I’ve never thrown a punch, administered a headlock, or busted out a set of nunchucks. I’ve never karate-kicked, or wrestled, or even slapped someone.

I’ve never been in a fight.

I’ve seen a few scuffles. One time in Brooklyn I saw a guy get pummeled against a street sign and one time in high school two girls in my class attacked each other over a mishap at a volley ball tournament. All I remember is how messy it looked; the sweat, the cursing, the red marks from where the punches fell. I was fairly certain I wanted to avoid any situation where I might get someone else’s spit and blood on my face.

On a handful of occasions I’ve had the impulse to lash out. Like one time when Verzion sent me a bogus bill and made me stay on the phone for five hours transferring from department to department only to hang up on me just as they were about erase the erroneous charge.

I punched the air and drop kicked my phone and if I could have afforded a plane ticked to India I would have flown all the way over to the Verizon customer service center just so I could strangle the dude who hung up on me. But, alas, I was too broke and too lazy to make the journey.

As a mom, I’ve communicated my non-violent ways to my daughter.  I’ve quickly interjected every time she raises her fists in frustration or pushes a friend when the whole sharing thing goes awry.

For the most part she’s gotten the message that hitting and punching and kicking and pinching and strangling are not okay. And I’ve been thrilled!

But a few weeks ago she was out with some friends and two “big boys” came up out of nowhere, hit her in the stomach, and then pushed her down. And a few days later on the playground my daughter took a bite to the arm for lingering too long at the top of the slide. Both times Sage just gave this look of shock. Her shoulders shot up to her ears and she folded her arms over her chest in a protective stance, “NO,” she shouted. Then, “Mommy, Mommy.”

And now I’m starting to wonder if maybe I need to shift my tune. Do I want her to just stand by and get pummeled? Do I want her to fight back? Maybe I should be telling her not to hit unless… someone else hits her super hard and is being a massive jerk or not to push unless someone breaks her skin with their teeth.  Maybe I need to make her a pocket-sized cheat sheet that spells out the types of offenses that warrant retaliation.

A simple push= just walk away

A push + a punch= push back but not too hard

A push+ a punch+ a kick= retaliate any way that you see fit

She could carry this little guide around and pull it out any time she does not know how to respond. “Oh crap, someone is tossing sand into my eyes, I have tried saying no, I’ve tried running away, what now…Wait, let me check the sheet. Hmmm relentless sand tossing equals a light kick to the shin. Got it!”

The problem is, it’s just never that clear cut. At times she is the one who has encouraged the hitting or kicking. Maybe she’s taken a toy, maybe she’s used words to tease. And how does that factor into the equation?

And even if I could come up with an appropriate response for every situation, there would be no way to explain the grey areas in every human interaction. Like maybe the pusher was going through a really hard time. Maybe he was teething or adjusting to a new baby sibling or maybe he had just shit his diaper and was feeling really irritable. How would I even begin to explain all these factors?

So it’s easier to just say “no hitting, no punching, no biting, no kicking, no strangling” and hope she’ll figure out how to navigate her own way. Or… I suppose I could also follow her everywhere for the rest of her life and throw some of those punches I’ve been saving up all these years. “Hey you, yeah you! That’s right kid in the adorable overalls. Did you just punch my kid? I thought so. You mess with her you mess with me. Got it? Now have you ever heard of Karate…”

My daughter and I have a daily routine. I put on a black bowler hat, she puts on a yellow sun hat. She nods to me, “Hello, Mister,” she says.

“Hello, Mister,” I echo back.

We shake hands.

We then do two laps around the house singing the following song: Mister and Mister are walking down the street. Mister and Mister are happy to meet you.

After the walk we turn to each other and I ask, “Where do you want to go, Mister?”

She answers, “to the movies, Mister.”

She hops in a little plastic blue boat and I hop in a little red car. We sit in our vehicles side-by-side and sway our bodies back and forth as if meandering down a quiet country road.

“We’re here!” Sage shouts after we’ve swayed back and forth about a dozen times.

“To the movies, Mister!” I say.

