Today, so far, has been a good day for you and me. So far, there has been no screaming, no time-outs, no threats of what privileges I’ll take if you refuse to obey. Today, you wanted a book from your preschool’s Book Fair. You came when called, obeyed requests in a timely manner. You even offered to carry Ceci’s backpack when she collapsed into a tantrum outside of school. “Ceci, if you’re a good listener, you’ll get a book!” you told her as she sprawled facedown on the sidewalk. The voice of perfect reason. You can be that, sometimes.
Other days, your dad and I take everything: no sweets, no TV, no playtime with friends, no books at bedtime. I take your favorite dress or the American Girl catalog that you got your hands on before I could hide it in the recycling bin. I send you to time-out, and when you won’t go there, I pick you up, which is no longer easy. And when you won’t stay in time- out, I carry you to your room while you swing your fists in your best attempt to injure me. I try to care for your sisters while we listen to you scream and rage behind the door. What I want is for you to stop fighting me all the time. What I want, when the screaming and raging has subsided, is for you to crawl into my lap and show me how pitifully sorry you are for whatever started this whole mess. You never do. You look up from your beanbag chair, where you are quietly coloring, and ask if you can have a screen.
Lately it feels like NO is the only thing you and I say to each other. Our relationship has shifted in other ways, too. A couple of weeks ago we went together to Ash Wednesday service. You asked if you could sit in the front pew with some of your preschool friends, but it was already full. Sit next to me, I said. You stayed a sullen three feet away from me throughout, shaking off my entreaties. Come closer, Maggie. No. Come sit with me, honey. No. When it was time, I led you to the front of the sanctuary, where our pastor waited. I watched him dip his thumb in the ashes and place a cross on your forehead. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” he told you quietly. And all I could think was, One day my baby will die. And today she won’t sit next to me.
You’re only five. Even though you roam the backyards of our neighborhood with the older kids, you’re still little. You haven’t outgrown tantrums. You haven’t fully realized how big the world is, how many other people it holds. You want what you want because your world is small, and everything, to you, feels important. Probably, this behavior, this pulling away, is just a part of that. Probably you’re just doing what kids do.
But you’re my first, and we’ve never been here before. Everything with you is new. So I worry, my love, that this isn’t just a phase. I worry that this is just who we are, two people who dig in our heels, who are destined to misunderstand each other. I will still love you, even if that’s true, but I don’t want to fight with you. I want you to scoot on over in the church pew and let me pull you closer. If we are both dust, I want you to return to me again and again and again.