Recently I was asked to define psychological health, and I said that a healthy mind is a flexible one. The ability to withstand change, transition, and allow your neural pathways to flow, is the basis of mental health, in my opinion. One needs safe boundaries to be able to be free, but those perimeters cannot be so rigid that you can’t change your mind, play, or handle loss.
I felt rather proud of this definition, but suddenly I realized that according to what I just wrote, toddlers are the epitome of mental illness. If you have ever tried to get a small child to give up on a promised outing, or let go of a beloved toy, you know what I mean. A huge part of this developmental stage is learning to wrap their little brains around when things don’t go as planned, and dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Children crave rules, and once they’ve learned one, it’s hard to comprehend that sometimes rules can be broken, or just don’t apply in certain circumstances.
For instance, my daughter has been working on “waiting her turn” on the playground — for a ride in the swing, or on the seesaw, etc. She’s turned this into a mantra that she uses to inform others: “You have to wait your turn!” she exhorts the woman waiting in line for her latte at Ritual Coffee Roasters. “You have to wait your turn!” she shouted in the wind to every person who came down the stairs to the beach the other day. My friend Amanda tried to explain to Olive that no one has to wait their turn at the beach. “There’s so much water, and so much sand, that no matter how many people come, there will always be room for them! That’s what’s so great about the beach!” she told my little almost-2 year old rule-keeper. “You have to wait your turn!” was Olive’s strident response.
I’m beginning to believe that repeated exposure to such rigidity gives parents “compassion fatigue”, the kind which one becomes besieged with when working on the front lines in any mental health profession. On Monday, I was taken to a place of sheer insanity while in the throws of my daughter’s obsessive behavior over an article of clothing. A few weeks ago, Olive received a hand-me-down long sleeved T-shirt, with a picture of Dora The Explorer on it. Dora looks particularly innocuous, as she is depicted in a flowing dress and has a bluebird resting gently on her hand. Since then, every day, during getting-dressed time, Olive will ask, fervently, for “Dora shirt?” We let her wear it once a week, as that’s as often as we do the laundry.
On the fateful morning in question, I unfortunately decided that Olive was ready for some motivation. Baths are hard for her, since we have to comb out the dreads that form in the back of her afro, and as she was about to climb in to the bubbly water, I showed her the Dora shirt, and told her that if she did well in her bath, she could wear it that day! Silly Mama, 2 year olds don’t understand contingency plans! Olive straight up lost her mind, kicking water all over her papa (who seriously hated me for a few minutes there) and screaming bloody murder, trying to get her hands on that prized shirt.
Once we abandoned the bath, and she had the shirt on at last, I thought the worst of it was over. However, the smug look on Dora’s face belied the fact that there were more Dora-related tragedies on store for me that day. Summer in San Francisco is very cold, at least in the mornings, and as Olive and I headed out, I was careful to choose a coat that wouldn’t totally cover the beloved T-shirt. However, Olive flung herself on her back in misery once the coat was on, because it besmirched the totality of the Dora shirt, even just on the arms and back. She continued to cry and scream for our entire walk, until at last I let her take the coat off once we got to the park and she could warm up by running around.
I was never so grateful for a rest from both my child and that stupid effing T-shirt, which I got during nap time. However, after that brief interlude, we sat down to lunch, and craziness resumed. Olive began shoveling applesauce (which she still adorably calls “applebop”) onto her chest, then wailing in misery, “Oh no! My Dora shirt!” I cleaned it off a few times before I realized she was creating this bizarre drama on purpose! Well, as we’ve all heard, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So, I pulled the friggen shirt over her head, threw it in the laundry (oh, how I longed for a working fireplace, to match the drama of the day!) and texted my husband, “The Dora shirt is off. Let’s never speak of it again.”
Don’t get me wrong – I have little-to-no beef with Dora. She’s adventurous, bilingual, and resourceful. However, I have no idea why she is always asking kids questions and then asking them to say it again, “Louder!” I mean, AREN’T OUR CHILDREN LOUD ENOUGH? Olive frequently breaks the sound barrier, or reaches pitches that set all the dogs in the neighborhood howling. So, though I dig Dora, the shirt with her likeness on it had to go.
Even with the object of her obsession out of the picture, Olive continued to try my patience with rigid demands. The whole day enfolded in this fashion, until at last we were both inexplicably covered from head-to-toe with my lipstick, glaring at each other in frustration and confusion, and my friend Giselle said, “It’s time to go home.” You gotta know when to fold ’em. My husband arrived like a knight with roses and outstretched arms to place my daughter into. It was the kind of day that makes you wish you were Jack Donoghy, with the ability to sit in a darkened room drinking scotch and staring off at the skyline in a $4,000 suit.
The next day I prepared by deciding to wipe the slate clean. With my cartoon nemesis nowhere in sight, I said to myself, “I completely forgive my daughter, and myself, for yesterday. We did our best, and I managed not to lose my patience entirely and call her (or Dora) any names. To their faces. Today is a new day.” And you know what? Inexplicably, Olive was a complete ANGEL that day. She was literally the best behaved she’s ever been since entering toddlerhood. So, I guess the upside to being a crazy-making small child is you don’t hold grudges! She was able to just let go and start anew, and I took a page from her book, enjoying our time together to the hilt.
So, Mamas, Papas, & Caregivers, if you’re in the throws of a particularly insane day with your little one, hang in there. Call for back-up. Incinerate your version of The Dora Shirt, and start over the following day. We’ll all make it out of here alive, if with a few more personality quirks than when we embarked on this Toddlerhood journey.