Friday, April 4, 2008

Pockets of Patience

My husband says that, while he is an impatient person, with intermittent pockets of surprisingly deep patience, I am overall a patient person, with strange pockets of frantic impatience. This is true. Generally, over the course of the day, I am able to deal with the random disruptions of parenting, working, taking care of a house, a job and a family pretty well. I rarely lose my patience; I am used to living this way. I am not one of those orderly people who had to get used to a chaotic lifestyle when I had a baby -- I carried chaos around with me from childhood, spreading it around liberally wherever I went. So when my kid is crying, the dog is howling in response (a sympathetic, strangely moving song), the pasta is overcooking itself into a soft, unappealing mush, and I'm tripping over toys all over the floor to get to the source of the original problem, while realizing that I've had to pee for about 2 hours, my inner self shrugs its shoulders and says, OK, whatever, so what else is new?

Whereas my husband, in this same situation, will feel blood spurting from his stomach lining directly into his consciousness, his muscles and even his skeleton clench up, and he want to run far, far away, where constant reruns of classic T.V. play gently in the background, and he can flip through a large pile of The New York Times, uninterrupted. We all have our nirvanas.

However, in certain random situations, I instantly turn into a monster, entirely (I'd like to think) unlike my normal self. Why tooth-brushing, for example? My son has a horror of tooth-brushing, and I can't say as I blame him, given my drill-sergeant approach to the teaching of this important skill. "No, honey, you have to brush the teeth -- it has to make the brushing sound. The brush has to come into contact with the actual teeth. Do you want me to do it for you? OK, spit into the sink, not across the sink to the wall. Into the sink -- down into the sink! No, you have to swish the water around first -- swish, then spit!" I can feel my spine harden, my shoulders tense up; I feel as if my small son is deliberately trying to make me crazy and I feel an urge to punish rising up inside my chest wall. How can he not know that tooth-brushing must involve actual physical contact between the bristles of the brush and the surface of the teeth, rather than just twirling the toothbrush around inside his mouth like a magic wand? Of course he knows, he's just being perverse. And then I have to remind myself: It's not been so long that he's actually had teeth. He really doesn't grasp the concept of what brushing is for, exactly; he just knows it's one of the things Mommy puts him through twice a day, like all the other inexplicable things grownups impose on children.

So I'm working on it. Now I say things like "Good job, honey! I can really hear the brushing sound!" I'm learning to let it go a little bit. "Did you do the top and the bottom and also the front? you did? good! now let's swish and spit and go get a book to read, OK?" Having accepted the fact that the feelings which my son's toothbrushing triggers in me are not rational and not helpful, I can usually now acknowledge and then ignore them, rather than indulging and acting on them. Still, it's weirdly hard.

Shampooing is another one. My son has had, since birth, a horror of water running over his head, no matter how gently and carefully. It's not just a dislike, but a real phobia, with the sobbing and the refusing, and the twisting of his entire body to get away, limbs flailing in desperation. Throughout his babyhood and young toddlerhood, I dealt with this by extending, to probably antisocial extents, the amount of time in between hair-washing events, and then doing it as carefully and also as quickly as I could, to get to the cuddling and laughing afterwards. But when he became a preschooler, and more verbal, for some reason I lost patience with this problem, and tried to push it, tried to argue rationally, got a little snippy.

My husband, on the other hand, a snarky New Yorker whose impatience and sarcasm are a band of regional pride, can sit down next to the bathtub and become a Zen master. His gentle voice and touch, his mild questions and explorations of his son's feelings and preferences, his creativity in coming up with solutions and new perspectives, gradually soothed the child's fears and protestations into a tentative ability to negotiate, to make progress, to take proud note of his own courage. My response to this ability of my husband's is multi-faceted:

1. I'm envious. There's no getting around it. Why can't I be a zen master, too, instead of a raving lunatic?

2. I'm grateful to the spiritual forces of the universe -- you know, the ones that clearly conspired to lead me to choose Mr. Zen New Yorker to have a child with.

3. I'm perplexed: how is it that a man who wants to poke a stick into his own eye when a pile of Tupperware falls onto his head from a cabinet can have such limitless patience with a preschooler -- hardly the most soothing of presences?

No matter. I'm going to focus on #2 above, and also try to emulate him. If we can't learn from the unsuspected talents of our partners, what are we married for, anyway?

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