My three-year-old and I are at war. Worse: she is winning.
I used to be a normal person whom a three-year-old could not reduce to tears. I was in charge, and shit went down in my house the way I said so because I’m the Mommy gangbusters-style and I make the rules, that’s why. Now, after one week with a three-year-old who has turned to the dark side, I am a broken, broken woman.
I really wish I were kidding.
It wasn’t always like this. A mere week ago, Lila was actually lovable and charming. As fun and funny as she was adorable. She was the kind of kid that if someone else had her and told me how great she was, I would hate that parent for having such a “perfect kid” and then slowly stop being his or her friend just because it was so goddamn annoying to hear about it all the time.
And from the day Eliana was born, Lila really had been that annoyingly great child. (Please note the past tense of that statement.) After months of preparing her for the birth of her little sister, we had it boiled down to a science: Lila was prepped and ready to go—she knew the baby would cry, poop, eat, and probably need a lot of attention. We read countless irritating stories (irritating to me; enjoyable to a three-year-old) about what it was like to have a new baby in the family. And in some weird way that I’m sure any psychiatrist would have a field day with, as we prepared for Eliana’s birth, I even felt like Lila and I were team partners in this somehow. Weirdos that we are, we even had a song that we had “written” together about what to do with a crying baby to the tune of “Clementine”: “What’s the matter, what’s the matter, what’s the matter with you today? Are you poopy, are you gassy, what’s the matter with you today? Are you hungry? Are you tired? What’s the matter with you today? Tell me, baby, what’s the matter, what’s the matter with you today?”
(True, it’s not Steven Sondheim, but for the nursery school set, it is at least passable as Andrew Lloyd Weber.)
The point is, we were ready to go. In fact, during my pregnancy, it was Lila, not me, who had the stronger connection to the fetus. I was more like a surrogate mother carrying the baby for Lila…I just didn’t get paid the $20,000 (post-facto checks will still be accepted from any and all donors). Lila was all set to be a fantastic big sister, and I was all set for it all to work out.
And for most of the past month, it really has been that way. Lila has been loving, devoted, and kind. At times, I’ve been astounded by how gentle and affectionate she is with the baby lump that we call Eliana. When she gets home from camp, it’s Eliana Lila is looking for. It’s Eliana Lila wants to take care of, and with her Superman cape on—the one she’s been wearing obsessively for the past month—she cheerfully runs in as “SuperLila!” with the burp cloth I need or the onesie for Eliana to wear. Together, she and I laugh like the old muppets Statler and Waldorf about the dinosaur-like snorts and grunts that are Eliana’s soundtrack.
In fact, Eliana’s first month is so entwined with Lila’s caring for her that at times I’ve felt that while Lila is my baby with my husband, Eliana is my baby with Lila. (Again, major fodder for psychotherapy right there.) Because it’s the looks on Lila’s face I’ll always remember as I think about Eliana’s first month alive. The look of complete delight on Lila’s face when we saw Eliana’s first (gassy) smile, the horror in Lila’s eyes at Eliana’s first vomit, our shared joy in Eliana’s first time engaged with a toy, the extra care in both our eyes as we watched Eliana’s maiden voyage on her swing. The wild thrill in Lila’s eyes as I allowed her to wash Eliana’s feet and legs in the tub at the sink as she stood on her tiptoes on her big girl stool with her name on it. The warmth that spreads across Lila’s face whenever she holds Eliana in her lap.
That was the past three weeks.
This is now.
My sweet, wonderful, amazing SuperLila has morphed into a horrid, oppressive, dictatorial Evil SuperLila. Eliana, as it turns out, is SuperLila’s kryptonite.
It all began with “Mean Eyes.” That was when I knew things were taking a turn down the shitter.
Like all three-year-olds, Lila has a light in her eye that glimmers. I’d think it was Hallmark bullshit—or maybe glaucoma—if I didn’t see it on a daily basis, but it’s there, and it’s real. Underneath her phenomenal eyelashes (which are entirely wasted on a preschooler) is the glow of childhood that you can see in all children’s eyes—a little flicker of happiness that says, “No one has yet fucked me over or disappointed me in such a debilitating way so as to make me a disillusioned, bitter pessimist who sees the worst in all of mankind.”
Ah, to be a child again!
The other day, I looked at Lila, and she looked at me. For no discernible reason, her eyebrows furrowed, and she squinted angrily at me. I looked for the little glimmer, but it wasn’t there—instead, there was something that was more akin to the wild greed in the eyes of an angry rioter in London. Holding Eliana, I casually commented, “Why are you giving me mean eyes, Lila?”
“Because you are not listening to me!”
“But you didn’t say anything?”
Lila furrowed her brow further and jutted out her lower lip.
“Lila, please stop giving me Mean Eyes. It hurts my feelings.”
At which point Lila rolled her eyes and then multiplied “mean eyes” times thirty. There was something so perfect—and perfectly upsetting—about the way she rolled her eyes. It was cutting, cruel, and purposeful. Just thinking about it makes my heart hurt in a deep and visceral way. As Lila walked away from me and Eliana, I swear I heard in my mind the faint sound of Lila’s carefree childhood being destroyed. It sounded like a peach pit in a garbage disposal.
