For all the mothers of five-year-old girls, current and coming-up-on-five, in my life.
From Life’s Archives, January 27, 2007
Flora is five years and three weeks old today—the three weeks is important, as important as the “half” was when she was four and a half. She’s just come off a very long—for our healthy, active girl—illness, almost two weeks of intermittent fever, sore throat and cough, sniffles and overall body aches, with two days of puking thrown in at the start just for fun. She’s physically well now, but weak. And fragile. Each of her nerves and emotions is exposed to the harsh air of every day life, and the smallest of life’s trials rub her raw and send her spiraling into misery.
It’s driving us mad.
We’ve been here before with her. She celebrated turning two by being sad for three weeks, non-stop. (Funny thing about time: at the time, we thought it was months. Perhaps an entire year. Fortunately, I keep records. It was three weeks on the dot, 21 days of almost incessant crying, over everything.) Between three and four—and especially on either side of three and a half—life thwarted her at every step and she barely survived (us too). At four and a half there was a brief—six days, but oh dear god what a six days—reprisal.
So this is Take Four of Flora being uber-fragile, and I’m trying very hard to approach it as a yet another opportunity handed to me by the universe to crack the Flora code. (We successfully cracked the Cinder code when he was two [this post is coming to the blog Archives soon!] and haven’t been significantly challenged in our interpretation of it since then; Flora is proving to be more complex. Perhaps we women really are.) However hard, each take has offered amazing insights and lessons. The first time around, when she was two and in tears, the lesson to us was simple. Happiness comes from within. We cannot make her happy or peaceful—it is not, indeed, our responsibility to make her happy. The best we can do is provide a certain type of environment, some coping tools—but the only one who can make Flora happy (or not) is Flora.
The lesson of Take Two was more nebulous, and it wasn’t really about Flora. It was about me and you (yes, you, the reading you, the you walking past my yard, the you I pass on the park path, the you paying a visit to my house while she’s having a meltdown). In a nutshell, it was: you don’t matter. Your opinion doesn’t matter, your reaction to Flora or to my reaction to Flora or to anything else that’s happening right now in Flora’s world doesn’t matter. Sorry. You don’t want to hear that, but I need to remind myself of it, throw you out of my mind, and focus on me and Flora. Then, I need to put me to the side—I’ll come back to me later, recharge, re-examine, ponder exactly why I was feeling the way I was and wanting to react the way I was, I’ll do all that, but later.
Right now, with you and me out of the way, I need to focus on Flora, I need to help her cope, work out some tools that she can use to help find herself, work through whatever inner turmoil she’s experiencing right now, and come back to a place of balance. This moment is all about her, and I need to surrender to that first. Only then can I help her… and maybe helping her just means being there while she can’t help herself. And then, when there is a moment when she wants and needs and is open to help—then, I step in. Without my baggage, without making this about me—much less you—but just her.
This lesson is much harder than calculus and I’m still studying it, reviewing it, intermittently failing it, because, at least some of the time, I want you to approve of my and my child and my parenting.
Flora—the current, five year old Flora—is stirring on the couch beside me now making whimpering unhappy noises as she wakes up from a quasi-nap, and I’m revisiting the second part of the lesson. Not about me. About her. What does she need? (Part of me says, a kick in the head.) Apparently, she says, her whole self covered with the blanket. Translation: control over her surroundings.
Take Three’s lesson was simple, so long as Take Two’s lesson was mastered. Repeat: it’s not about you or me. It’s about her. In capital letters: It’s about HER. Between three and five, children are as purely and completely selfish as selfish can be. They’re not psychotic, unsocialized, undisciplined: they just are. Purely, beautifully selfish. The world is all about them, and that’s all that matters to them.
This can suck to the rest of us having to live in the world alongside them. Until, that is, we realize that developmentally speaking, this is normal and inevitable… and it is possible to “work” with it. Asking a child in that stage to do something—or stop doing something, or, ha!, feeling something—because of the effect it has on other people is a recipe for frustration. They can’t comply: they don’t hear you. Oh, they can learn to fake complicity through coercive discipline. But they don’t get it. The world is about them.
At four and half, and into five, I know this. Flora’s world is all about her. In retrospect, on either side of five, Cinder’s world was all about him too. But he manifested it in a different way and it was easier to live with. It was all about doing stuff. For Flora, it’s about feeling stuff. Waaay more complex.
So, here we are in Take Four. Obviously, for me, part of the lesson here is a remedial review of Take Two. It’s not about me. It’s all about her. This part, I’m doing pretty well on. I need to work a little bit more on the fact that you don’t matter. And also, I need to flip the fact that it’s not about me on its head. I actually need to make it about me: that is, seize each of these moments as an opportunity to work on ME. MY response. MY feelings and MY expression of them. MY understanding. What am I doing in this moment and why, and can I be the me in this moment that I want to be? Can I be that me just a little bit longer? One more minute? Another after that?
People pay big money for transcendental moments like this: they go to workshops, retreats, read books, meditate… and lucky me, motherhood is delivering these life-changing, self-reflecting opportunities to me just about every day…
I wrote this post more than two years ago. Flora is now seven and three and a half months—she could probably tell you her age precisely to the day, perhaps the hour. And while we are not in “Take Five,” we are still learning our sensitive, fragile Flora. She’s learning us too—the selfishness of five is long gone, replaced by hyper-awareness to the feelings of others, and hyper-despair when they are negative. Sometimes, this hyper-awareness makes me long for the selfishness of five. But that’s a topic for a future post.