Early one recent winter morning, my four-year-old son came barreling into my bedroom. It was still dark outside, and the heat in our apartment was cranking up; the pipes in the bathroom banged on and on.
“Mommy, would you build me a space shuttle? Not like the one we had to color on, but a small one that blasts into space?” he asked.
My husband slept soundly even as Henry spoke in his loudest inside voice, and the tings from the heating grew in volume and frequency. “Henry, it’s still dark. Come lie down,” I requested, knowing he would not.
“NO! I want to go to the living room! Come! NOW! Come!”
The possibility of him waking his two sisters was great and familiar, so I dragged myself out of bed and onto the living room couch while Henry threw question after question at me: “Why is the moon shiny?” “Why is it still dark?” “Why are the leaves not on the trees?” “Why are the trees moving?” “What is the wind?” “Why is it nighttime and then morning and then nighttime?”
Finally, I turned on the television.
Henry gets a special kind of attention. It begins in these early morning hours and lasts until bedtime. Preschool has worked wonders for him — his vocabulary has improved, he is becoming more independent from his twin sister in social situations, he can express his thoughts with less hesitation.
His compulsive habits, however, still indicate his frustration with daily tasks — getting dressed by himself, putting shoes on quickly so we can leave the apartment, writing his name within the lines. He repeats himself: Mommy, I said don’t help me! Mommy, I said don’t help me! Mommy, I said don’t help me! Mommy, I said don’t help me… Or, depending on his mood: Mommy help me! Mommy help me! Mommy help me! Mommy help me… He throws books or toys or his rain boots when we don’t understand what he wants.
But that is some of the time. Much of the day, Henry is he is determined, sweet, curious, and funny. His teacher adores him. It’s when he is tired and unable to do one more thing that he breaks down. And with our days being back and forth to school with little down time, I understand this.
We humor Henry a lot. I tell the girls to just “Answer him!” or give him at toy he wants or let him sit in the stroller. I try hard not to do this; at the end of a long afternoon, when everyone has had enough, I want more than anything, control and peace. These are unrealistic expectations of my children and myself. The fault is not with them.
Last night we took the kids out to dinner. One of the girls wanted to go to a restaurant “we’ve never been to before.” Henry stood next to the table after screaming his dinner of macaroni and cheese was disgusting. He cried that he wanted to go home to eat. We tried to get him to sit down, but he refused. As the restaurant filled up, other diners turned and stared.
To avoid a meltdown we wouldn’t be able to stop, we let him stand quietly wherever he wanted. I would not have allowed either girl to do the same, I know this. “Please,” I say to them, “just behave and eat your dinner. Sit in your chairs and stop fighting.” And this, combined with threats of no dessert, works with them.
It would be terrible and cruel and untrue to say that I prefer one child over another. I do not treat them identically, and they know this. The world — our little world — is imperfect, less fair, not immune to pettiness. I hear often that I am being “unfair” and “mean,” that I don’t love the one who is complaining. And that one is usually one of the girls. I expect them to have insight into our family’s complexities.
What my children don’t know, and won’t fully understand until they have their own, is how each one has the whole of my heart. When I check on them at night while they sleep, kissing each on what skin is left exposed by pajamas and blankets, there is no different child, no difficult child, no expectation of one or the others. There is only my gratitude, the silent darkness in the room they share, the endless potential of each sleeping child
This post appeared originally on WhatToExpect.com with a different title.