In the big wide world of “wanting” my daughter had been fairly low maintenance.  Her most frequent requests were for popsicles, pens and little one-dollar notebooks. My husband and I figured we were home free. We just assumed it was like eye color – it settles by two and then is stable forever after; if she didn’t have major purchasing requests by 29 months, she was pretty much going to fall into the “I hate shopping” camp and stay there. We would not have to worry about cars or the latest fashion trends. We’d just weave her a skirt out of plastic shopping bags and get her a bus pass.

Trips to the toy store were more like visits to the children’s museum.  We’d play with the items, experiment with the display babies, make a visit to the train table, and bounce a few balls.

“Time to say goodbye to the toys,” I’d say after about 45 minutes. She’d go around kissing each play thing and calmly tuck the babies into bed. The cashier would scowl at me for lingering so long and not making a purchase. I’d wave apologetically and we’d be out.

It was glorious. As we’d saunter down the street, bag free, I’d glance back through the store window to see other children red-faced and flailing at the register. Though I could not hear them I knew they were shouting, “I want it! I need it!” I’d puff out my chest and pat myself on the back. “Good work self! Don’t know how you pulled it off but this kid craves nothing.”

But then the other day we were visiting a farm and a miniature pony came prancing up to the fence and gently nuzzled her nose against my daughter’s arm. Sage was immediately smitten. I watched as her mouth slowly fell below her chin, then down past her navel, knees, ankles and finally landed with a thud on the dry dirt. She was completely agape. “M-mommy,” she stammered, “I need to have that.”

“That pony?” I asked just for clarification.

“That pony.” She insisted. “I need that little pony. I need to buy that pony.”

I was indignant.

“But that is so cliché! Ponies are what the spoiled little girls in movies always ask for. You can’t ask for a pony. You are supposed to be low maintenance. I’ve been priding myself on that. No pony. No Pony.”

“But I need a pony!” she began to howl. “Shhhh…” I hissed, “What if someone hears you. They will think I’m one of those mothers who never denies her child anything. And besides, we have no place for a pony. We aren’t even allowed to have a cat in our apartment. We are still renting for Christ’s sake. How do you think we could afford a pony?”

“Pony, pony, pony!” she continued as I flopped down on a pile of hey to recalibrate.

“Maybe this is just a fluke,” I assured myself. “That pony is really freakin’ cute after all.  I’m sure Sage will be right back to her spartan self tomorrow.”

But then tomorrow came and again something bizarre occurred. We were sitting on the side of the road waiting for her father to arrive on a Greyhound bus when all of a sudden a motorcycle flew by. Two riders straddled the seat and both sported neon helmets and fringed vests that blew wildly in the breeze.  Sage stood and pointed like she’d spotted a familiar friend in a crowd. “Look Mommy. A motorcycle. Can you buy me a motorcycle?”

I shook my head, “You’re kidding me right.”

“I want one for really real! And I don’t want to share mine like those guys. I want my own. I will ride just me.”

“Sorry honey,” I cooed. “You have to be a lot older and even then you’ll have to kill me off and get Daddy to find you a much less neurotic mother who will not lie in bed at night crying about the fact that you are zooming around with nothing between you and the pavement but a plastic helmet. No. Not now, not later. No motorcycle.”

My two year old looked both shocked and offended, like I’d just poured ice water on her head. “But I need one,” she demanded.

And it occurred to me as I sat there on the side of the road trying to calm her down while also making it perfectly clear that she was never ever getting a motorcycle, that maybe all this time she was just waiting for the big ticket items.  All those docile trips to the toy store, all that contented window-shopping, perhaps it was all just a ploy. She was waiting, adding up the numbers, “That’s fifteen dolls I never asked for, and three pretend shopping carts I simply ignored, eight play kitchens I left at the store, and five Thomas The Tank Engines I did not demand…. That’s got to at least add up to a horse or an automobile… my mom owes me something big for all the tantrums I never threw.”

