They might as well be teenagers.
My daughters are 4 1/2 and 3, and other than their short stature, penchant for screaming rather than brooding, and a total inability to write snarky notes to each other, they’re basically teenagers. They’re in that unpredictable phase where one minute they want to be treated like grown ups (i.e. 8-year-olds), the next minute they want to snuggle on your lap and suck their thumbs, and God help you if you pick the wrong one.
The struggle for independence is alive and well in our house. I have no idea who’s winning, but I’m pretty sure it’s not me.
Exhibit A: 3-year-old has exactly two skirts she wants to wear. Whenever they aren’t clean (likely because she peed on them), she huffs and moans about how she “won’t be pretty” unless she has the right clothes.
Exhibit B: 4-year-old has started FaceTiming with her friends when she can’t have an actual play date. (“I keep my dollies in my bedroom! Where do you keep yours? … Oh, I don’t have a playroom. My mommy says our whole house is my playroom. Is that true?”)
Exhibit C: On more than one occasion, I have come into the kitchen only to a find a little tushy sticking out of my fridge, as one of them is looking for snacks or making sure that I wasn’t lying about whether or not we have any yogurt left. They are now deeply suspicious of most things I say.
Exhibit D: An angry 4-year-old yelling at her Dad this morning: “FINE! I’m not going to play with you any more!” I’m pretty sure he just got kicked out of the cool kids’ club.
Exhibit E: Both girls refused to go to the zoo on Friday. (What child refuses the zoo?!) They were “too tired” and “needed some space.” They spent the morning listening to books on tape, but only because we wouldn’t let them zone out in front of the TV.
Exhibit F: This, from both of them: “YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING!” I keep waiting for them to ask for a ride to the mall.
Exhibit G: 4-year-old snuck away from our block party to play iPad games with a neighbor boy. An OLDER neighbor boy. (I’m now accepting suggestions for all-girls Jewish boarding schools in the metro-west Boston area.)
Exhibit H: The 3-year-old lies. A lot. And for no discernible reason other than her own amusement, and more often than not, ours as well. She’s hilarious.
It’s a dizzying time for all of us; a constant back and forth between conflicting needs. I never quite know which child I’m going to wake up to, the one asking for snuggles or the one who is already planning who she is and isn’t going to invite to her birthday party, just four short months away. I know it’s normal, and there is good stuff that comes along with their ambivalent push towards independence. They’re setting the table for Shabbat dinner, the little one is finally potty trained (motivated by the knowledge that she can’t go to Hebrew School in diapers), and they’re both getting themselves dressed in the morning. The physical work of parenting is getting so much easier.
The emotional work? Not so much.
It’s not just keeping up with their mood swings (and we haven’t even added in the hormones yet!); it’s figuring out new ways to connect with them. This stage of development is completely different from any of the ones I’ve been through in my nearly five years of parenthood. Even as they learned to crawl and then walk, to eat solids and feed themselves, to talk and express their needs and wants, there’s always been some sort of necessary physical contact between my daughters and me. Whether it was nursing them or changing their diapers or holding their hands while they took their first few tentative steps, there was a physical connection between us that was both desired and required.
It may not be necessary any more, but at times they still need it. As do I.
I’m trying to settle into the idea that as they become more and more independent, my connection with them is going to change. I need to figure out how to talk so they will listen, and perhaps more importantly, to listen how they will talk. It’s about engaging with their emotions and experiences as much–or more–than their physical needs. Even for a social worker, who should theoretically know about these things, it’s incredibly hard.
So, I’m taking the snuggles and handholding when I can get them. Some days they fight each other to get on Mommy’s lap, other days I seem to be about as appealing to them as a plate of boiled spinach.
Like I said, they’re basically teenagers.