“Yes, Mister!” she echoes.

We exit our vehicles and walk arm-in-arm to the stairwell. We sit on the top step and proceed to stare at the wall. We do not talk.  We do not look at one another. We just pretend to watch an invisible movie. After about two minutes my two-and-a-half year-old rises quickly and says, “Good movie, Mister.”

“Yes, Mister. Good movie,” I confirm.

We take off our hats, shake hands, and continue the rest of our day as Sage and Mommy.

For some odd reason I find this fantasy to be incredibly satisfying. It leaves me feeling absolutely complete. It’s like a little Haiku; it’s like meditation. It relaxes me in a way that I can only compare to lying on the beach when it is perfectly sunny but not too hot. When we are playing “Mister and Mister” I just exist. It’s like a little scripted world and I know all my lines. I don’t have to think. I’m good at being “Mister”.

The other day, I was hiding away in the bedroom struggling to meet a deadline for work and feeling like a complete failure. I’d been trying to write the same sentence for the past hour and every attempt ended in a tangled mess of incoherent words. My husband was going to be late for a meeting if I didn’t emerge soon to take our daughter. I started feeling desperate. I began to hear a little “you suck” monologue in my head. I paced around. I kicked the wall. I ate some chocolate. I returned to the computer and gave it another go.

I failed yet again.

I paced around some more. I debated which window I would throw myself out of should I not be able to complete my assignment. I could hear my husband packing up his things, “I’ve got to go, love,” he gently reminded me.

“Leave, leave, leave” I barked back. “I’ll make this work somehow.”

I heard him exit out the back door. “I’ll be out in just one minute,” I called to Sage. “I’ve just got to write this one last sentence.”

She did not want to wait one minute. Before I could blink she was standing in the doorway holding out my black “Mister hat.”

“Let’s play Mister and Mister,” she begged.

“I can’t,” I huffed. ” I’m stuck, I need to figure out how to write something. It’s going to be a little bit longer.”

“You need to play Mister,” she insisted.

“But I really can’t,” I hissed.

My daughter looked at me like I’d just run over her heart with a tractor.

I put on my hat.

“Hello, Mister,” she said.

“Hello, Mister,” I echoed with far less enthusiasm than usual. We shook hands and began our laps around the house. As we looped past the dining room clock I paused.  I was almost certainly going to miss my deadline. I did not have time for Mister.

Sage immediately sensed my hesitation. She stopped in her tracks. “This is not how Mister goes!”

I took a deep breath. I debated trying to explain the way a deadline works and how Mommy is not only Mommy but also someone with a job who must make money so that we can eat. But when I looked down at her wearing her Mister hat, ready to have our daily adventure together, I just couldn’t.

“You’re right, Mister,” I apologized.

I took her hand and we continued. I followed the Mister script. Despite the impending deadline, despite the dread, I just did what Mister does. I walked, drove my plastic car, and watched an invisible movie. The power of my daughter’s play took over and despite my resistance it was absolutely lovely.

I still missed my deadline of course. The Mister hat is not an actual magic hat after all. It cannot make you go back in time and avoid the hours that you wasted on misguided ideas and ill articulated phrases. But I’m pretty sure that the brief escape into the world of Mister is what allowed me to eventually eke out that last little phrase that I’d been struggling with all day and press send on a document that ended up being pretty damn good.

According to my two-and-a-half-year-old, “big girls” rule the world. They are like little wizards disguised in leggings and Gap t-shirts. They can operate scissors, ride bikes with only two wheels, consume hard candy…their magical powers are truly undeniable and Sage is trying desperately to get on their team. Each time she completes a task that she identifies as “big girl” she practically explodes with glee. When she successfully used a glue stick we celebrated for three days straight, when she drank from a glass cup with no protective spill shield we called the local news station, and when she peed in the toilet, the real toilet, we danced until our shoes burned off our feet.

The other night at dinner, when she cast aside her blunted plastic fork and requested an adult sized utensil, I knew she was going for the gold. We watched with awe as she raised it above her head and then deftly speared a small noodle.  She was utterly shocked by the accomplishment, “Mommy…Daddy” she whispered. “I…I…I’m a big girl…I can fork! I CAN FORK!!!”

