What is it with the children and their stuff? The four year old has amassed mountains of objects all loaded with personal attachment. The standard baby blanket (think Linus) has turned into a collection of five. They are not just blankets—they’ve become proper nouns: Pink Blanky, Blue Blanky, Green Blanky, Purple Blanky, Dora Blanky. She arranged them on her bed in random fashion, every night wanting to be covered in a different order. “Blue blanky first, Dora blanky next. I don’t want Blue tonight.” On top of this she has “Old Puppy” named such in contrast to New Puppy, Old Puppy’s intended replacement at her 2 year birthday. By then Old Puppy was tattered to such distinction that there was no easy trade-off between stuffed animals. New Puppy became an addition to her bedroom collection of stuff, yet was never esteemed as highly as his predecessor.
The four year old has taken to collecting things she needs in bed with her during quiet time and night time. She has a special green cylindrical shaped block, smaller than a thimble, which is Old Puppy’s food, which he can never do without, and which easily gets lost in the middle of a night in the mass of Blankys. Next to the puppy food is the small flashlight keychain in the shape of a computer mouse “so she can see in the dark,” although this aid has never prevented her from storming out of her room at four o’clock in the morning to tell us she’s lost her Smarties.
Against the grain of my dietary values, the husband and I allow her five Smarties after lunch and dinner, along with a chewable calcium supplement in the form of a lion or a cat, depending on what I shake out of the bottle that night. She wants to amass great numbers of the tiny pastel discs on her bed, and saves the candy in neat little rows until she’s accumulated a day’s worth, two day’s worth. Twenty Smarties all lined up in marching order. Or sometimes, she fluffs up Purple Blanky so it forms great peaks and valleys of yarn on the bed and deposits one smarty in each valley.
Today, she peed on the er bed during quiet time and all of these things had to come off before I changed her sheets. The smarties were carefully unloaded into a small cup, the blankys piled on her floor in one corner in order to avoid the rows of wooden blocks she’d arranged on the floor.
The toddler is following suit. It seems she’s adding weekly to her collection of must-haves. They are not just must-haves for bedtime, but necessities for changing location in the house, for hopping in the car with me to pick up her sister at preschool, for sitting on the front porch. She must have Puppy (my father continued the tradition by giving her one of her own). She must have Blanky—which is a knitted white blanket the size of a small afghan. She must have her special plastic sippy cup. And last week she took possession of an old beige headscarf of mine with roses on it that has not been worn with any seriousness since 1999.
Transitions are difficult with her these days, for mysterious reasons. As soon as I announce we are preparing to leave she becomes frantic, clingy, pacing by the back door or following me around the house with her arms loaded down with Puppy, the afghan, the milk, the headscarf, requesting that I “carry you.” I can’t escape to the bathroom to pee before we leave without her standing between my legs and jumping up and down with her arms outstretched. In order to protect my injured shoulder, I wait until the last minute before leaving to heft her and her accoutrements up onto my hip, but before that—inevitably--in her trek across the house in pursuit of my last-minute scrambled, running around the house self, she trips on a block or her plastic phone. This sends her flying onto the floor, where she cries and recovers under a pile of dirty white yarn.
The recent cold weather this week has made the children’s possessions and their toting of them much more burdensome. Today I found myself carrying the toddler out to the car and weighed down with—it seemed—twenty pounds of outerwear, Puppy, the headscarf, the cup, a diaper bag slung over my shoulder carrying my wallet, the presumed diapers, the wipes, the leftover bagel from breakfast in case she got hungry later. The four year old can pitch in these days, and carries her own snack bag for preschool and her pack of epi-pens to the car on her own. Today, after climbing into her booster seat she announced she forgot Old Puppy.
“Oh,” I said with as much empathy as I could muster. “Do you think you can do without him today?”
I sigh, but not loud enough to blow my image as an attentive, in-love-with-her mother. “I’ll get it,” I tell her. “Just hang on.” I leave her and the toddler in the car while I run back into the house. The gloves I’d forgotten are sitting on the table. For a split second I wonder if I should take them with me, I have so much stuff. And what can I accomplish with gloves on anyway theses days? Will a gloved hand be able to finger the lock button on the car remote after we park? Will that hand be able to reach into the recesses of the toddler’s carseat and feel for the seatbelt’s release button?
I stuff them into my coat pocket and charge through the house in search of Old Puppy.