So, now I find myself longing for the toy store meltdowns. At least there are a limited number of kid centric shops on any one given block. You can spot them from afar and just walk the other way. But trucks and motorcycles and buses just keep coming. Yesterday my daughter begged for an old fashioned convertible, a fire truck, and a Toyota Prius. The ladies at the toy store are going to love me now. I’ll be shoving baby doll after baby doll into a cart just to distract my daughter from her desire to own a jumbo jet.

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My daughter and I are at the local library playing hide-and-seek in juvenile fiction. Suddenly she takes hold of my skirt and urgently pulls me close,  “I am going to shout!” she tells me as if confessing a deep dark secret. “How do you know?” I whisper. “Because I’m going to,” she says trying to match my hushed tone.

“Well we’re in the library,” I explain.

“We don’t shout here. You see that lady reading, she needs quite. And that librarian won’t like it one bit. She already got mad at mommy for letting you touch the computer. No shouting” I say. “Those are library rules.”

“Mommy,” Sage interrupts now looking extremely serious, “I’m going to shout.”

I quickly pick her up. “Count to five first,” I say and then book it towards the door. I nestle her head into my chest to help muffle the sound just in case she can’t hold it in.

“One, two, three, four, five…” I count aloud. And just as we are crossing through the glass doors and onto the sidewalk Sage releases a gigantic, “SHOUT!” She actually says the word shout as she shouts.

“I did it mommy. I shout outside!”

“Yes,” I say. “Good work.”

As we walk home I think to myself, “What was that?” and I file the event in a section of my brain that I now reserve for figuring my child out.

A few weeks later we have a similar incident. We’re in the car and I’m sitting next to her in the back seat. After waiting at a particularly long red light she turns to me and says, “Mommy I’m going to do heeyah!”

Heeyah is my daughter’s version of a karate chop (inspired by Miss Piggy) and she knows she can’t do it anywhere near people. “I’m going to do heeyah at you.” She further explains.

“But you can’t,” I say. “You can’t do heeyah at me.”

Sage is adamant. She’s got a strong urge to hit me and she’s not giving up just yet. “I NEED to do heeyah,” she says with great force.

“Are you feeling mad?” I ask.

“No” she tells me, “I’m feeling heeyah.”

“Well you can not do heeyah at me and you can not do it in the car.”

My daughter grows quiet and then calmly states, “I will do it in the car and then I will go to my room.”

“Yes” I respond. “I will send you to your room if you karate chop me.”

Sage grows very quiet. She looks up at the ceiling and closes her eyes. She is deep in thought.

I imagine she’s playing out her punishment. Perhaps she’s picturing herself behind her closed bedroom door crying in despair. Suddenly she opens her eyes and glances back down to meet my gaze. She is clearly having second thoughts.

“I don’t want to go to my room,” she says.

“Then do not karate chop me,” I respond.

She stares at me.

I stare at her.

Then slowly she takes hold of her arm and pulls it close to her side as if trying desperately to keep it from following its dangerous impulse.

She holds it there for several seconds. When she finally lets go it falls limply at her side. The urge has passed. My daughter is in the clear. “Hi Mommy!” She says in a light and cheerful tone. “Hi Sage,” I say. “Good work.”

That night as I lie in bed processing this event and the incident at the library it dawns on me that I am witnessing my daughter develop self-control. For the past two years she’s been discovering “the rules”. She’s seen what gets her in trouble, what is deemed unsafe, what is “crossing the line.” She’s watched us gasp as she runs towards an open staircase. She’s heard our lectures as she refuses to share with a friend.  Now she’s taking a stab at policing herself.  But it’s raw and awkward. It’s new and most definitely hard. It takes everything she’s got. She narrates her actions and talks through the consequences. She involves her whole body in restraining her impulses. It’s incredible to watch. Though soon her response will become automatic it occurs to me that this way, this early form of self-restraint is actually really responsible and thoughtful. It’s almost noble. I start thinking about how I might be served by such a process.

Like the other night: would I have eaten four cookies and gone to bed with a stomach ache if I had taken the time to really think through my actions and their consequences? What would have happened if I had paused on my fourth trip to the dessert platter and said aloud, “I am going to eat a fourth cookie. That will mean that there will be four cookies in my stomach. I will want to puke. I will have great regret. I will be sad.” How would it have played out differently if I had actually reached for the hand that was grasping for the fourth cookie and pulled it towards me and held it tight even when it tried to wriggle loose and grab that round morsel of chocolate?