“Yes, yes!” We cheered. “You can fork. You can. You’re a forkin’ big girl!!”

But somewhere during all the excitement she suddenly got pensive. “I’m growing up,” she said in this tone that made me think she was really mystified by the whole process. And then she asked, “Why? Why am I growing?”

My husband and I exchanged a look and I knew we were both debating a response. Would we give a whole metaphor about seedlings growing into flowers? Would we make up a song to reveal the answer? Would we draw a diagram?

We opted for the boomerang approach and tossed the question back at her.

“Why do you think you’re growing?” we asked.

She paused for a good three seconds. She looked at her fork, she looked at us. She looked back at her fork, she looked back at us.

“I’m growing because you love me,” she said.

Of course, my husband and I cried.

Later that night, long after my daughter had gone to bed, I thought about her answer and wondered, “How much of her “growing up” really has to do with us?” Sure there are the obvious things like the fact that we’re feeding her and hydrating her and that obviously contributes to her literal growth. And we’re doing our absolute best to make her feel secure, and confident, and brave and I’d like to think that’s helping her inch upwards in the emotional arena. And yes we might be teaching her a thing or two: letters, numbers, colors, mostly by accident, so there are some cognitive leaps happening as a result of our presence.  But what I’m discovering more and more each moment that I know her is that she is in the driver’s seat, headed ninety miles per hour towards the person she will become. Her sense of humor is her own. Her stories and songs are made up on the fly. Her walk is determined yet dainty; it has a rhythm I cannot recognize in my own footsteps or my husband’s.   The world that she sees is painted in colors I can’t even imagine. She has a wisdom that is far beyond anything I can conjure in myself. Her creativity is mind-blowing and raw. Everything she touches turns into a unique invention.

Someday, when she really is “a big girl”, I’ll remind her of that one time she told us that she was “growing up because we loved her” and she’ll roll her eyes and make a gagging sound. “You guys’ had nothing to do with it,” she’ll groan.  And I’ll push back because, how could I not? I’ll list the numerous ways that we made her awesome and therefore request a small percentage of everything she ever earns along with a medium sized retirement house on the beach.  But really, secretly I’ll be thinking, “You’re absolutely right. You were your own person from the very start.”

The President recently went on vacation. And though I am no expert on the goings on of the President, I like to imagine the things that he might do on vacation. It’s all so glamorous and top secret. I picture him being whisked off to secluded beaches and entertained by world-class musicians who come right to his fancy villa and give him a private performance.  And then I imagine him dining out at elegant restaurants. I imagine the entourage that must accompany him and all the foresight and planning and careful investigation that must go into picking the eating establishment.

The secret service gets involved of course. Wearing their slick black suits and little mini walkie-talkies they must vet any restaurant before it is deemed appropriate for the chief executive.  “Blue dog, blue dog I am in the restaurant. I am assessing all available exits. Affirmative, I have identified three.  This place is looking like a possibility. Now I am checking for potential threats. All clear under the table, all clear in the restroom. I am removing all sharp objects from the vicinity. Mission completed. The area has been secured. Final mission now under way. I am reserving a table away from the crowd. Check, I have secured a table where the President can maintain a low profile and not create a stir amongst the other diners.  Bring in the boss. We are a go. Operation Eat in Peace can now begin.”

Strangely, as I imagine this federal security team, it all starts to sound familiar. Was I in the secret service in a past life? Was one of those “fresh out of college” temp jobs for the federal government? All those gigs are such a blur now I’d be hard pressed to say. Wait a minute… I know why this drill sounds familiar! This is the exact routine my husband and I go through when we want to go out to dinner with our two-and-a-half year old; except we don’t have walkie-talkies or cool black suits.

