I was sitting on the edge of Rose’s bed, cutting out paper hearts for Valentine’s Day. Rose was reclined in the pod swing hanging in her room, tilted back so her legs extended out. She used her feet to propel herself backwards towards the center of the room so that she could swing forward and crash hard into the wall.
When we first got that swing, I sewed on an additional stuffed-felt bumper around the perimeter so that she could more safely use it in this intense way that felt best. Swing, crash, swing, crash. With no apparent connection to anything we had been talking about, Rose suddenly commented on a show she’d watched several weeks prior.
“Mom? In Kazoops, they said you can’t be happy and sad at the same time.”
“Hmm. What did you think about that? Do you think that’s true?”
“No! I think they’re wrong!”
“I agree. Maybe we should write a letter to the creators of that show to let them know they made a mistake. I think some of the biggest feelings we ever have are when we feel more than one way at the same time. And sometimes they’re opposite feelings, aren’t they, like feeling happy and sad all at the same time!”
“Yeah!” ... and she continued swinging, crashing, swinging.
Later, Rose wanted to have a tea party with me and her dolls. It was almost dinner time, but she’s been in a place lately where she’s unable to engage in most activities the majority of the time, so although I needed to start cooking, I decided to put it off and go for the tea party.
“But,” she said, “we need to have cake or cookies. All tea parties have cake or cookies at them.”
Choosing my words carefully, I responded, “Yes, well dinner will be soon and I don’t want you to fill up on cookies first. What should we do?”
Rose’s state quickly elevated, her face pained, “OH I NEEEEED to have cake or cookies before dinner!!!!!!”
“I hear you,” I said, “Can we come up with a plan that will work? Maybe you can help me think of a dinner that will be easy for you to eat so that even if you have a cookie first, you’ll still feel like eating your dinner afterwards.”
I thought that was a pretty good offer. I was certainly making concessions, but felt it was worth it.
“But EVERYONE needs to eat a cookie at a tea party, and you won’t want to! So we CAN’T DO IT! We can’t have it unless YOU eat a cookie before dinner, too!”
How did she know I didn’t want to eat a cookie right then? It was true, I didn’t feel like it. Should I just suck down a cookie, too? Maybe it was worth it to keep the peace and move forward with the plans for the tea party. But before I could go further with this line of thinking, it was too late. The various possible barriers to Rose's exact ideal tea party seemed too immense, and she had become stuck on the idea that it wouldn’t work. While I felt like we were still within the realm of coming up with a workable solution, she was spent and melted down to the floor and began sobbing.
“It won’t work, it won’t work. We can’t do it!”
Because my husband had given me a decent tag-out earlier in the day, and only because of that respite, I’m certain, I was able to look at my child and meet her with genuine sympathy. I saw her anguish, how much she wanted to do something and be unable to do it not in spite of, but because of the very desire itself. I got down on the floor next to her and murmured comforting sounds. I slowly scooted closer and offered her to rest her head in my lap. Surprisingly, she moved toward me and rested on me. More surprisingly still, she allowed me to pet her head and rub her back. We stayed together on the floor like that for a time until she felt better.
In those moments with her on the kitchen floor, I was so connected to her suffering, and by sharing in those conflicting feelings, I think I was able to ease them for her. We were sad together, but I was also grateful, somewhat relieved, and for all of that, happy.
It was my turn to usher both boys through the bedtime routine, and like most nights, I dreaded it. Both my sons had already refused to eat healthy food downstairs while in front of the TV, and had instead left a trail of cheez-its and pirate’s booty crumbs. While dancing half naked to Trolls songs, ones that Cooper repeated over and over with the remote in hand, William left pudgy-fingered Chocolate milk smudges on our coffee table.
Once upstairs, the two had splashed half of the bath water out during a ferocious battle between large action figures, Venom, “Mack America,” as the younger one had coined it, and Spiderman. Somehow, as they smashed the plastic limbs against each other, they missed each others’ digits and climbed out of the tub unscathed.
