We’re three weeks into the chickenpox. Eli’s case was so serious, he ended up in the hospital. Lizzy doesn’t have it so bad, but she’s so wired from the medicine we’ve given her that she can’t sleep. When she closes her eyes and settles into a light sleep, she bolts awake, wired, yet desperate for sleep. She woke up every twenty minutes last night and napped for a grand total of ten minutes today.
I’m exhausted. Eli is grumpy and needy and clingy. He’s taken to screaming at his sister whenever she crawls near him. Three weeks ago, he was delighted by her, proud of her every milestone. Now he is utterly distressed by her mobility. He can’t tolerate her intrusion into his territory. He screams, “NOOOOO!” or “Lizzy’s touching me! Get her away!” Other times, he foregoes words entirely, lashing out with his hands and feet, toppling her. Several times each hour, I have to stop him from hitting her.
Since his bout of chickenpox, Eli has been increasingly needy. He demands our attention constantly. He buzzes around, intentionally flailing himself against our bodies, butting us with his head, climbing on us, all knees and elbows. He asks, “Does this hurt?” and when we reply, “Yes, Eli, it hurts! Please stop!” he gleefully continues with increased vigor. When we insist that he stop, stating emphatically, “I’m not going to let you hurt me like that,” and then physically remove him from our bodies, he revs up to a dramatic explosion: “You hurt my feelings! You hurt my feelings!” His perpetual histrionics eclipse whatever else is going on. The price we pay for setting limits hardly seems worth it.
The house is a vortex that revolves around him. Each day, I feel less and less resourceful, more cranky and irritable. I find myself yelling at him more than I care to admit. I know I’m supposed to be honoring his impulses, actively listening to his feelings and respecting his needs, but I can barely keep from smacking him.
One evening, in the exhausted quiet after both kids are asleep, Karyn and I start talking about how difficult Eli’s been. She sighs, then says simply, “It’s like living with a gnat.”
I start to giggle and she does too. A gnat! That’s exactly what it’s like. I can’t stop laughing, but then I slide toward tears. How can I characterize my own son in such a negative way? I love Eli and would willingly give my life for him. So why don’t I like him anymore?
All the parenting advice I’ve ever heard (or given, I must add) talks about holding a vision of who our children are, even when they’re at their worst. We’re supposed to see them as responsive, independent, interconnected human beings even when they’re hitting, kicking and whining. But I’m finding my own advice out of reach these days. How do I maintain a vision of Eli as generous, loving and giving when he’s pushing every button I have? When I can’t even remember what it is I love about the kid, when I’m that far gone, then what?
This is not an easy subject to broach with anyone. I’ve never heard people talk about not liking their kids at least not anyone I respect. If other parents have felt this way, there must be a conspiracy to never admit it.
I get up the courage to talk to my friend, Kim. She’s got a five-year-old and a baby and she reassures me right away, “Sure, I’ve felt that way.” Neither one of us can believe that we’ll ever have such complicated, ambivalent feelings toward the precious babies we carry in backpacks on our walk down the beach. It’s hard for me to imagine Lizzy ever spitting at me, ramming her head into my stomach, or screaming, “I hate you, Mama!” It’s hard to visualize ever feeling anything but pure, unbridled delight in her presence. I can’t picture getting angry at her or wanting to push her away. Yet I know I will.
Kim and I discuss strategies for coping when all else fails. I promise to go home and write out a list to be used in emergencies. Here it is:
WHEN ELI ACTS LIKE A GNAT AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE
- Put on music with a good beat and dance together.
- Go to the beach, directly to the beach.
- Draw a bath for Eli.
- Stop whatever I think needs to be getting done in that moment and give Eli my undivided attention.
- Pillow wrestle. (This entails a pillow fight on the couch. Either of us can stop the action at any time by saying, “I need a pillow hug!”)
- Have a sock fight. (Gather up all the pairs of socks in the house. Hurl them as fiercely as we can at one another.)
- Have a water fight. (I haven’t tried this one yet, but it sounds good!)
- Lock myself in a different room and call a friend who has a child of similar age and temperament.
- Get Eli to hit and kick his bed or a big pile of pillows. (Do the same myself if need be.)
- Suggest that we “rewind” and start a particular interaction over again.
- Put the kids in the stroller, go out and get some exercise.
- Finagle a way to go out to see an afternoon movie.
- Ask for help. Tell someone how bad I really feel.
- Survive and write the day off as a loss.
- Go to bed as early as possible. Tomorrow is another day.