Pulling the tab across her own belly on her own diaper, Sugarplum giggles with the pleasure of the tab staying in place. Grinning up at me, she reaches her pudgy fingers out to pull my head down to that sweet belly and I inhale the freshly-diapered, powdery smell from the Pampers she still sleeps in. I smile wide in spite of her monkey antics and indignant insistences of independence and tickle her belly lightly as the giggle morphs into a chortle and finally an all-out hoot as she bows her small wiggly body around me. It won’t be long now and there won’t be any diapers on our market lists. A check-off I’m both finally ready for and hesitantly dreading. I clean up the box of wipes and unused crèam tripping over her little matchbox car as she grabs her blankie and flies out of the room yelling at her sisters that it’s time for bed.
Pulling the math sheet over and away from me, the Quail lays her body across the bottom half as her arm encircles the top so that I can no longer continue to read the instructions to her. At first, it frustrates me. All summer we have set aside a few daily minutes to work on math because it was noticeably hard for her in Kindergarten. And every day this summer it remained hard for her. She speeds through the numbers ignoring the sevens and twelves and thirteens that just last month she recited precisely with carefully articulated consonants and vowels. We would pull out a set of wooden blocks and instead of touch-counting them, she smoothed the chipped paint and textured images of each side as she lined them up oh so precisely that the mere movement of one pushed them all out of line, upsetting her, me and the applecart. But we did it. We didn’t always like it. Sometimes I poured a glass of wine while we worked on it. We counted and pushed the blocks across the table and wrote and erased and smoothed the rubber filings off the page and onto the carpet. Night after night. And now I expect to need to help. In spite of increased ADD medication and classroom support, I assume that her needs remain. And I act accordingly. And then, she stops me with a full sentence. A sentence that a year ago she would have been hard-pressed to articulate. And I grin back and sip my wine and wait. I lean in a couple more times. Old habits die hard for most of us. She eyes me, utters no and starts to shove her hand into mine as a not so friendly reminder of her instructions. And I pull back my hand again and tell her to please tell me if she needs help. And I wait. And she gets the answer right and the next one wrong and I chew my bottom lip debating the merits of my not correcting her and my desire to prepare her to demonstrate more than what people expect of her. To demonstrate what I know she’s capable of. Except, I get it wrong too. As well as I know her, I underestimate her time and time again. Glass houses and all.
Finally she hesitates and turns the eraser to the seven as she notices she wrote the sum rather than the part. We both smile as she erases with enthusiasm and shoves her chair back from the table ready to run to the kitchen. “Show your Dad!” I holler after her as she drops the page on the pantry floor and streaks down the hall after her sword-and-baby-doll-wielding little sister. Picking it up I show Lovey and then carefully tuck it in to her homework folder. That night I wasn’t needed there either.
Zuzu’s voice hits a pitch that causes my eyes to swing shut and my lips to form a hard line. I started out calm in what I considered to be a helpful voice pointing out that if she doesn’t do one more math problem tonight she won’t finish them at the pace she set for herself since she has dance on Monday nights starting tomorrow.That’s how it started out. That quickly turned ugly as she heard my implied criticism of her burgeoning time management skills. So I try again with different words in a frank tone to point out that she has only three nights available to do the five problems left, so one a night won’t get them done by Thursday morning. She covers her ears, stomps her feet and storms out of the living room and I open my eyes to the three-year old now standing in front of me interpreting the situation quite simply, “She mad Momma.”
Indeed. As she rushes back in the room to grab up her binder and pencils I tell her she’s right. She doesn’t have to listen to me about this. She can do it her way and see if that works out. Hunching her shoulders against the sudden stillness of my helicopter blades, she turns with her things to the living room and starts over again explaining the rules as she understands them to her father. He, calmer than me at this point, doesn’t elicit much better of a reaction. Sighing, I pick up Sugarplum and carry her in to the kitchen to keep me company while I clear off the table to wash away the scene and the dishes. We frequently clash over homework, Zuzu and I. It used to bother me. I explain what I understand thinking I’m helping her and she starts to cry or yell. Now though, entering third grade I’ve seen this enough to see it for what it really is. Not disrespect or general orneriness or rebellion. It’s anxiety that she might not know something in front of the person she loves so very much and tries to be like at every turn of the day. I wish I could help her. That she would take my suggestions and explanations for what I know to be true about our lives. But she is my daughter. She is strong, confident and sets a high standard for herself. Last year her teacher gave me permission to back off of the homework argument. “She’s not going to let herself fail. It’s not worth your relationship.”
Two nights later we unload our Happy Meal boxes and as I move her pink striped and owl covered messenger bag from her chair to the pantry I ask if she would mind if I peeked in on her math homework for the week. She eyed me over her cheeseburger and said she knew it was done and not to worry. As I stood their holding the bag silently she acquiesced and said it was fine. Opening the binder I pull out the sheet and notice that she did the extra problem. Not when I asked her to. But on her own terms, in her own time. She wasn’t going to let herself get in trouble for not getting it done. Smiling I closed up the bag as she mutters that she told me she knew what to do.
It’s clearly visible now, each of their desires to do things all by their own selves and be recognized for the competent little humans they already are. Bittersweet is what it is. This growing, growing they insist on doing while I’m sleeping and working and catching and dropping the balls of our daily circus. I watch for it. I lean in and ask questions and take pictures and listen closely in order to watch for the changes that continuously emerge somehow unseen in their walk, their routines, their words and stories and play and work. Their stories that now have details between their giggles and tears and tantrums like-
“I choose the Frozen shirt not the butterfly shirt Momma!” and
“My birthday. Miley. Blair. Laurel. Dance bag like Zuzu. Dark blue. Sleep over. Popcorn.” and
“I am doing competition dance and jump rope team and Quest and Scouts!!! I can do it. It’s not too much”
Stories that really mean
“I know what I want.” and
“I have my own dreams too.” and
“See how I’ve changed? Do you see me?”
Beautiful, if still halting and hurled phrases whispered and shouted and sang and played out with the Magic-clip dolls and My Little Ponies and rituals and schoolwork by all three of those girls now.