My 3.5-year-old frenemy

Week 11 of Baby: 12/31/2007

fitp2090763648.jpg © Carlos Hernandez/Westend61/Corbis

There are times when Sylvia, my firstborn, makes me almost swoon. These times are full-to-bursting with love. We'll exchange a glance and giggle, or she'll whisper some brilliant non sequitur in my ear as she's falling asleep, and I'm fulfilled in a way I couldn't be by anything or anyone else. They make me woozy with the idea that I get to be this person's mother, that she might have anything to do with me at all. She reminds me, again and again, why we leapt into this bizarre and highly inconvenient role as parents.

And then there are the other times.

It's not that I wasn't warned. I knew, from my own experience as a child, and from hearing it from friends already in the zone: Nothing is as intense as this relationship. I mean, I'm a fiction writer. I knew that the mother-child dynamic is the doozy of all doozies.

But maybe it's that I was so used to seeing that dynamic from the child's point of view, or maybe, just like all intense things (cough-labor), you can't truly know it until you experience it. Either way, somehow I ended up sideswiped by how angry Sylvia and I can make each other.

It's not just that she misbehaves, or doesn't listen to me. Or that she has breakdowns and tantrums, flinging her psyche and body to the floor, punching at the air and sometimes me. There are plenty of times when these things happen, and I can shrug them off--staying positive, staying empathetic, staying sane. These are the times when I feel like a maternal genius, when I get in the groove of present-but-not-attached, when I really want a glass of wine once she's in bed, but it's in a victorious way--"I got through a wicked tantrum in the aisles of Whole Foods, and I lived to tell the tale."

It's that there are moments when she displays exactly the same sort of behavior, and something imperceptibly shifts within me, and I am furious. Here's the kicker: it's imperceptible to me, and it's also imperceptible to her, making me not only a big angry person who may just be the most important factor in her life, but an unpredictable big angry person. If I were a cartoon, I'd be the character who goes from picking daisies to the tune of a Brahms lullaby, to a maniac with the swirly eyes and the red face and the steam coming out of her ears with the train whistle wailing.

In real life, I can morph from patiently nursing Lena on the couch while chatting away with Sylvia, to snapping angrily at her for spilling the cup of juice I'd just patiently pointed out to her. The worst sort of shame-inducing tone can come out of my mouth. "Oh, Syl," I can say, in a way that might make you think she had just gone back on her promise to finally sign onto the Kyoto Protocol, "What are you doing? Now--" because why turn down an opportunity to be a victim?--"I have to clean that up."

When that imperceptible thing shifts within me, Sylvia has a very perceptible reaction. Her eyebrows furrow and her lips screw up and she may say something like, "That makes me angry when you say that!" or "That is not nice to say that" or "Arrrrgh!" Depending on what it is I've said, she may throw something across the room, mime hitting me, or actually hit me. And that's when I shake my head at myself, because DUH. What did I think was going to happen? Who else would she mimic, but me? Even if I do manage my anger a little more tactfully and passive-aggressively, she basically nails it--I am doing a grown-up version of stamping my feet and crying.

We've always had our moments, but it's gotten worse recently. I was pretty convinced that it was my fault--that I haven't been giving her the kind of attention and love she needed, and she was acting out because of it.

You'd think I'd have learned by now that no matter what the situation, whether it's in pregnancy or in parenthood, I'm not alone. What else is this internet machine good for, if not giving me a feeling of connection and relevance? Or my many friends and family members who are also moms? I forget to remember that there's someone only a phone call or click away who would not only sympathize, but empathize, with whatever I'm going through.

I had one of these "Doh!" moments the other night, at my friend Laurie's house. I was telling her that lately, Sylvia can frighten me with her unpredictability, and my own reaction to it. She said, "Do I have a book for you!" and brought out a volume of the Gesell Institute Child Development Series. You know, those "Your One-Year-Old," "Your Two-Year-Old" books. I hadn't seen the title for the next one. It's "Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy?"

In it, the normally quite encouraging authors suggest the following maternal behavior with 3.5 year olds: Get a babysitter. Seriously! That's the advice. Apparently it's not just that now I have an infant to look after, or that Sylvia is telling me that I'm not spending enough time with her. It's that three-and-a-half year olds are very difficult, especially with their primary caregivers. They experience violent emotions. They say things like, "Don't touch me! Don't leave! Stop breathing on me! If you leave, I will have no one to talk with! Don't look at me!" while crying so hard they can't see. And the only way out of these situations is to out-source. They don't feel the intense feelings with a sitter, so time away from you gives both of you a break.

It's in that spirit that I asked a sitter to come for two mornings over this winter break. Sylvia is downstairs with her right now, playing. Lena is sleeping on my lap. No one is angry or teary. And I'm eager for the afternoon, when I can snuggle with my lovely firstborn again.

Join writer Emily Bloch each week as she chronicles her pregnancy--and now, life with a new baby.