When it comes to cold, I’ve always had an every-woman-for-herself philosophy. If the husband and I stop for gas I never volunteer to fill the tank. If I am alone with kids on a tank-empty day, I stand in the cold and jump for warmth while I fill up the car. My eyes, frost-stung, eek out tears. The goal is and always has been: keep the hands in pockets or gloves at all times. Since I got over my junior-high phobia of coats (because coats were fattening), layers and outerwear and covered skin in winter was nonnegotiable. But now, saddled with the two children who can’t even put socks on by themselves (let alone hats and coats), I’m forced to contend with my hands in an ungloved state. I’ve never had sadder winter-hands than I do now. They chip and crackle, breaking open on knuckes and fingernail seams and sometimes on the backs of my palms.
I drop the four year old off at preschool and continue through town to the hospital where I’ll get my allergy shot. It’s insane, I think over and over to myself, to drag the toddler out in the cold, park in the hospital’s monstrous parking ramp, wrestle the umbrella stroller out from the tangle of other strollers in the trunk of our van, lug her out of her carseat, hand off the afghan, the scarf, Puppy, the cup, attach the diaper bag precariously to the stroller handle, and wheel her through a quarter the length of the hospital for this, the subcutaneous injection of mold spores and dust mites, which certainly haven’t prevented my having to take two antihistamines, a nasal spray and a steroid inhaler this fall.
The gloves lie on the passenger seat where I deposited them after turning off the ignition. Should I take them with or shouldn’t I? I know the pores of my hand-skin will begin aching and grow brittle in the short walk in the cold, but I’ll have to take them off anyway, to lock the car, or feel around in the diaper bag for the toddler’s snack. I look at them longingly on the passenger seat and stuff them into my coat pocket.
I wouldn’t mind all this so terribly much except for there is little reward these days. The therapist says four-year-olds are microcosmic teenagers—experimenting with rebellion and needing you at the same time. Love and hate. She hates my singing, the music I want to listen to in the car, and the weird oogly sounds I make to entertain the toddler. Perhaps the love she has for me is implied in the other things she hates: Not getting my full attention at a moment’s notice, i.e. I am handing off an urgent run-down to the husband of the day’s events, activities, food-intake of the children, and dinner menu before I run out the door for an appointment and she wants to tell me about the sudden crumb that made its way into her enchilada sauce. She hates my rules, because one of them means I don’t spend the mid-day quiet-slash-“alone” time with her while the toddler naps, and how sometimes I want to lie on my bed all alone without any conversations about the arsenal of Smarties she’s currently shaping into the numeral six on her bed.
If the four-year-old is modeling fourteen-year-old behavior, then the toddler is modeling the four-year-old-modeling-fourteen-year-olds. “Mommy: Stop singing .” For the first time, the toddler barked at me during a replay of a favorite car song.
“I can sing, Ev.”
“Nooooo!” she screeches without anywhere near a proper buildup of conflict to elicit such a reaction. But that’s what it’s like with the toddler these days. I am never prepared enough to anticipate her objections, nor her spastic arm-flailing which I think is just a mask for an all-out punch at my face. “What do you want for lunch, Ev” I asked yesterday. I got feet stamping and shouts. “NO. It’s NOT lunchtime! NO.”
In the car on the way to the hospital, she dropped the headscarf and began pleading “I drop it my blanky. Get it, Mommy,” she pleaded.
“Sorry, Ev,” I can’t right now. You’ll have to wait till we get to the hospital.”
“Noo,” she yells.
At this, she launches into a hyena-like pitch and shrieks.
When I’ve unloaded her into the stroller, she frantically asks after the dropped headscarf.
“It’s right here, Ev. I got it.”
“Good JOB, MOMMY!!! You DID IT!!!” she cried with such delight and apparent mirroring of the kind of praise that I give her that that you wouldn’t think she was previously cursing me at heart.
In the hospital, she is Shirley-Temple like, stopping to say hi to Shelly, the janitor we see on our way to Clinic B every week. She holds out her puppy for Shelly to take and giggles when Shelley asks if he is, indeed, her puppy. Her next act is to tell people about the shoes. “I got my shoes on,” she says in a bashful little voice, looking down at her feet and holding one leg up in the air. Everyone goes crazy at this. “Oh, you have shoes on???” they ask in superlative speech and wide smiles, as if this is the greatest breakthrough in toddler communication, when in fact she’s just told every random stranger who stopped to talk about her Stride Rite velcros.
And random strangers do stop to talk. They take her puppy, who is actually equipped with a hand-hole for puppetry, and do a small show there for her in the hallway between Elevators B and C. “She’s such a doll,” they say. And if they don’t say something, most of the women pass by with smiles and nods as if she is the Dalai Lama.
It feels like I’m living with my borderline mother again—jolly and boisterous one minute and raging the next—except this time the crazy one in the family is underage and I’m the grown-up who should be sane enough to know and mature enough to deal with exactly what is going on: The toddler is not-yet two. She has limited powers of communication. And she has a big sister.