What would have happened is that I would have gone to bed having NOT eaten FOUR cookies.

And then as I drifted off to sleep, instead of gripping my stomach and moaning into the night I could have given myself a gentle pat on the back.

“Good work” I would have said.

“Good work.”

We’re at a wedding. The bride and groom stare into each other’s eyes as their friends recite Rumi. Behind them lies a sprawling apple orchard and everything is in bloom. The groom is beaming like a cartoon version of himself. The bride is full of grace. Sage sits on my lap and then on her father’s shoulders. She is riveted. She knows something special is happening. She scans the scene collecting all the details. “They’re getting married,” she keeps whispering like she’s watching aliens land in the back yard and can’t believe her eyes.

As the couple takes their vows and then skip arm in arm towards the reception, I imagine my daughter in love. I picture the look she’ll sport and the hours she’ll spend in her room whispering into the phone, ” You hang up… no you… no you hang up…ok we’ll count to three and then we’ll both hang up. One…two…three. Did you hang up? No…me neither…I love you…I love you more…”

I think about how I’ll feel when someone breaks her heart. I imagine what I’ll say and how she’ll yell at me when I tell her, “there will be others, someone even more right”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” She’ll bark, and I’ll rub her back as I plot ways to take out the little shit who made her so sad. For now, Sage’s universe revolves around my husband and me, a few dolls, a couple of close relatives, and a large rubber duck. It’s safe and controlled. I’ve got years, until I have to help her navigate the big wide world of love and loss.

But then, out of nowhere, emerging from a sea of apple blossoms, a girl in a yellow dress trots up the hill. She works the orchard like it’s a dance floor. She spins, she leaps, she does an arabesque. She’s at least two and a half, maybe even three. Her senior status alone makes her a rock star in my daughter’s eyes.

Sage is immediately smitten.

“Who’s that?” she asks, like this twirling toddler must be an “A-list” movie star.

“I wanna play with her…” Sage whispers.  “Mommy can you help me know her name?” She begs.

As we approach, my daughter practices her introductions, “I’m gonna say I’m Sage,” she informs me.

“Oh that’s a good one” I say, “Open with that.”

Within minutes Sage and Yellow Dress are running after each other, frolicking down the isles of perfectly planted trees. We meet the girl’s father. He’s lovely. As we follow our children we start to frolic too. This dad is funny and down-to-earth. My husband and I exchange a nod like, ” I hope this Yellow Dress Girl thing works out. I could see a future with these folks.”

Sage is exhilarated.  Yellow Dress girl teaches Sage how to point her toe. Yellow Dress Girl reaches out to hold her hand. She drags Sage around the wedding grounds saying, “come on little Sage, I need to show you this, I need to show you that.” It’s all going so well. I want this new girl to move in, I want her to be in our family. She’s so friendly. Sage is puffed up with pride as she moves just like Yellow Dress Girl. She keeps looking over at me like, “Do you see this mom?  Yellow Dress just taught me to shimmy? I never knew my shoulders could move like this! Me and Yellow Dress are gonna own this wedding.”

And just when I start planning our first family vacation with Yellow Dress and her folks, a little darling in a polka dot jumper enters the scene. She looks shy and delicate. She’s eyeing Yellow Dress and quietly inching close when all of a sudden she falls down landing conveniently right at Yellow Dress’s heels. Yellow Dress extends a hand. “Are you okay?” she asks, and then gives this kid a gentle back rub.

“Come with me little girl,” she says like she’s this child’s Mommy. “I’ll show you all the apples.”

And just like that my daughter has been replaced. Sage throws herself into the grass and cries. “Mommy! Where’s Yellow Dress? I wanna play with her!”

Yellow Dress just gives a little “See ya” glance as she takes Polka dot’s hand.

But Polka dot can’t quite keep up and then she poops and her Mommy needs to take her away for her diaper change. Now Yellow Dress in alone.