JD and Sage hang in the doorway counting light fixtures or making up songs while I creep into the restaurant to assess.  Just like the secret service, I look for easy exits. Where will I run if she has a melt down? Where will we go when she insists, “No table mommy, no more no way. I need to dance.” Next I move on to threats- are there vases on the tables? Small flames within reach? A steak knife? Do I see anything in grabbing range that my daughter might brandish like a sword? All of these items will need to be removed. Then, just like the President’s team, I look for something secluded, something off the beaten path, something one step above a coat closet or bathroom stall. The more privacy we have the more we can sing our goofy “I like the way that Sage is eating” song, and blow bubbles with our straws, and accidentally throw crayons. But I don’t stop there. I am even more thorough than the Secret Service. I check for highchairs, I make sure there is at least one screaming child in the room, I look for bendy-straws, and hope to find lots of food morsels strewn about the floor.  Loud music is a plus. Loud, live music is divine! When I’ve completed my investigation I dash back to my crew, “All systems go. Operation Eat As Fast As You Can And Get The Hell Out Of There Before Bedtime Grows Near can now begin.”

Just like the President when we enter the restaurant everyone is aware of our presence. Just like the President people gasp and wonder, “Will they sit next to me?” And when we finally do choose our seats everyone within our range stares and whispers, “What is going to happen over there at that table?”

After our meal, when we get up to leave, sometimes people clap…

It’s all very glamorous, just as it is for the President, I’m sure.

A doorknob, it’s such a little thing. I never really gave it much thought. It just sits there hanging out. Maybe it’s brass, maybe wood. It’s almost ornamental. You turn it around when you want to get in or out. It’s an automatic thing. It’s like blinking. Basically, a doorknob is a nothing.

But just the other day my daughter figured out how to open one.  I was in the office, pecking away at my computer, trying to find the exact right words to describe the way a turtle looks when he’s thinking really hard, when all of a sudden I saw the doorknob slowly start to turn. I jumped from my seat. Was it a ghost? Surely it couldn’t be my daughter, not my two-and-a-half year old, she doesn’t have the fine motor goods to pull that off!  But much to my surprise, like a gust of autumn wind, who should push the door wide open but Sage.  My mouth dropped.

“I did it!” she shrieked in delight. “You did it!” I clapped echoing her enthusiasm. And I was genuinely happy for this milestone moment.

But then… it hit me.

This changes everything! For starters I can now forget about working at home and occasionally peeing in privacy. That will now be completely out of the question. And beyond that I expect that I will now wake most nights to a toddler who has snuck out of her room, crawled into my bed, and planted herself conveniently on my face. So, sleep is out too. And discipline… well that is going to shift forever. Now when I send my daughter to her room the only reason she’ll agree to stay in there is if she respects me or fears me… I lose on both counts. And what happens when she gets a sudden craving for an ice-cream cone? She won’t even bother asking me to take her. She knows where I keep my wallet. She’ll just take out my credit card and head out for a chocolate Sunday. The cashier won’t know what’s going on when out of nowhere a tiny hand appears over the counter holding a visa and a little voice whispers, “chocolate please.”  And soon I expect she’ll be sneaking out in the middle of the night too. She’ll have little meet-ups. She’ll start a club with other local toddlers who can open doorknobs and they’ll rent out a warehouse and have raves where they rock out to Dan Zanes, eat candy necklaces, throw off their diapers, and pee willy-nilly on the floor. The neighbors will complain of the noise, the toddlers will rebel. They’ll go around town opening every door they can. They’ll break into law offices and gobble up important documents. They’ll break into the police station and let out all the prisoners, they’ll break into the motorcycle shop and go for a joy ride. They’ll go around turning doorknobs for no reason at all… just because they can!  They’ll travel from house to house opening and closing door after door! Folks will think there’s a poltergeist on the loose. The city council will meet; they’ll declare an emergency. The FBI will get involved. The door opening toddlers won’t pay them any mind because they don’t know who the hell the FBI is. They’ll just continue wrecking havoc. The town will have no choice but to remove all doorknobs from all doors. And with no doorknobs, none of us will have a way in or out of our homes.

We’ll just be stuck, right where we are, forever and ever and ever.

