A Daughter's Tale (or, An Ongoing Saga)

Dear Family,

When we moved out of our house in June, Eliza’s health was on an overall upswing. She had only approximately three tantrums over the next five months: one in Ithaca, one (I think) in Texas, and maybe once again in Arizona. But nothing much more…

…till Now. She has had nearly daily tantrums for the past three weeks, usually at one or more (or all) mealtimes or when it’s time to come home from a friend’s house, along with her hallmark picky eating, digestive upset, and Behavior Always-Being-Worse With Mama. For the first time all season, there’s been regular yelling and screaming at our campsite. These stressful and embarrassing (and inconsolable by ANY means) tantrums, complete with parentally-exhausting total irrationality, vicious rudeness, and loud repetitions of single phrases (“Ow!!!!” “Out!!!!” “I’m Hungreeeeee!!”) - seem to set the mood for an entire day, hard as I try to Let Go Into The Present Moment after those Awful moments are over. My PTSD will never let me forget the nightmare of Ben’s tantrums (eight long years of them). And the nightmare of Eliza’s tantrums + Not-Eating - which erupted in full force, just about one year ago - may be fresh in my mind until she’s a teenager….

Anyway, over the summer - when Eliza’s tantrums were reduced to such a barely-there level - I was cautiously optimistic. So much so that at the beginning of November, I stopped giving her the supplements that I’d been plying her with since January. Two weeks later, the screaming began in earnest.

Maybe the current situation is because I stopped the supplements (I re-started them again five days ago!). Maybe she had some mold exposure somewhere. Perhaps this week, her system is being further taxed by our awesome new camper which is unfortunately outgassing copiously. Maybe there are thirty five other triggers that we don’t know anything about, but which are synergistically combining to fan the flames of our daughter’s Erratic Behavior and Scream Festivals. Maybe horoscopes are real, and it’s some interplanetary mercurial retrograde collusion.

Right now, Being a Mama causes my life to feel only as functional as my saddest, least-functional child. Dealing with screaming is just about the pits, despite all the many, many other blessings in my life. Today I just stared out into the Joshua Trees, while my just-having-refused-her-lunch daughter tantrummed and screamed “I’M HUNGRY!!!” over and over, fit to alert the authorities, and cried.

——

Eliza is a very complicated little girl. She always has daily moments of amazing intelligence and grace, even in the hard times. But when she’s having a Hard Time she can be manipulative and devious and rigid and oppositional and infuriating, and after a time, in these hard times, I want to be Done With Her. Sell her to someone who wants a cute daughter so much that they’re willing to deal with so much bullshit that there’s no way in hell that I’d actually find a paying customer, if I tried. And simultaneously, I can see that this complicated girl is just a little girl with precocious thoughts, a sometimes out-of-control physiology that she can’t possibly understand, a huge imagination that frequently overwhelms her with Possibilities, and little spots of softness. It’s just really freaking hard to get to those soft, gentle times when she’s like this.

So the complicated roundabout goes round.

Three days ago I discovered that she’d shoplifted from Walmart. We’d been to the store for some things for the new camper, and while we were there, she - as always - was dazzled by some display or other consisting of some Disney princesses, usually either Elsa or Anna (from “Frozen) or both. While I had been shopping in the kitchen section, Eliza was an aisle over, looking at Elsa and Anna towels and placemats and water pitchers or some such. Next thing I knew, I was checking on her whereabouts and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I did the basic Frantic Mother act, popping Ivy into the cart and racing around in circles yelling Eliza’s name…until another shopper heard me, and heard Eliza yelling for me, and connected us both.

So far so fine. Reunited, I told Eliza how worried I’d been, and how glad I was to see her, and how I knew it was tempting to head way far away into the toy section, but it was really important that she stay near me. Eliza was strangely subdued, and didn’t really look at me, and kept her hands in her pockets the whole time I hugged her and then led her out of the store. She was also strangely insistent that she be the one to open the door when we got back.

Anyway. That was four days ago. Three days ago is when I opened the van and noticed an Elsa Christmas ornament lying on the seat, with a price tag of $7 still attached. I immediately realized what had happened, but I was still trying to figure out how to deal with the whole situation when I totally fucked it all up. Well, not all the way. I started off fine.

“Eliza,” I said, “I found a Christmas ornament in the van, and I’m wondering where it might have come from.”

Eliza didn’t look at me. “What ornament?”

“Well, I saw this Christmas ornament, and I’m wondering if you might have accidentally taken it from somewhere that we’d need to return it to, or if somebody gave it to you.”

Eliza still wouldn’t look at me, and said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s not okay to take things that aren’t yours without paying for them, and if you took this from a store without paying, that’s not okay. And we have to return it, and apologize.”

Here’s where it started going downhill. The more oppositional Eliza got, the more I - forgetting for a minute that despite her verbal skills, she is still only four, and not a raving sociopath, began to push harder and then too hard.

“Eliza, where did you take it from?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t take it! It’s mine! I WON’T bring it back, and I won’t apologize!”

“Eliza, I know you liked that thing. But you can’t take things without paying for them!”

“Why?”

“Because stores want to make money. and if you don’t pay for something, then they won’t like it.”

“Why not? Why do you have to pay for EVERYTHING?”

“Because that’s how stores work.”

“I won’t apologize!”