I can see her scanning the orchard for my daughter. When she finally spots my kid she bends down and picks a dandelion. “Nice tactic.” I think to myself, “We’ll see if it works!”

When she presents Sage this little peace offering my kid just rips the bloom right off the flower and throws it onto the ground.

This is passion.

Yellow Dress is completely thrown. She looks confused. Sage begins sauntering off towards the dance floor. Now I’m feeling bad for Yellow Dress. It’s looking like tables have turned and Yellow Dress has really lost her bearings. Sage glances back and shows Yellow Dress this gyrating hip swirl that she’s been perfecting since she could stand. She really wants to rub it in Yellow Dress’s face: “Do you see what you gave up?” but Yellow Dress will not let her go she follows my daughter all around the dance floor. She repeats all Sage’s moves. She claps for my kid after each twirl and hop. After a while I can see Sage warming up. But she’s not quite sure. She runs from Yellow Dress and then stops and waits. Yellow Dress follows and embraces Sage.  Sage runs again. Clearly she is testing this kid’s loyalty. How committed is she? After all, she did stray within the first forty-five minutes. She could still be trouble. But Yellow Dress is in it for real now. No matter where my daughter goes this kid is at her side. After a while Sage is convinced.

“Mommy I need my note book.” She tells me with a serious look on her face.

“The one we just got? The one you’ve been carrying around for the past week? The one you can’t live without?”

“My notebook,” she reiterates.

“What for? ” I ask.

“I’m gonna give it to Yellow Dress,” she informs me.

That’s when I know it’s serious. Sage is going to share her most prized possession with this kid.

I take up the defense. If Yellow Dress ditches my kid again I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to kick her ass.

The notebook exchange is made and Yellow Dress holds it like it’s a tiny sparrow, precious and new. The two girls strut around. All the guests have taken notice. The wedding photographers cease to follow the bride and groom. They’re now trailing this burgeoning toddler twosome. When the little ones hit the dance floor the sea of people parts around them. We once again take up with Yellow Dress’s parents. We marvel at our children together. We dream of future play- dates. They live hours away from us but maybe, just maybe, we can make this thing work.

As the sun goes down we break from our conversation to notice our kids are starting to melt into the dance floor. We swoop them up and begin to make our exit. As we walk to our cars and wave goodbye there is a moment where we could exchange numbers. We could give it a real go.

But we don’t. They head one way and we head the other.

As we cruise down the highway Sage whispers sleepily into my ear, “I have so much fun with Yellow Dress” she says. “Maybe she can come over? Maybe to my house…?” She asks hopefully.

“Maybe someday.” I say, not wanting to break her heart just yet.

Even if it’s all forgotten in the morning.

For now, it’s first love.

“May May?” my daughter cries out.

“Is she talking to me?” I wonder.

“May May!” she says sounding more desperate. I run to her thinking that perhaps she has hit her head and forgotten my name.

“Oh, May May,” she says when she sees me pass through the door and into her room.

“How many fingers am I holding up? Who’s president?” I ask as I check her pupils to see if they’re dilated.

She can’t answer either question but it’s clear there’s nothing wrong. She’s giving me a big smile.

“Hey May May,” she says in a casual “what’s up” sort of tone.

“You’re my May May,” she continues lovingly.

“Oh,” I say. “I thought I was your mommy. I thought we’d kind of established that over the past two years.”

“You’re May May,” my toddler insists.

“Okay” I think to myself, if the past two years have taught me anything it’s that I should be adaptable, roll with it, go with the flow.

So I spend the afternoon answering to May May.

“Whatever,” I think, “it’s just for the day.”

But the next day May May is requested once again; and the day after that, and the day after that too. I start to wonder: What has become of Mommy?

Maybe I need to reintroduce myself; come to think of it I’m not sure I ever officially introduced myself to begin with. Maybe I’ll just rewind and do this right. I’ll give my kid a hearty little handshake.

“I’m Mommy,” I’ll say.