Once out, Cooper went through his usual routine of screaming that he was cold, yet refusing the towel I gave him. As I tried to brush William’s teeth, Cooper screamed that his body wouldn’t let him get dressed. He shouted this through his legs, his head upside down and poking between his naked buttocks, which he was spreading between his hands for emphasis. Although I was used to these moments now, as they repeated every night, I still felt pulled in two. I felt pulled to respond immediately to Cooper to prevent an anxiety escalation, yet the baby was still splashing in the bathtub, cleaning Venom’s plastic backside with his toothbrush.
I made the decision to whip William out of the bath first, and let the tub drain, so that I could quickly pat down Cooper and help him into his pull-up, seamless socks, and cozy pajamas. If I did not do it quickly, Cooper might have a panic attack, and I mentally did my best estimation of his anxiety level and weighed it against my guilt for not meeting the needs of my second child. As usual, I chose to tend to my older son first, leaving the two-year-old dripping wet and holding his own towel. Waiting for me.
With wet hair, the boys settled into their respective corners of Cooper’s carpeted bedroom. William plopped next to the box of random, leftover Legos that he was “allowed” to use under Cooper’s direction, while Cooper worked to assemble a new Lego kit.
These moments always brought on a mix of emotions -- pride and excitement that my older son, for the first time in his life, was focused and regulated enough to follow directions to make a Lego kit. And simultaneously I felt myself steeling against a meltdown, in which he might explode and start throwing the Legos across the room. Such rage could be prompted by his own hands failing to snap a piece in place, or the recognition that he'd missed a step earlier in the directions that made his current step impossible.
There was never much warning or ability to intervene before such a meltdown occurred. Cooper would get cognitively “stuck,” unable to stop himself from repeatedly trying and failing to assemble the Legos. Yet, even as his frustration mounted and fine motor skills diminished, he would not let me help him.
This night was only slightly different. About ten minutes in, Cooper asked for my help assembling a Spiderman truck. He had two large sections built, but they wouldn't connect to each other, and he was now pacing the room. His frustration was peaking, and now there was an implicit demand upon him, that he wait while I scrambled to figure out what had gone wrong.
William hovered, one hand shoved down the back of his diaper, the other, guiding his thumb into his mouth. It was his version of a soothing self-sandwich of sorts.
“Cooper hard time?” he said to me.
“I think so buddy, it’s OK. We’ll help him.”
He began watching Cooper and pacing alongside him, trying to figure out what would happen.
Between them, I sat, frantically scanning the Lego instructions for the small piece Cooper may have missed or misplaced. But the demand became too much, and Cooper tipped into the panic attack I had been trying to avoid. Suddenly, he was screaming, his face looked like he was in pain, the skin around his mouth and eyes red from the strain. Just as this began, I figured out the assembly issue – he had put a single piece over another, with just one row of little notches overlapping too far, which was preventing the truck from coming together. Fucking Legos.
As my own shaky hands put the pieces together, Cooper could see that the problem was solved, yet could not stop his panic response. I tried to draw near to show him the success, and he jolted back, yelling. William looked at me and then Cooper, and began repeating,
“Cooper, not your fault, not your fault.”
I realized he had heard me say it a million times, but it sounded strange from a two-year-old’s mouth.
“I KNOW IT’S NOT MY FAULT!” screamed Cooper at no one in particular, and then began sobbing, still pacing.
A minute later he moan-shouted, “I can’t stop crying,” which I know, from years of witnessing such meltdowns, means two things -- he's attempting to regulate himself, and he'll likely now be open to my assistance.
I took a breath before I began my verbal de-escalation tactic, but as my own brain was already basically off line, what came out was word salad:
“Look Cooper, I licked it,” I said, instead of “fixed it.”
My jumbled sentence broke the spell, and the sobs became mixed with laughter. I saw tentative delight replace worry on William’s face.
“Licked it, mama! Licked it,” he said, looking toward Cooper for reassurance that the storm was passing.
Cooper grabbed the Spiderman Lego truck from me. He brought it to his mouth and slowly ran the back of its roof down his tongue.
“Listen to the sound it makes, mama. Listen to the pop of my spit when I lick it.”
I placed my hand on his heart, and told him to breathe into his stomach to slow his heart rate.
“No, I don’t do that, remember?”
It was too much of a direct demand. I kept my hand there anyway, as we laughed and cried. It was a typical Wednesday night.