Suddenly I start to feel bad for all those years I just walked around opening and closing doors and not paying any mind to those little doorknobs. I’m sorry, doorknobs! I’m sorry. You really do make the world a better place. You are important. You make me happy. You give me the boundaries and the freedom that keeps me sane. I need you doorknobs… I need you!!

“Let’s hit the road,” I call out as I head toward the door dragging the hiking backpack, the stroller, and my daughter’s favorite stuffed bear. We are taking a walk. It’s going to be our moment of quiet, our time of slow observance. We will stroll the countryside, moo at the cows, and watch the sun dip low in the sky.  As we walk, we will talk about the wind and about flying. We will listen for small sounds, sounds that no one else would hear. We will match fallen leaves to their trees and make up stories for the crickets.

I have it all planned out.

I took this same walk yesterday without my daughter. The whole time I imagined her with me; the two of us out in nature, enjoying the scenery, taking it all in. I imagined her telling someone about the walk ten, maybe even twenty, years later. “My mother used to take me out in nature. That really is what gave me such an appreciation for life. There was this one walk we took…it was just so perfect, and somehow it made me realize that the world was full of wonder. And I carried that with me forever and ever and ever and that’s why I’m such a great person and am President of The United States.”

As we drive off in the car, towards our destination, I can almost hear music playing in the distance. It’s a quiet song, but very emotional, and truly inspired. I cannot wait to begin our journey.

“Okay, honey,” I say as I set the backpack on the ground, “hop in.” She takes one look and shakes her head.

“No mommy. I want to walk.”

“Sounds good,” I agree, not wanting to argue with her desire to frolic freely. I stuff the pack back into the trunk.

“Off we go!”

We take eight, maybe nine steps.

“I think I want the stroller,” my daughter squeaks.

I carry her back to the car, unload the stroller, and buckle her in.

“But Mommy. I need to do the buckles.” She corrects me.

I undo the buckles and wait as she spends the next five minutes securing herself in the stroller.

I begin to get frustrated. I take a deep breath and think of the walk. This really is going to be great.

When she’s finally satisfied with the straps we begin to stroll down the road. I don’t waste any time. I jump right in and start pointing out the beauty. I have this one short walk to introduce my daughter to all the wonders of the world and I’ve already lost at least twenty minutes to the backpack/stroller ordeal.

“Look! The sky!” I say as I wildly gesture up towards the heavens. “What if you could fly like a bird?”

“Oh, Oh,” she says pointing down to a rock that has been sprayed orange by a road crew.  “What if I could touch that orange rock?”

I take her out of the stroller. She touches the rock. I quickly put her back in the stroller. She notices a bottle cap cast to the side of the road. “But Mommy, there’s that!”

“But Sage there’s trees and flowers.”

“AND THAT” she insists, jumping out of the stroller and running to the cap like it’s precious and rare.

I can feel the walk of my dreams slipping away…

Suddenly I realize the magic word that will get us back on track.

“Cow” I shriek, like I’m alerting people to a burning building.

My plan works.

My daughter giggles in delight at the prospect of livestock. She runs back to the stroller and…

…spends five more minutes strapping herself in.

I take many deep breaths. “Isn’t this lovely,” I say.

When she’s finally secured we trot off to the cows. “This is where it will all turn around,” I think to myself. “She’ll watch them graze, notice the grass and the way that the wind bends all living things ever so slightly. It will be profound” But when we get to the pasture, there are no cows in sight. “NO COWS!” my daughter states as if in total shock and disbelief. I know her subtext is, “OH MOMMY, HOW YOU LIE!!”

I frantically begin making up a story about how the cows must be sleeping or having a meeting with Old McDonald, I’ve just got to turn this around.

But then out of nowhere Sage spots a stick that is just her size. The missing cows are forgotten. Our nature walk is back on!

“This will be my very best walking stick,” she says as she brandishes it about, nearly taking out my eye. “Oh and that one too… and one more…that one over there.”

I quickly gather her sticks and place them on her lap, now this is starting to become what I imagined. We are foraging. We are two explorers out on the road.

“Onwards!” I cry and attempt to move us forward, to the maple trees that are just around the corner, to the glistening spider webs and the rock pile where just yesterday I spotted a fox.