“I’m the one who’s lent you the boobies all these months (26 to be exact). I’m the one who loves you till my heart hurts and lies awake at night obsessing over your future. I’m the one who strategically places developmentally appropriate toys in places that you can reach and sings to you all day long. It’s Mommy, got it, Mommy.”

But lately that’s not all Mommy has been doing. Lately I’ve had to occasionally diverge from my impulsive, intuitive, “go with the flow” parenting and begin to play the role of enforcer. Lately I find myself saying things like “If I don’t hear a please I’m going to have to turn this car around!” or “I’ll count to three and if you don’t clean that up play time is over.” In short, I’m doing some dirty work. I’m having to be firm at times and even, dare I say, teach some lessons. I’m making some demands that make both of us miserable in hopes that it’s ultimately “for the best.” I’ve let her cry a bit, I’ve sat back and watched her struggle in frustration, and I’ve ignored her requests when they are delivered with a whine.

And it occurs to me that this new phase of parenting just might explain the sudden appearance of May May. Sage seems to ask for her just following these tough parenting moments. Like the other day when she took a friend’s toy and I ushered her over to a park bench for a talk. “May May,” she whimpered as I carried her away. “No Sage, no May May. Mommy has something she needs to talk to you about. If you can’t share, you can’t play.”

I believe that May May is my daughter’s super hero. And my daughter is calling to be rescued. If Mommy says no to ice cream maybe May May will say yes. If Mommy will not be interrupted a tug at the shirt maybe May May will indulge.

As soon as I piece together the May May puzzle, that little super hero starts fucking with me. I hear my daughter crying in the other room because she can’t fit her oversized doll into a tiny plastic highchair. I go to help her but then stop myself. “Just give her a minute to figure it out,” I say to myself. “She needs the independence. This is good for her.”

But as I hold myself back I hear this little voice that I can only assume is May May’s. “Come on, what’s the big deal?” she says. “Independence is overrated. What she needs is someone who’s attentive. You don’t want her to think that she’s alone in the world do you? DO YOU?”

“Must not cave to May May,” I chant to myself.  Sure she’s cool and fun. She’d be a great person to take out for drinks or to a movie. But will May May show my daughter how to be self reliant and polite? “Step off May May! I’m trying here, you just don’t see the big picture. Get out of my head!”

And just when I think I’ve suppressed May May, Sage starts calling for her (I guess because Mommy did not come running). Suddenly my guilt intensifies. And that May May, she feeds off my guilt. Her voice gets louder and louder. “You’re not trying to make her independent, you’re just slacking. Help your kid put the fucking doll in the high chair so we can all get on with our day. So we can have fun. Don’t you want fun? DON’T WE ALL WANT FUN!”

Then all at once it’s quiet.  My daughter has stopped shouting.  She has figured out how to cram the baby into the chair.

Now it’s “Mommy” she calls, “Look what I did!” She pronounces triumphantly.

This time I do run. I swoop her up and tell her I’m proud. Proud that she’s doing things on her own, proud that she’s such a big girl.

And as I hold my daughter in a tight embrace, I whisper under my breath

“Suck it, May May. Suck it.”

“I’ll get you next time,” I hear a little voice say.

“We’ll see about that May May…we’ll see.”

We have emerged. After so many months living tucked away in our hovel with only Play-doh and marbles to occupy our time we are crossing the street and rounding the corner to THE PLAYGROUND. It’s sixty, maybe even seventy degrees and I strut like I’m hearing the soundtrack to “Almost Famous”.  As we reach the gate I set my daughter down and take her hand. I expect that we’ll survey the grounds together, she’ll tentatively check out the scene, run her fingers along the slide, watch some big kids play and then eventually ask to go on the swings. But the second I open the gate she bolts. She runs past the baby slide like it’s “soooo 2009” and immediately begins climbing a ladder to reach “the scary bridge” that last summer was the source of so many slips and so many tears. I brace myself for a fall but she walks gracefully across and then throws herself down the slide on her stomach…HER STOMACH! I do a double-take. This is not the child I accompanied to so many parks last summer. This is not the kid who clung to my legs like I was home base. This is someone new. She runs here and there like she’s sixteen and has just gotten her license.  She’s finally free. When we hit the swings she asks me to push her “higher mommy higher” and when I try to help her mount a big wheel she instructs me to “move back.”

