She is jumping wildly up and down, clutching the edge of the kitchen table, screaming, “I. Need. A. HUG!”
For the record, I am standing eighteen inches away from her with my arms outstretched, trying to find an opening to give her what she claims to want.
It’s a trick, of course. She doesn’t want a hug. She wants to scream. But I believe in hugs, so I offer anyway. If I could change this morning with a hug, I would. A hug is an easy gift to give.
She runs away, still hollering. Her feet pound like she is on a pogo stick as she races to throw herself against an armchair so she can yell about hugging me from farther away.
Neither of us is even sure why she’s upset. Because she didn’t want to get dressed? Because she’s hungry? Because she’s 3?
She begins to play the piano. Her hug demands become almost melodic. “I WAAAANT a HUUUUUG!” she hollers as she bangs on the keys.
I don’t pursue her. But my arms still want to give her that hug.
After she finally gives up and eats her breakfast, she wants to color. She squeezes her knees together and bounces a little (a tell-tale sign), begging for coloring paper while I rinse dirty dishes. I take her into the bathroom.
“But I don’t need to go!”
“We try when we’re dry,” I remind her in a singsong voice, trying to keep my own spirits high. This morning feels like yet another in a long line of emotionally weary mornings. In the war of attrition she is waging against me, my attitude is usually the first casualty. I wonder if she knows how long I hold out. I wonder if she can see how hard I fight to do it right for her. Or does she only count the times I lose the battle?
“Please! Please! PleeeeeAAAAASSE!” she whines from the potty. “Help! Mommy, help!”
I confess I am not quite sure how to help. If I could pee for her, potty training would be a lot easier.
She starts whimpering—she hates sitting here and begs to get off the second she sits down—and calls my name as pitifully as she can manage in a little, crackly voice. “AH ah. AH ah. Moooommy.”
“How can I help you?”
“I need help!” she insists. I repeat my question, rubbing her knee and trying to look into her eyes so she knows I am serious. I will help her if I can. I want this to work. I want her to be confident and successful—on the potty, and everywhere else.
“I just want you to do NOTHING.”
Okay…I can do that. I sit on the stool by the sink, calmly picking at my fingernails while I wait for her to do her business.
“No, Mom, I just want you to do NOTHING!” she yells at me again. I can feel my inner order starting to slide.
“I am not doing anything,” I respond, a little impatiently. After all, not doing anything is pretty hard when you’re a mom. Usually, every single fold of my mental space is occupied with the next steps I need to take, even as my hands are busy with the previous ones. I am stacking dishes on the drying rack and then planning to rip out that coloring page she wants, and afterward I will check the sheets in the dryer, and when I bring the sheets upstairs, I must not forget to bring a box of tissues back down, and oh! I should also bring the battery box back to the closet when I go up, and on and on and on.
Doing nothing requires focus.
But my nothing is not good enough for her. I banish myself from the bathroom, because I am not sure of another way to fulfill her request to help by doing nothing. And, let’s be honest, because I am starting to feel a little henpecked. By a 3-year-old.
Of course, the moment I walk out, she is whining my name again. My name has become slime. It stretches out of her mouth and dribbles stickily to coat my ears. I would scrub that sound away if I could. Mommy. Mommy.
“Mommy, I need heeeeeeelp.”
Guess what, little girl? Mommy needs a minute to herself.
She continues to call me. I close my eyes and imagine myself being calm. And then I snap them open and scream her name and shout as loud as I can that she must stop shouting at me.
“But I neeeeeeed a huuuuuuug!” she warbles.
I pull her off the potty. “I don’t know how to give you what you want!” I cry desperately. “You asked for a hug and then ran away! You told me to do nothing, so I left! Don’t tell me to leave if you want me here! How can I do what you want when you tell me the opposite!?”
As I hear my voice climbing in pitch and beginning to sound a bit hysterical, I also listen to my words. And a small force inside my brain pushes back.
Wait a minute. My job isn’t to give her everything she wants. Does she know this?
She doesn’t have any idea what my job is. And I start to realize that I don’t quite know how to define it, either. If I list off all the tasks I regularly perform, I sound quite important. Chef, Maid, Governess, Nurse. Chauffeur, Accountant, Manager. Personal Trainer, Event Planner, Life Coach, Spiritual Director. Entertainer. Human.
I think about telling her my job is to keep her alive. It sounds both melodramatic and insufficient to my ears.
But what is my job?
Being her mom is so much more than I can put into words.
I am turning a tiny, blank slate into a fully formed person. I am helping her learn how to interpret the world and how to be kind and how to use the right word to say what she means. I teach her how the letters of the alphabet sound and how to follow through on a task and, yes, how to use her body. I am only part-way through, and I’m not sure how well I am doing this job. It is both harder and more magical than I expected.
I am learning, too. She is turning me into a fully formed person. I am learning that I cannot control everything. I am learning that I, too, have big emotions. I am learning to put down the thing I want to do and look my children in the eyes and not regret this change of pace.
That’s really the kicker, the very hardest lesson about humility and selflessness in this stage of motherhood. To not resent the children who want my attention. They want my whole heart, and they want it now.
I am their mother. It is my job to show them love, no matter which buttons they press. I must train them when they don’t know better, and train them when they test boundaries, and train them when they do it wrong on purpose, with the same heart as the very first time I began the lesson. It isn’t glamorous. It’s hard to define. But my job is really just…to be present.
So, little daughter, my arms are still open. You can scream at me or run away, but I will still love you. I will sit with you when you need me, even when it is inconvenient. I will help you when I can, even though sometimes that help will be hard for both of us.
My hug arms are waiting, when you are ready.
Melissa Hogarty lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three very loud and silly children. She believes deeply in the power of reading and the love of Christ. She loves to bake, sing loudly, and make her own home décor. She blogs about food, faith, and family over at Savored Grace, and you can also find her on Instagram.