Mental Health Day
By Shelley Mann Hite
It was about 7:50 a.m. on a Wednesday that my girls, ages 9 and 1, simultaneously decided that they no longer needed my help getting dressed. Children, always, have the worst timing.
I had gotten the older one out of bed right at 7:10 a.m., settled her on the couch with Cheerios and YouTube, and had sent her to the bathroom to brush her teeth right at 7:45, the 30-minute mark before we absolutely had to leave the house to make it to daycare drop-off and school on time. All we needed to do in those 30 minutes was get both girls dressed and into the car.
The baby started fussing first, as I pulled a yellow T-shirt with pink dinosaurs over her head. Overnight, it seems, she’d developed a strong opinion about which clothes she would and would not wear.
“No!” she shouted. “Dress!” She pointed to the row of Christmas and Easter dresses hanging in her closet. I wasn’t about to send my toddler to daycare to finger-paint in a fancy frilly dress, so I ignored her outburst.
She tugged at the T-shirt. “No yellow. Dress! DRESS!”
I tried a new tactic. “How about a snack?”
Her face brightened. We headed to the pantry, and I was grabbing for the box of graham crackers when I realized my tactical error. She’d recently learned about the toddler crack that is the fruit snack, and her eyes were trained on the fruit snacks box that I happened to know was empty.
“Oh, sweetie,” I said, “the fruit snacks are all gone, but we can have a cracker.”
This outrage pushed her from teary to tantrum. I offered up a few other options—applesauce, fruit leather, granola bar—but none were acceptable to the wailing, writhing toddler. I left her to her wear herself out for a moment, and checked on her sister.
The 9-year-old was brushing her teeth very slowly, listening to the cries with a worried look. “What’s wrong with her?” she asked.
“She’ll be OK, she just doesn’t like her clothes and wants fruit snacks.”
“Why can’t you just give her fruit snacks?”
I walked back to the baby and tried picking her up for a hug, but we’d hurtled far past the point of a cuddle. She kicked her way out of my grasp.
“Can mommy give you some yogurt? How about ice cream?” I tried, getting desperate.
“OK, I’m going to go help your sister get dressed. I’ll be right back.”
I opened S’s bedroom door and found her on her bed with a frown, peeling off her left sock ever so slowly.
“Alright, babe, we need to start hurrying. We’re gonna be late.”
She glowered. “Can you please make her stop crying?”
“Honestly, I’m not even sure she knows why she’s crying at this point.
At this point the baby, realizing she was being ignored, sprinted down the hall and heaved herself against the bedroom door to let us know she was still there and she still really wanted to rip the yellow dinosaur shirt off her body.
“Mom! Just go help her,” S pleaded. “I can get dressed by myself.”
I hesitated. One of the cruelest tricks S’s genetic disorder plays on her is sabotaging her fine motor skills, leaving her forever fumbling with buttons and zippers and struggling to write legibly with a pencil. But I nodded anyway and closed the door, hoping she didn’t notice my hesitation.
I presented J with a few alternative shirt options, and she batted each of them out of my hands.
I glanced at the clock (10 minutes until we needed to be buckled in the car) and stuck my head back in S’s room. She was pulling her shorts on backwards. “Here, let me help you with those, and then we just need to comb your hair and find your shoes...”
The wailing continued outside in the hallway. S stayed silent, stony-faced, as I pulled her shorts off and back on and tugged the comb through her blond tangles.
“Alright, go get your shoes on and meet us at the front door. We need to be in the car in five minutes.”
As I raced through the living room retrieving the toddler’s shoes, above the sound of J’s continued wailing, I heard S begin to bawl.
“Honey, what’s wrong? I’m sorry your sister won’t stop crying.”
“It’s not just that!” she managed. “It’s just… You don’t think I can get dressed by myself! I’m 9 years old! You never think I can do anything by myself!”
“That’s not true. I just try to help you in the mornings so we can get out the door on time. I know you can do it yourself.”
“You think I can’t do hard things. I’m going to become an adult and I won’t be able to take care of myself because you do everything for me!”
The anger and hurt in her voice and the truth in her words sliced my heart right in two. I opened my mouth to reassure her and instead a sob tumbled out.
“That’s it.” I declared, noticing we’d blown right past 8:15 and were heading to 8:20. We’d be late anyway. “We’re all staying home today. We’re taking a mental health day.”
The baby, at this point, toddled into the bedroom to see what was going on, the spectacle of both her sister and mom in tears enough to finally make her forget what she’d been crying about.
S apologized. “I’m sorry, Mom, I didn’t mean to make you cry. I was just telling the truth.”
I told her I was happy she’d told the truth, and that it was just hard for me to hear. I pulled her into my lap for a hug, and the baby tried to wriggle her way into my arms, too. S, suddenly, saw the bright side of our current situation.
“If we’re not going to school, can you take us somewhere fun, to help us get in a better mood? Maybe the play cafe?”
At the play cafe, S explained to the proprietress, “We’re taking a mental illness day.”
I quickly clarified, “a mental health day.”
The woman nodded knowingly.
As J ran around in her yellow dino shirt, S and I talked it out over hot chocolate, outlining a plan for how she could take on more responsibility in getting dressed, making her lunches, and cleaning up her room.
I know that I jump in too often to help her, I admitted, and that’s because when she was a baby and as a kid she’s gone through so many hard medical things, things most kids don’t have to go through, and I just wanted to help make life easy for her for a while.
But regardless of all that, my heart knew she was right. I do need to help her learn everything she needs to be a grown-up. I asked for her help in gently reminding me when I’m falling into overprotective mode. She agreed.
After our chat, she wandered over to the play cafe’s giant slide. I sat there on a squishy foam mat and watched my tall third-grader slide down, followed by her shadow of a 1-year-old sister, then prance back up the stairs and slide down again. The sweetness of it made my heart ache. S is a girl trying to figure out how she’s going to be a teenager, how to do things by herself, how to exist outside of me. And I’m doing nothing but holding her back because I can’t deal with the reality of my baby not being a baby anymore.
Parenting children eight years apart in age is brutal. You make it through the truly body-crushing part of parenting—the sleep deprivation and the chasing and the lugging—just to start all over from the beginning. But every once in a while, the stars align and my girls struggle with just the same things on just the same days and we stumble upon just the right slide to cure them both.