My boyfriend’s 3-year-old was in town this weekend. She stayed with her aunt, but we got in a fair amount of quality time over two days. This has been our strategy over the past year.
I don’t spend lots of time with Ronia, mainly because we live in different cities, and most of the time that I’m with her dad she’s with her mom. But if, as seems likely, Jesse and I move in together sometime in the next couple of years, I will be spending lots of time with Ronia, and I want that to be a positive thing for both of us. So we try to practice, whenever we can, which isn’t that often.
But this isn’t how parenthood usually works. I didn’t bond with Ronia as an infant (though I have known her since she was born, and in a freaky coincidence, I have a picture of my mother, who died three years ago, holding a 5-month-old Ronia) and I don’t have tons of happy memories of carrying her around in a sling, watching her learn to walk and talk and sing. She has become an important part of my life as a 3-year-old, and as my own dad loves to remind me, my parents found that 3 was a much tougher age than 2.
Ronia has to deal with her parents’ marriage ending, and both of them finding new partners. It would be a lot for anyone, and I think overall she has been a trouper, but there is certainly a healthy dose of whining and inopportune peeing these days.
So this weekend was kind of a test run, to see how we’d do for a big chunk of time together. She and her aunt met us in the park for a picnic lunch. I had packed a special container of noodles with cheese for Ronia, and some picture books. She immediately asked me to read her some of the stories, and seemed to really like the ones I had chosen (thanks, PJ Library!) but disaster struck a half hour later when we discovered she had been so absorbed in the stories she hadn’t told us she needed to pee. We had no spare dresses with us at the park, so she had to just run around and dry off.
In the playground later that afternoon she happily climbed and swung around, and I stood nearby so she could grab onto me when she got scared. I watched other parents with their kids and wondered if they read me as Ronia’s mother. How…odd. Later Ronia had a brief freak out when we told her she couldn’t go naked in the sprinkler, but eventually she joined the other kids playing in the water. A few hours of this made her a little cranky, and completely exhausted. She asked her aunt to take her home for “a little sleep” so we said goodbye and made plans to meet up with them the next day.
Success, I thought, but Sunday was a lot more of a challenge. In a different park, Ronia once again arrived with her aunt after having her first pedicure. She asked me to read to her again, and ate some more of the noodles leftover from the day before, but when the noodles spilled on the ground she really wanted to eat them off the cement, which we vetoed. To distract her we took her into the playground, but she seemed more intimidated by this playlot, and spent some time just cuddling with her dad on a bench. I sat next to him, and there was a brief three-person-cuddle (documented for posterity by Auntie Maya’s iPhone). Again, it took a little while for Ronia to warm up, but after a bit she ventured out and climbed happily all over the place. I noticed for the second day in a row how tall she is for her age, and how much she looks like her mother. Once again there was a tantrum when we wouldn’t let her go naked in the sprinkler—she is truly a hippy child, preferring to be barefoot, and ideally nude at all times—but this time she was not to be dissuaded, and when we produced a bathing suit for her to wear, decided she’d rather pout.
We left the park to find snacks and head in the general direction of the ride she and Jesse would take home. At the Korean restaurant where we picked up noodles she and I had her first real conflict—hungry and whiny she threw a noodle at me, and, I think, called me stupid. I wasn’t sure she said it, but found myself responding, “Did you just call me stupid?” Jesse tried to mediate, and I quietly hated myself, for getting into a fight with a 3-year-old, and for worrying what Jesse was thinking of my reaction. Ronia’s freak out wound down—it turns out I can distract her from pretty much anything by offering to read to her—but when we got ready to go I suggested they make another potty run, and she refused. I thought, “If she were my kid I would damn the tantrum and take her to the bathroom anyway. There’s no way she’s making it three hours without peeing.”
But she isn’t my kid. And I’m still learning now to navigate my role. So I walked them to their ride home, wondering how I’d done as a parent-in-training. Later Jesse texted to tell me Ronia had an accident just as they arrived home.