It’s early morning. I’m nursing the baby in the quiet. The sunlight is just beginning to seep in through the slants of the blinds when my toddler shuffles in. She looks at me, and I place my finger on my lips and whisper, “Shhhh…”
She pauses and then cuddles close to me, burrowing her face in my leg. Her hair tickles my leg, and I flinch, moving it away from her. Then there’s a nearly inaudible sigh as she climbs to her feet. She glances in my direction before shuffling out of the darkened room.
I almost missed it – that soft sigh of resignation. Mommy cannot be my everything.
One of her favorite stories comes to mind now, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow. In the book, a rabbit is trying to help a little girl come up with the perfect birthday gift for her mother. Together they brainstorm.
“What else does she like?” said Mr. Rabbit.
“She likes blue,” the little girl said.
“Blue. You can’t give her blue,” said Mr. Rabbit.
“Something blue, maybe,” said the little girl.
“Lakes are blue,” said the rabbit.
“But I can’t give her a lake, you know,” said the little girl.
“Stars are blue.”
“I can’t give her stars,” the little girl said, “but I would if I could.
Rachel always pipes in at this part and says, “I would if I could.”
And at this moment, watching my little girl slip quietly away, when I catch that shade of longing and see life from her bright, brown eyes I want to say these same words, too. It’s how I feel sometimes when I know I can’t fill everyone’s emotional wells at the same time.
I would if I could…
There’s a deep tug on my heart. My arms ache to hold her. I wish my lap was big enough to always accommodate her and her nursing baby sister who suddenly seems so long to me sprawled across my lap with kicking feet and twitching toes. I’d planned on tandem nursing, but two months before her baby sister’s birth, Rachel, always the easy-going child, stopped asking for my milk and I stopped offering. Just like that she was weaned from my breast. But she wasn’t weaned from my physical touch, my love. Sometimes I have to remind myself that she’s still a baby in many ways who requires lots of her mama even if she’s not one to complain. Her needs are still there, but she often doesn’t make them known. The signs that she needs a little extra TLC are more subtle and could easily be missed. Soft sighs. A gentle tug at my shirt. Pleading eyes that look up at me and find their way to my heart.
My sweet Rachel certainly has her toddler moments. When she’s overtired, she mutates into a screeching and onerous feudal lord, and we are all serfs expected to bend to her will and demands, but, mostly, she’s a laid-back child. She’s also taciturn, contemplative. When we have friends over, she often prefers self-imposed seclusion. I’ll check on her and find her immersed in an imaginary land all by her lonesome while her older sister corrals her friends together for a boisterous, active game she’s concocted on a whim. Both girls have vivid imaginations. One is just less showy about it.
I have to be careful to categorize my children by their personalities, but I’ve always seen my first as my more challenging child. She’s strong willed, spirited, and programmed to test limits and push buttons. I cannot contain her energy. She is a little primate who treats everything as a piece of jungle gym equipment. Three weeks after she broke her arm in two places, she was playing with a neighborhood boy and busted her nose. I don’t even try to keep her from stretching her limbs and moving her body anymore. She has a need to run, climb, skip, and jump. As active as she is, she’s going to suffer more playtime casualties.
It’s my first who has always prompted me to seek counsel from more veteran moms. And recently, I got a surprising morsel of advice that I’ve been chewing on ever since. I was chatting with a mom-friend who knows my children well. I was bemoaning the fact that it seemed that no matter how much I gave to my oldest, she wanted more.
“She’s always negotiating for more,” I said. “I feel like I can never give her all that she needs.”
“Madeline is fine,” my friend replied. “I’d worry more about Rachel.”
Huh? Rachel always seemed satisfied. Read her one book and then tell her she needed to go off and play on her own, and she would easily acquiesce to entertaining herself.
My friend went on to talk about how she had a sibling that her parents were always worried about. She was a tenacious child who would likely be described by the experts as “high need.” She was always on her parents’ radar screen. They constantly kept their finger on her emotional pulse to make sure she was okay. But my friend, well, she was more quiet and easily pacified. Yet, sometimes she felt like her parents didn’t notice she was drowning in the efforts to always meet the demands of her older sibling and never had a chance to come up for air.
“Make sure you’re giving Rachel extra attention, too – even if she doesn’t ask for it,” my friend advised.
Shortly after our conversation, Madeline went off to spend the night with her nana and pop. Rachel and the baby remained with me, and I decided I was going to plan some special things together.
We headed to the kitchen to make a smoothie, one of Rachel’s favorite treats. Her little hands scooped up strawberries, and she plopped them into the blender. When it came time to mix the ingredients, she asked if she could push the button to turn on the blender.
“Of course,” I said.
“Because Maddy’s not here?” she asked. Her brown doe-eyes met mine, and I felt that tug in my heart again.
Madeline always makes a big fuss about turning the blender on. She’s polite about it, but it’s her responsibility. Rachel has never even asked to do it, so I always have let her big sister be in charge of setting the blades into motion. Rachel’s job has always been to toss in the fruit.
But just because a wheel’s not squeaky doesn’t mean it doesn’t need a squirt of oil from time to time to keep it turning properly.
Parenting the easy child, it turns out, isn’t always so easy after all. In many ways, I have to be even more attuned to Rachel to make sure she’s getting what she needs. And when I’m not able to fill her cup completely, then it’s important for her to know that I still notice her, love her.
The next time I hear that soft sigh, I’m going to pull my Rachel back to me. If I can’t give her what she needs at that moment, I will whisper into her ear, “I would if I could…”
And when my hands and heart are free, I will give her all the hugs and love I can – even if it’s only adding to her surplus. This way, I hope, my sweet girl will have just what she needs even when she doesn’t ask for it.