certain kinds of scenarios for kids who fit into this mold. I am finding it to be very helpful and recommend it to parents whose children tend to (among other things) feel things a little more deeply, take things more personally, have a greater sense of empathy unusually earlier than their peers, have a profound sense of social justice, and are easily overwhelmed in noisy, crowded and very action packed scenarios, though I imagine there are plenty of nuggets that would help any child from time to time.
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