The Real Victory Is Letting Them Think They Won

The Parent Rap

The animal in her natural habitat.

I am not an easy going person. It’s just not “who I am,” and so, although I am mostly kind and fairly gentle, I am honest with myself about the kind of mother I have been in the three years since I had my daughter: I’m dedicated, I love her more than anything in the world, I am completely obsessed with structure, and occasionally, I’m kind of a bitch about order. I don’t know where this dedication to order came from. I don’t really know what I hope to gain from Zelda in this department, either: I would never want her to fear me, but I do value, for some reason, her listening to me. I love to be the boss.

Her father, my partner, indeed, thought that I was insane to never allow her to be in her pajamas, even as an infant, once she was awake past 7 a.m. But I had read somewhere that a “routine” would help even the tiniest baby learn the difference between day and night so I made a routine, and I stuck with it. I’m still sticking. Much of my stickiness, if I am honest, was in service of one goal: getting her to sleep well. I’ve read the same book to Zelda every night since she was just a few weeks old. Every night. The same one. I travel with a white noise machine and black out shades. I honed my craft in this area, and I was and remain proud of the results. I still track her sleep every day in an app, because I am a little bit insane. At least I know it, I tell myself, as if knowing makes me less crazy.

The News Just Came in From the County of I’m Looking at the Internet

But there are other things, things totally unrelated to sleep that I have clung to. Our days have always been extremely predictable. I am strict about meals and manners. I don’t let her eat walking around, I ask her to be quiet a lot. I nag her to put her shoes away and to not stand on chairs or the couch. I am bossy with how others boss her, and sometimes more strict than I need be with a three-year-old. Of course, I’m making all this sound a lot less joyful than it is in the interest of making my point, but I really have dedicated myself, daily, to making her not be a monster.

The Quantified Baby

And she’s not! She’s the most wonderful little being I’ve ever encountered. She is polite and smart and funny and usually, she listens. Sure, at least 95 percent of this would have been exactly the same even if I’d not insisted she eat spinach and Brussels sprouts and tofu. Sure, she is naturally wonderful, I tell myself, not wanting to take too much credit for her. But here we are, Zelda and I, she is nearly three and I am nearly 40. We have, most days, an understanding, an agreement, as to how things will roll. She’s not perfect, I’m not perfect. She has her tantrums, I ignore them. I am sometimes tired and less than enthused to sing “Holiday Lights,” as we head into fucking February. But most days, I am enthused. We muster up the energy for art projects and watering plants, we bake and we organize drawers. We diaper and re-diaper her baby. We watch movies (in moderation, always less than the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends per day lol).

But over the long winter break she got sick. I was working, she was at home for 11 long days. We had people to help watch her but because she was sick all bets were sort of… off. I bent rules. Popsicles were eaten at 8 a.m. She crawled into my bed at odd hours and much “Peppa Pig” was watched. Her cold was so bad she needed to use a nebulizer, a machine with a tiny heartbreaking face mask that meant, well, sitting still for 15 minutes at a time four or five times a day. More “Peppa.” She ate at odd hours, and drank as much coconut water as she wanted. I worried about starvation and dehydration. When your kid is sick, even if it’s just a bad cold, you start to think like you’re a character in The Road, packing as many provisions as possible. You stock up on staples and you cling to your love for the kid who suddenly seems threatened, not the rules.

And within just four days, my daughter’s actual character revealed itself. After three solid years of waking each day to get dressed, walking to the kitchen table to have breakfast with me, and then proceeding with the rest of her day, we undid everything in what seemed like hours and she was reduced to instincts.

Here is what I now know to be the true nature of a toddler: in pajamas at 4 p.m., no socks, unbrushed hair and teeth, eating “tomato chips” in front of the television, belly hanging out, binge-watching “Peppa Pig.” Her ideal model in life is either Al Bundy or Homer Simpson, minus the booze (for now). She put her hands down her pants. She wandered around barely able to stay on her feet. She lied and said she didn’t feel better to get “wollypops” instead of dinner when it was clear she was feeling fine.

And I found myself also reduced: reduced to trying to “argue up” dinner from wollypops and tomato chips to “only pasta” or macaroni and cheese. “NO VEFABLES,” I’d hear her tiny, bossy lisp come from her playroom. Where was my civilized little girl?

I gave her nine days before I broke. I ripped off the bandaid in a single day, forcing her into clothes and brushing her hair, putting on matching socks and cooking broccoli and quinoa. I re-civilized her in a few days but I had an extreme revelation: everything I’ve done with her, is, essentially, window dressing. It’s all in some manner superficial. I have no idea where she got the idea that it’s better to lounge in pajamas than in clothes — her clothes are basically pajamas anyway — but she got the idea, all on her own. Pajamas, it seems, are inherently superior. She wants salty snacks and to do NOTHING, I mean NOTHING for hours. She ends up cranky and wandering around like a lost dog when left to her own desires, sure, because she’s three and she has no idea what is best for her, but her desires are what they are, and nothing I have done overrides that.

It is, I believe, our natural state to do almost nothing, to conform to no schedules, to be irritable and unhealthy slobs. I have seen this in the realities of my beautiful, adored daughter. I have no idea how we’ve gotten — any of us — to where we are today but I do know now, better than I have ever known, that all of us are just steps away from a backslide into utter sloth. And rather than feel defeated, rather than focus on the fact that maybe I’ve wasted all my time here trying to dull the sharp edges of my little monster, I’ve decided to give her this win. To admit that she is so strong and wonderful that even in the face of me, the Most Powerful Woman on Earth, she has prevailed and is the victor, the woman with the half-eaten bag of tortilla chips and M&Ms at 6:30 a.m. in a dark hallway. She wins, and I rededicate myself to her utter defeat. I will never ever give up, even if I haven’t made many inroads. Except for the sleep. That, I totally nailed.

The Parent Rap is an endearing column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.