Suffice it to say, Mean Eyes have not stopped in our household.
But if it were just the Mean Eyes, I’d be fine with it. (And by “fine with it,” I mean I would only cry once or twice a week about this as opposed to daily, which has become somewhat of a norm in these parts.) But things have descended into far darker places.
There are tears. In the past couple of days, Lila has cried tears that can fill up the whole house—tears that are unprompted by anything. Then there are Lila’s random coughing fits at night that last for hours, so that my husband and I seem to ricochet like pinballs back and forth from Eliana’s room, to bed, to Lila’s room, to Eliana’s room, to bed to discuss what to do about her cough, to the nebulizer we are only supposed to use for asthmatic occasions, to the Benadryl, to Eliana’s room, to Lila’s room, to bed. In the afternoon, there are occasionally Lila’s angry shouts of “GO AWAY!” as she slams her bedroom door—sounds I thought I wouldn’t have to endure at least until Lila was thirteen-years-old. Of course, there are also the terrorist demands: “I don’t want Mommy to dress me. I want Daddy to dress me!” Or, if Daddy is doing the dressing, “I don’t want Daddy! I want Mommy! Mommy Mommy Mommy!” There are the daily tub protests: naked, she staunchly refuses to get in the tub as I wait outside her room, a wailing Eliana cradled in my arms. I stand near Lila’s door, listening; she knows I’m there. I’m the U.S., she’s Cuba, and there are thirteen days between us at every second. Using her “pretend” voice, I can hear her making one of her Calico Critter bears say to its comrade, “You’re not my friend anymore!”
I’d like to say that I am a strong enough to endure the role-playing shenanigans of a Calico Critter. Or really, that a three-year-old cannot break me. That I’m the Mommy, she’s the kid, and that I completely understand that she’s just having a hard time dealing with being the big sister. That as a person with three siblings who continue to vie for our parents’ attention even in our thirties, I know that sibling rivalry is a fact of life, and that I should be happy that the anger is geared towards me and not Eliana. On an intellectual level, I understand all of this. I took Psychology 101 in college. Hell, I even took Abnormal Psychology, in an attempt to understand myself. I get it. Really, I do.
On an emotional level, though, I understand nothing. More than once, Husband has come home to conversations with me that end with my crying on the couch, simultaneously cursing Lila for being a hateful, rude monster and cursing myself for not being able to deal with it better. More than once, I have found myself contemplating whether or not I have postpartum depression…or just a newborn and a toddler, which basically creates a maelstrom of symptoms that just-so-happen mirror those of postpartum depression. (Incidentally, I want to meet the woman who has a baby and does NOT feel “exhausted and occasionally tearful”. When I meet her, I think I will hurt her so she can feel both of those things.) More than once, I have not been able to go back to sleep at night after feeding Eliana because I feel I’ve ruined Lila forever and that our relationship will never be what it once was ever again. More than once, I have wondered: How am I ever going to give either of them the attention they need on a daily basis without shortchanging the other?
For the first time all week, Lila has stopped fighting me. In no small part, this is because I have been bribing her to be a nice person with crappy stickers, and that stickers are like cocaine to my preschooler—the more she has, the more she wants, the more she wants, the more she needs.
Tonight when I put Lila to bed, there were no fights about changing (because she got a sticker). There were no fights about getting in the tub (because she got a sticker). There were no absurd requests (because she got a sticker). There were fewer terrorist demands at bedtime than usual (“Mommy? Five more songs? Please please please please please?!”). For the first time in about a week, I found myself smiling in Lila’s presence again. And for the first time in a week, she was smiling too. Because as I read the stories in bed and sang the songs, I felt incredibly cramped. Just as a fact, there wasn’t enough room on Lila’s bed really for me, Lila and Eliana. Eliana was smooshed between us, separating me from Lila, her little baby body a physical representation of the psychological space that stands between me and Lila right now.
But as I wrapped my arms around both of them, and as Lila wrapped her arms around me and Eliana, I had the relieving feeling that maybe, just maybe, this will all be okay. Because every night for the past year or so, as I’ve sung Lila her last song before I leave her room for the night, she always says she wants to be “in my circle,” held in the hug that my arms create around her. Tonight, though, she made one change.
“Yes?” I held my breath, expecting some absurd request that I’d have to deflect with another sticker.
“Eliana is in our circle.”
“Yes, she is.”
Lila is quiet for a little. I close my eyes, enjoying the short moment of peace.
“I like that Eliana is in the circle with me.”
The corners of my lips curl into a smile. “Me too, Lila.”
“Can she always be in the circle?”
“She can always be in the circle.”
“More and more and more and more?”
“More and more and more and more.”
It’s not much. But it’s something, and I will cling to it like Lois Lane clung to Superman so that she wouldn’t fall to the ground while soaring through the air beyond what she thought was her ability. And maybe, just maybe, SuperLila will return to Metropolis.