As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve recently taken on the responsibility of helping around the house and taking care of a four-year-old granddaughter for my friend “Carol.” She is a good friend, and while all families have craziness I have enjoyed getting to know hers.
The past few weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster. I was prepared for my personal difficulty at the potential loss (Carol’s health is not good, and some days she looks so sick I wonder how long she will make it), and I was willing to deal with all of the assorted tasks in keeping a house well-run.
The monkey wrench has been the four-year-old granddaughter. She’s treating me as if I am a wicked stepmother, largely because I am the only one who says no to her. For as long as I’ve known her, she has been a cherished (if slightly indulged), mild-mannered child with an abundance of sweetness and affection. In the past couple of months (before I started going to their house every day), she’s refused to participate in her ordinary life. No more dance class, no more children’s choir, and even hooky days from preschool/daycare with her mom.
Enter Ana. I am sure this shocks you, but I’m a firm believer in discipline. 😉 In all seriousness, we (especially children) need to feel secure. Being allowed to do whatever she wants and manipulate grown-ups does not make a child feel secure. It wouldn’t happen in an ordinary situation, and so when it does happen it is terrifying. Because she is four and human, she fights tooth and nail against the limits that would restore order to her world. (We’re adults. Don’t we fight limits, too?)
I’m also a firm believer in taking the long-term view, even if it’s difficult now. For weeks (we had a few good days in the beginning before I morphed into Cruella in her eyes), I have patiently and kindly tried to ease her into something like a routine. Her mom lets her watch television in bed until she falls asleep (yes, at age four), and when my first attempt to change that resulted in a meltdown, I backed off. Okay, it’s a terrible situation for sleeping and she’s having tantrums the next day because she’s overtired, but big changes can be scary. I let that go, but the problem was the need for control/manipulation rather than any one thing. She has been a terror (to the point that I actually call her the evil child from hell in private, and I never call children that), and because the family situation is so fraught her mother and grandmother will give in to anything that will stop her tantrums.
Guess who went from wicked stepmother to the White Witch of Narnia?
The abuse a four-year-old hurls is fairly innocuous. Even when she throws bottles of shampoo at my head and shouts that she doesn’t like me and doesn’t want me to go to her house anymore, she’s four. She’s pushing every button she can because I represent change, and change (even change that will be good for her in the long run) is terrifying. How many of us resist change? I sure do.
What’s not so innocuous is the reactions of the adults around her. When I am given the responsibility of feeding, bathing, and putting her to bed but she screams and runs to Mom and Grandma (who then let her do whatever she wants)…well, you get the picture. Multiply this by the number of days I’ve been there, and add an escalation each day. It’s gotten to the point where when I walk in the door, she will run to her mother’s room and beg her not to leave. If I ever say a word to her, she will scream and act as if I am killing her.
I’m pretty good at rolling with the punches where kids are concerned, but what hurts my feelings is when no adult ever says, “Hey, you can’t treat Ana that way.” Never.
In the midst of this, I have a stack of duties that far exceeds the time allotted. Part of this is my fault. I’m the one who offered to do the family grocery shopping, but how else will I make sure I have what I need for cooking? I’m the one who volunteered to do odd jobs around the house because otherwise they won’t get done. I’m the one who spent hours on the phone dealing with their awful home owners’ association to get the exact specifications for paint for their mailbox post, and then did the painting when the person they hired flaked out. (N.B. That was my first painting job in at least a decade, if not more.) I’m the one spending hours planning meals, finding recipes, and making lists.
I like the meal stuff. I like doing laundry. (Always have.) I enjoy cooking for people who like my food, and they are fans. It’s been fun to try new things like kale and quinoa that I wouldn’t normally use. (I prefer spinach and rice.)
And yet…then there are days when I walk into a kitchen that looks like a horror movie. Not one single effort at cleaning up since I was there last. Four-day-old milk caked into cereal bowls, dirty dishes scattered everywhere, the dishwasher still full of the clean dishes I put to wash before I left, and the general mess…unbelievable. Empty cereal boxes, cereal spilled everywhere, empty milk jugs and yogurt containers, food spilled all over the floor, and stinky old food crusted into the counter tops. I’m a fast and very hard worker, and it still took me a full hour to scrub all of the dishes well enough to put them into the dishwasher. I emptied the full dishwasher of clean dishes, loaded dirty ones, washed the dishes, unloaded the newly clean dishes, and then filled up the dishwasher a second time.
In the midst of this, my friend’s daughter wandered in and asked, “Is there a plan for dinner?” I couldn’t even look at her. I was cleaning up a mess I’d be ashamed to let anyone else touch if it were mine, and she expected me to cook dinner? Carol was having a tough day, so she had her bedroom doors shut. Four-year-old was screaming, of course, and being a hellion.
It’s one thing to cook and clean for a terminally ill friend in a wheelchair who is generous to a fault. It’s quite another to cook and clean for her adult live-in daughter who is perfectly capable of dumping out the milk from her cereal bowls before putting them in the sink. It’s another to cook and clean for a four-year-old granddaughter who treats me like evil incarnate.
And, because I am Ana and this is what Ana does, the worse things got the more I killed myself trying to make things right. Maybe it’s some faulty gene we have as women, that when we are treated badly we respond by striving to do better. Maybe we think it’s our fault, somehow. Maybe I was in shock at seeing just how sick my friend is, and I thought making things perfect for her household could (in some crazy magical thinking way) make her better.
When Carol was away on a trip for a few days with her husband, I changed her bedding. She has a hospital-style bed to accommodate her needs, and she has white sheets and pillow cases. As I stripped her sheets, something convulsed in my chest. I couldn’t allow myself to put the emotion to words, but I burst into tears while driving home.
When she dies, will I be the one to strip her bed for the last time? Will her elevated bedside table stand empty? Will her electric wheelchair remain as almost an animate being, her companion?
I knew this part would be hard. After just a few weeks part-time, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live this full-time for months, years, and decades. I can’t imagine the stress her husband must feel in trying to provide financially, emotionally, and physically for his family. When she has a good day and zips around the house in her wheelchair, I love to hear her irreverent chatter. She enjoys life. She makes the most of it. But when she has a bad day (and they seem to be more frequent, or maybe it’s just that she allows me to see them now that I am in her home every day), her pale, vacant expression sets off something inside me. She lives with constant pain (but almost never complains), and getting through each day exhausts her.
Up until now, she’s been very careful about what she allows me to see. She was worried she would be too much for me, but it’s not her. It’s seeing her in pain. It’s dealing with the evil child from hell, who in reality is a normal child who’s reacting normally to a crapload of upheaval in her life.
Part of me is screaming that I should pull back, or I will get lost. I tell myself everything would be fine without the granddaughter’s tantrums and hostility, but would it? This is still watching the pain of a friend who thinks of me as a daughter.
Why do we give too much? Because, at the end of the day, it’s still not enough.