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Our Tiny Tyrant

The tyrant waddles down the hallway toward the den, where my two older daughters sit, unsuspecting, as they watch TV. "Girls! Girls!" she calls as she rounds the corner. "I wanna watch Elmo."

Zoe and Ella try not to make eye contact with her, a survival trick they've learned in the months since they became unwitting members of Her Majesty's court. Their desperate hope: Maybe if we ignore her, she'll go away.

Foolish girls. She comes to a stop, mere inches from their faces, and shrieks as loudly as she can, "GIRLS! I WANNA THE ELMO NOW!"

My daughters, wise enough at 10 and 8 to know that sometimes you just can't beat the system, change the channel and then resign themselves to scrunched corner cushions on the sofa. "Thank you, thank you," the ruler says kindly. Then, as if conferring a knighthood, she says, "Clem-en-tine lubs you."

And we lub Clementine. But it's hard for me to remember now, almost two years after her birth, why I worried that my third daughter might not get her fair share of attention. Was it because the four other members of her family were (to put it nicely) very verbal and in touch with their needs? Because, in contrast, she was such a sweet-tempered newborn, content to sit trussed like Hannibal Lecter for hours in a car seat?

I shouldn't have worried. On the day Clementine learned to crawl, she scuttled over to the nightstand, grabbed her father's wristwatch, and teethed happily on the leather band. When she cried inconsolably upon its forcible removal from her mouth, she got it back and smiled.

We gave in, and our daughter rewarded us. As experienced parents, we should have known better. This wasn't the way we'd behaved with Zoe and Ella, who were born 22 months apart and whose tandem tinyhoods so overwhelmed us that we forced them to grow up as soon as possible. We'd defeated many attempted toddler overthrows; we were proud survivors of the War of the Weaning, the Trail of Tantrums, and the Long March to Bedtime.

But every time Clementine cried... our hearts broke. And so even the underage members of our household, well versed in the wily strategy of manipulative crying, happily cave in. Whenever Clementine toddles over, sticks out a dimpled hand, and announces, "I like-a the doll," her sisters relinquish their Barbies.

Once I asked my older daughters why they let themselves be pushed around by a pipsqueak, and Ella nodded in agreement as Zoe explained, "Because we used to be like that too." Clementine's presence is a sweet reminder of their own, half-forgotten lives as babies. When she calls for her favorite crib quilt (a hand-me-down from their infancies), Zoe gives her what's left  -- a ratty, torn bit of cloth  -- and asks me, "Did we sleep with its edge touching our noses, like she does?"

The answer is yes. And, yes, you sang the "Wobbin, Wobbin" song too when you wanted waffles for breakfast. And you both danced in the street with delight after you blew the fluff off of dandelions.

Before Clementine was born, we'd lived a long time without a baby in the house. We'd forgotten how good a newborn's neck smells, how much fun it is to watch someone use two fingers to painstakingly convey individual Cheerios into her mouth. It made us greedy: My husband and I wanted to prolong Clementine's babyhood, more for our sake than for hers. So we coddled her.

I ask myself, Did we make a mistake? Certainly, life has changed under the current regime. But I don't regret creating a tyrant  -- not for one minute. She is our last baby. Soon she'll move on, as her sisters did, to piano lessons and beaded hair braids and sleepovers. After she grows up, no one in our family will ever again sleep in the crib, or wear the yellow hooded sweater with the duck-shaped buttons, or wiggle her fingers in the air and announce solemnly, "I tickling Mommy now." Oh, we'll probably sing the "Wobbin, Wobbin" song once in a while. But I'm not ready for nostalgia; let me revel a little longer in the sweet here and now of Clementine's messy blond ringlets and juice-stained grin.

I just hope that one day the tyrant learns to prefer living in a democracy. Until then, I applaud her spirit, her fierce sense of self. And (for the most part) I will willingly put up with its side effects  -- the edicts, the many hours of enforced exposure to the red Muppet's theme song.

Of course, the lyrics may soon be changing. "Sing 'Clemmie Song,'" she sternly instructs the TV. She can be very persuasive.

Michelle Slatalla is a columnist for The New York Times.

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