“Eliza, if you were older and did something like this, you could get into big trouble. It’s better to apologize now, and never do it again. I’ll go with you, and I’ll help you apologize. I know how hard it…”

“I DON’T wanna, and I’m not listening, and I won’t go with you and I WON’T say sorry!!!!” She plugged up her ears and turned her back on me, carefully listening anyway.

I was getting annoyed. “When Uncle Matt was a teenager, he was with a friend who stole something from a store. Uncle Matt wanted to take something too…but he didn’t. And the store caught Uncle Matt’s friend, and called the police to arrest him. If Uncle Matt had stolen something, he would have gotten arrested too. Stores have cameras in them, mounted all over, and people who work there can watch and see: ‘Oh, there’s a little kid on Aisle 5 who’s putting a pretty Elsa toy in their pocket!’ And if they see you take something, and you are older, you could get into serious trouble…”

The more I rattled on, the more defensive my small thief became, until she finally yelled, “I WON’T apologize! I want it, and I WILL keep it, and I won’t bring it back, and I won’t say sorry cuz I’m NOT sorry!”

At this point I was sure that I had totally failed in every way, not only in how I was relating to this horrible person I was in charge of raising up to adulthood, but also because I felt so incredibly distracted by a billion other things that were now not getting done, and how I hadn’t even started dinner and and and and I said quietly, “Well Eliza, that makes me very, very sad. We’ll talk about this later.” And I went to tend to the baby and the make the dinner and let those billion other things on my to-do list jigget and fester in my brain exactly how the mindful parenting books advise you never to do.

Later I came back, and - totally wishing that I hadn’t come on so strong about the police, since she was probably now petrified with fear, and feeling so guilty about how I’m always trying to do ten thousand things at once so I can’t pay full attention to my children one-on-one ever, and plus I’m always having to get Ivy just when her siblings need me the most, and…

“Eliza,” I said, “I know you’re really sorry. Right? You aren’t glad you took it, and it hasn’t been fun to have it sitting in the van for the last day, ‘talking’ to you! Has it?”

Eliza was calmer now, but still not quite contrite. “Noooooo….” she said indecisively. And then, “I DON’T want to apologize. I WON’T!”

I decided not to talk anymore, and instead I just brought her back to Walmart after dinner.

The closer to the customer service desk she got, the more she cowered. By the time we were ready to return the ill-fated ornament, Eliza’s face was contorted, grimacing, and red, and while I did the talking, Eliza covered her ears and cried. Not exactly a graceful apology, but the woman at the desk was a dear. “I accept your apology, Sweetheart,” she said to my blotchy, bedraggled daughter, who hadn’t actually apologized and was wearing a purple hoodie with a tiara over it. “And I think you’re a very beautiful princess!”

Walking through the store afterward, Eliza began to relax - until we encountered display #1 of Anna and Elsa bath towels. Then came Anna and Elsa dresses. Then Elsa and Anna dolls, then balls, then videos, then pads and pencils, then backpacks, then toothbrushes, then then then… Onward through the store, which was beginning to appear to me like one big box opiate drug for poor little Disney-addicted girls. I kept trying to minimize the items - “Oh, that dress is actually ugly! Eliza, those backpacks are probably really crappy!” etc.

But she said, “I LOVE that dress! I think it’s beautiful. I think a LOT of things are.” Once she gave a little sigh, as she spotted two little Anna and Elsa dolls, and fingering their skirts she said, “Oh, I think these are really beautiful! I wish I could…” And then she didn’t finish her sentence.

Until Finally Eliza said, “I really love Elsa and Anna, but I wish they didn’t make so MANY things with them on it. Because when I see them, I want them!”

And I said, “I think I know exactly what you mean. It’s like, they’re super special, but then Elsa and Anna are on all these toys, and you can’t help wanting them when you see them…but you wish you could un-see them, so that you wouldn’t have to want them at all! The things aren’t as special as Anna and Elsa are to you, right?”

Back in the van, Eliza casually asked, “What does it look like inside a police car?”

“I don’t know, really. Mostly like a car, I think. How do you feel, now that you brought the ornament back. Do you feel better?”

“No! I feel like that toy was really beautiful, and it SHOULD have been mine! Like I should have kept it!”

Sink, sink, sink. Ignore the heart palpitations. “But you didn’t REALLY want to keep it, did you? It didn’t feel good to have it sitting in the backseat of the van, when you never even got to play with it, while you had to think about how you stole it…right?”

“Hmm…” said Eliza doubtfully.

“What you REALLY wish, I think,” I said, “Is that you could just have that toy, with no strings attached. Right? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody just handed you that ornament and said, ‘Eliza, you can just keep this, no need to pay for it it or give it back!’”

“Yes!” Eliza agreed. “And I wish I could have EVERYTHING that I wanted, lots and lots and lots and lots of Elsa and Anna things, and I could have room for them if we lived in a house.”

Great. Not only have I failed to instill basic ethics and morals in my darling pain in the ass daughter, but I have also failed with Nonmaterialistic Values.

——

A Story
by Eliza

Once upon a time, there lived a papa and a mama and four kids. This is about us! And their names were Eliza, Jem, and Ben and Ivy. And they lived in a trailer - a pop-up trailer! And they buyed a regular trailer because they needed one, and the papa went and got it, but he took a very long time. And they lived happily ever after.

The end.

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Thanks for listening. And thanks for all the very many wonderful notes and letters and well wishes and photos. Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you all right away, but please know I’m thinking about you! And appreciate you. And hope that things settle down to a dull roar here pretty soon, at which point I will send out a much more uplifting update.

Love,
Sarabeth