My daughter came out of the womb screaming. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her hands were balled into fists. She was red-faced and so much louder than I ever imagined a one-minute-old could ever be. She turned into a one-day-old and a one-week-old and a one-year-old and she continued to be loud. She was loud when she was upset and she was loud when she was happy. She was so loud that when she screamed because she was mad and when she screamed because she was joyful her cries actually hurt my eardrums. I probably have some sort of residual hearing loss as a result.
She has never been much of a snuggler. She was not the type to lay her head on my chest or contour her body to fit into the crook of my arm. She busted out of her swaddle every single night until we gave that up. As a baby, the only way she’d let me rock her was if I held her back to my chest, so it wasn’t so much of a snuggle so much as an awkward hold. A hold in which I held my breath and thought to myself, “she should like me to hold her, shouldn’t she?” all the while knowing that she really didn’t want me to hold her.
My brain had difficulty reconciling this.
I cannot tell you the number of times she headbutted me in the face while I tried to hold her in my arms. I think it would be easier for me to count the times she didn’t. Her chest facing mine? Headbutt upwards, into the jaw. Her back facing me? Headbutt backwards into my nose. Often times, she’d end up screaming until I put her down in her crib, and then she’d still be screaming, but when I left the room she’d soothe herself and fall asleep.
It’s unsettling, as a mom, because I think I should intuitively know what my child needs, that she will respond to what I know how to give, but I’ve found out that all of that is a load of rubbish – that I have absolutely no clue.
What do you do when you have no idea how to be the parent your child needs?
Now, as a toddler, she always stands about 1.5 centimeters away from my reach so she’s always just slightly outside of my grasp. She is light on her toes. She twirls like a ballerina and she hops like a frog. She is a tornado, whirling and twirling across the room. She is an elusive little imp even though she is always very close by.
She is a strong little scrapper. A feisty little fighter. When she gets told to do something – “Kiddo, put on your pants.” she comes back with, “YOU put on my pants!” or alternately, “YOU put on your pants!” When I tell her, “Kiddo, be nice to your sister” and she comes back with, “YOU BE NICE TO YOUR SISTER!”
I try to notice what she’s doing right instead of what she’s doing wrong. So, I praise her when she’s done something well – like when she went potty on her own- “Kiddo, you did it!!” she furrows her brow and says angrily, “YOU DID IT!” and stomps off in a huff.
She flummoxes me.
Sometimes I feel like I’m failing her, because I can’t seem to get her to realize how amazing I think she is. She’s not only feisty and loud. She’s not always angry. She’s silly. She’s smart. She’s perceptive. She’s clever. She’s witty. She’s tenacious. She’s driven. She’s hilarious. She constantly dancing and singing and riding pretend horses around the house. She’s a reader, a drawer, a pretend doctor, a tea party host.
So, I’ve started trying out a new strategy I call Leaning In. Leaning In involves me taking my cues from her. Leaning in means forgetting what my other daughter might have needed, throwing out what I think she should need, and giving up any expectation about what how I think my child should act when she needs something.
I Lean In and I copying her mannerisms and her responses, even though I don’t alway understand where they are coming from. I let her know with my actions that I see her. I’m with her. She furrows her brow and looks at me with her eyes squinted, and I furrow mine and look back at her with half-closed eyes of my own. While my other daughter would get angry or sad at this response, this daughter laughs. She makes another face, this time a surprised face, her mouth shaped like an “o”. I raise my eyebrows and make the same expression back. She shifts her mouth into a giddy smile and squints her eyes – an exaggerated happy face – I mimic her again.
I Lean In and pretend I’m mad and I angrily tell her that she’s getting kisses – NO MATTER WHAT and I pepper her face. I tell her that I’m proud of her but I say it in an angry kind of way and she giggles and lets me kiss her on the cheek. She doesn’t even headbutt me in the jaw.
It appears that Leaning In and acting in this strange way that I don’t even fully understand is working. I’m getting longer hugs. With both of her arms. I’m getting gentle pats on my back. I’m getting genuine smiles for no reason. She’s Leaning In to me as I Lean In to her.