But her three sticks have gotten caught in the wheels and the stroller spins and catches and nearly tips over.

“No more walking sticks.” I say, now losing my temper.

“But they are my best,” she begins to cry.

And because I dreamed of walking silently by her side, down the dirt path, and through the meadows, I agree to hold the three walking sticks as I push the stroller.  I nest one under my chin and one under each armpit and trudge on.

Now I’m really starting to feel like a chump. I’m disappointed. I’m tired. I’m done walking!

I can no longer point out the setting sun or the sound of the crickets or the wind on the maple leaves. If I talk, the damn stick will fall from beneath my chin. “Fuck it,” I think to myself. “This walk sucks!”

But then out of nowhere Sage begins to shout, “Stop mommy. Stop. Look right there.”

And she points to something off to the side, just beyond my view.

I sigh.

I put down the sticks.

I unbuckle the straps.

I lift her out of the stroller.

I sigh again.

I follow her to a spot in the grass.

She kneels down.

I kneel beside her.

She extends one tiny finger and shows me a small speck of light that is shining on an even smaller flower. It is absolutely perfect.

We never do manage to spot the fox, or the cows, or achieve enough stillness to really feel the wind or the leaves beneath our feet. But I’m pretty sure I can hear that music playing in the distance as we walk back to the car.

You know you’ve angered your toddler when you return from your first-ever overnight trip without her and she greets you by throwing a shoe at your head. You know she feels betrayed by your absence when she follows the shoe-throwing with the statement, “You are not my only one in the world! You can’t play with my toys!” Additionally you can be fairly certain that she is warning you to never leave again when later that day she says, “I will be an animal and if you run away I will eat you up.”

And a week later, when you are in the car together and it starts raining and you turn on the windshield wipers and your child watches them swish back and forth and makes the observation, “That looks like a mommy going away from her baby. But her baby will not let her go. She is going to chase her, and chase her, and chase her…” you know your kid is still working through her feelings and is going to be mad, and sad, and insecure for a little while longer…

And as you try to navigate your way through her aggression, you may find yourself wishing for a lighter touch. “I wish she’d hold back,” you might think. After all, it is demoralizing to be told, “I’m mad at you mommy,” and, “I’m sad at you mommy,” over and over again.

And as soon as you have that thought you might find yourself remembering a time when people did hold back and did refuse to tell you what they were really thinking. You might recall one time in middle school when out of nowhere people whispered and glared and said, “this seat is taken,” when you asked to sit at their lunch tables. And you may be able to conjure that feeling you had way back when, that feeling like you were suddenly living in an alternate universe where humans don’t actually address each other directly, but instead use some sort of secret language that consists of a series of eye rolls, and everyone can speak the language but YOU.

“Did I do something?” you’d wander around saying. “I feel like people are mad at me but I’m not sure…no one will tell me what’s going on…”

And perhaps you will recall that one time you and your significant other argued for three weeks over which type of domestic animal would make a better pet. And you said it was dogs “because they love you no matter what,” and he said it was cats, “because they make you work hard for their affection and therefore are more genuine and trustworthy.” And you cried and bickered and almost broke up until just at the last minute you realized that you were not actually mad about cats and dogs at all. You were ACTUALLY mad because one of you forgot your three-month anniversary.

Or maybe you will remember the time your boss started giving you extra assignments because you were the only one in the office who did not comment on how sharp she looked in her new mini suit. Or maybe that time a colleague stopped asking, “Can I get you anything at Starbucks? I’m picking up Latte’s for everyone,” and you spent the rest of your coffee breaks obsessively trying to figure out what crime you had committed that would warrant your exile from “The Starbucks List”.

And as you are remembering these times you might suddenly find yourself desperate for your toddler and grateful for her confrontational ways. At least she tells you exactly where you stand. At least with her you will know when the storm clouds have passed. There will be no guessing, no silent treatment or “he said that she said that they said…” Just a straight up “You suck!” until finally… eventually…”I love you mommy,” becomes the sentiment once again.