you know how they say it’s like pancakes, and your oldest child is a practice one

Tonight as I finish my bath in our claw-foot tub – a luxury I will all too soon say goodbye to – my daughter, having until this point cheerfully occupied herself nearby on a stool drawing pictures (throughout the last week she has played a game, pretending to be Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” from the lovely folk country song), suddenly bursts into tears.  I am preoccupied wrapping myself in a towel and rinsing out my own bathwater and it takes me a moment to realize what she’s crying about.  She has a splinter, one of those tiny sharp ones invisible to the eye. She knows it’s her turn next in the bath and she fears the hot water will sting.

My sympathetic ear, then my soothing words, don’t seem to make a difference.  She is inconsolable and howls sobs.  Her head reels back; hot tears flowing down her sun-streaked cheeks, her mouth open in a square and her face curiously rendered flat, a mere button of a nose, eyes squinched together.  She looks just, and I mean just, the way I remember those howling cries she had as a baby.  She’s a tall, near-grown little thing – reaching in height to cradle snugly under my arm! – yet her crying now is exactly the same raw emotional display I remember from days long past.

I am reminded by this outburst how far I’ve come as a mother in correcting myself.  With chagrin I admit my primary reaction to this sort of thing used to be minor irritation – what is it now? – or, worse, a muffled sense of anger that my child would be so immature as to have a full-blown fit in repsonse to something so minor (ah, the word “fit”, how it lives in my memory…  the condescending, scathing pejorative from the maternal side of my family!).  You know what’s funny: I can find myself to this day irritated at my daughter’s “fits”, because she is seven and shouldn’t have them – yet I remember the same sense of impatience and anger – when she was TWO.  And that isn’t funny, not really: it’s scary, or sad, or terrible.

In recent years I’ve come a long way in nurturing my daughter when she needs it, especially during upsets (which are relatlively rare, in fact).  When she was an infant, my entrenched response was guilt (her pain was my fault), fear – fear that I could not make my child “better” – and exhaustion (no apologies for this reaction – having babies is goddamned hard work!).  As mother to a toddler and preschooler my response (and I feel ashamed to admit this) was dosed heavily with the desire my child not-make-a-fuss-in-front-of-other-people-so-they-would-always-see-how-well-adjusted-she-was.  I wish I was making this up.  I am not sure when and where I began to drop this shameful response and know to be present for and loving to my daughter when she broke down; I am only glad that I am usually able to do so, that it has now become more my nature to do so for her.

And of course, because I’m loving up on her (kissing the top of her head which smells wonderfully like her, and dusty and sunny at the same time), and because I’ve come up with the rather brilliant solution she keep the injured digit out of the water, she immediately calms and enters the tub, where I carefully wash her face with warm water and hand her the clippers so she can tend to her nails.  She is in the tub and cannot hug me but her entire ego, her little body, melts toward mine.  Standing in the closet hanging up clothes and she comes to me in a towel.  I take up her pajamas out of the dryer and pull them over her head, watching her shudder in pleasure at the warm, soft cotton.  We continue the thread of tenderness up to the bedroom, where she sits crosslegged next to me, silently reading a copy of Camping & Wilderness Survival (where did she find this book?), and I log on to the computer to write of our evening.

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