I no longer chase after her bracing myself for a skinned knee. I don’t have to introduce her to each piece of equipment like it’s a long lost cousin “Oh look, a seesaw! Hi seesaw. What a friendly seesaw. Let’s give the seesaw a try.” This kid is independent and fierce. She’s on fire!  “Mommy’s going to watch,” I say as I plop down on the bench with the best view. Is this really happening? Am I really sitting on the sidelines? I’ve seen other mothers do it but I never thought it would happen to me. This is the beginning of something truly magical.

As I kick back my mind begins to scroll through all that has happened in the last twelve months. It’s like this return to the park is New Years day or Rosh Hashanah- I just sit there taking stock of the blur that was last year.  I try to pick out the significant moments- full sentences where uttered, first curse words were bandied about, imaginary play began, a love of avocados was replaced by a love of chocolate. I can’t help but feel proud. We’ve made it to another season. We are all still standing and Sage is absolutely breathtaking. She’s making up stories, collecting a group of friends and singing all the time. She has preferences, catch phrases and a favorite color.

She can jump.

The other day she told me, “It’s my time to fly, I’m going to go to some place warm and wild!” And damned if I didn’t believe her. As I reminisce, I can’t help but leap forward. I’m so excited to find out what will come next. As a preview, I get up from my perch and cruise around the playground to watch other kids. It’s like when I was fourteen and reading “Seventeen Magazine”.  I want a glimpse of what lies ahead.

I see a group of kids who look to be about five. They are pretending to be cats. One is the cat chaser and he’s got an invisible net. “I get to chase you,” he says, “I get to catch you and bring you home. Then we’ll have milk.”

“Meow, meow” the others respond apparently agreeing to these rules.

I begin imagining Sage at this age. What will the rules of her games be? I can see her with a pack of friends racing about on all fours pretending to be squirrels or monkeys. I can’t wait to hid out and watch as her imaginary worlds unfold.

Next I spot a crew of kids who look to be seven. They have set up a pretend restaurant and are serving invisible ice cream. They are meticulous in their play. They’ve made menus, they’ve got a special of the day. I hear them promise “speedy service” to all of their customers. As I watch I think of how much my daughter will learn in the next five years. It is clear from their play that these kids know how to count and write. They’re working together like colleagues. They’ve got a system. I think of my daughter in first grade and then in second; learning to read, learning to add, growing close with a favorite teacher. It blows my mind to imagine sending her off with a bag lunch and a backpack.

Just as I begin playing out my daughter’s first trip on the school bus I notice a pack of pre-teens who have gathered around a picnic table. They’ve all got cell phones decorated with stickers and puffy paint. They’re wearing tiny skirts and leggings pre ripped to look very Cindy Lauper (or is it Miley Cyrus?) I move closer to catch their conversation and I hear this:

Girl: Did you know John-Paul peed on the drum kit at band?

Boy: I play that drumb kit!

Girl: He’s lame. He’s running away.

Boy: When?

Other Boy: Monday.

Other Girl: He’s so lame.

Boy: So lame.

Girl: You should talk. You were going to run away.

Boy: Nu-uh. I tried but there wasn’t a bus to Florida the day I was gonna go.

Other Boy: Why did you wanna go to Florida?

Boy: My grandma has a huge house there.

Girl: That’s lame.

Boy: Whatever, you wanna run away too.

Girl: Well yeah.

Other Girl: Who doesn’t wanna run away?

Girl: Duh.

Other Girl: Florida’s cool.

Boy: Whatever.

Suddenly I imagine these kids’ parents coming home to find a note that reads, “Gone to Florida. Whatever!”

This game is no longer fun.

This journey into the future has gone south. Where is my two-year old? “I WANT MY TWO YEAR OLD!!” I run after Sage like she is home base. This time it’s me clinging to her, chasing at her heels and reaching out.  “Can mommy come with you on the slide? Can mommy follow you over the bridge? Maybe mommy should hold your hand? Wait for mommy! Slow down Sage! Slow down…”