Evie wanted to see the baby. I was reluctant to let her. My 10-day-old daughter had just recovered from a mucus-heavy cold that made her breathing and my sleeping irregular and difficult. My friend’s daughter Evie had been around the wet, germy breath of preschoolers all day and there was a month left until the end of flu season. But it was hard for me to say no, even to a three-year-old I didn’t actually like.”Let’s wait until next time,” I said, my head tilted, voice firm but friendly. “She’s napping.”
Evie was disappointed but agreed. She asked to use the bathroom.
“Upstairs next to the bedroom,” I said over my shoulder, as I helped my preschooler Beatrice out of her heavy coat and boots. We unloaded endless scraps of glittery paper from her backpack. I worked a glop of hand sanitizer into her wrinkly palms. We talked about a snack. And we waited.
Another few minutes went by before I decided to check on Evie. Halfway up the stairs I heard the faint sound of cooing, maybe even a song.
She was in the bedroom. With the baby.
Adrenalin. Seething anger. I took the stairs two at a time. Panting in the doorway, face composed but tense, I said, “Excuse me?” It came out as a question.
“I just wanted to see her little piggy toes,” Evie said, not bothering to look at my composed but tense face. Kneeled before the infant car seat where my daughter had fallen asleep, Evie swept a fingertip over the baby’s forehead, tracing bathroom germs across her pouty lip.
“Please don’t wake her,” I said, my voice shaking.
“I won’t,” she replied, steady.
“Come out of there,” I stage-whisper-barked. “Now!”
Then: “Please?” Another question.
Evie wiggled out of a squat and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Presumably to get more comfortable. She rested a hand on the baby’s thigh.
“Let’s go.” I tried to sound commanding, but containing rage had weakened my voice. “Eviiiiie,” I whisper-whined. And finally: “I hate you,” but silently to myself.
It was true. I hated Evie, the three-year-old daughter of my favorite local friend. I hated this cute, articulate and smart little girl whose stubborn will, bullying and fearless nature, and total disregard for anyone’s feelings – young or old – wrecked every encounter I had ever had with her. I dreaded seeing Evie. Just thinking of her put me in a bad mood. Now here she was in my home, in my bedroom, looking at – wait, touching! – my baby. I hated her for ignoring me. I hated her for, once again, forcing me to reckon with my aversion to conflict. I hated her for making me hate. Evie made apparent my inability to shield my girls from the weakest of predators – a young child. Especially for that, I hated her.
I lowered the carrier’s canopy. The baby grunted awake. Evie stood up and I followed her back downstairs to Lisa.
Lisa was Evie’s mother. I adored Lisa, just loved her. She was funny, open, smart and often exasperated just like me. She was one of the few mothers I’d met who I was completely at ease around. I was only a half-hearted user of the modern parenting vernacular, so when I was too tired for “I” statements or imploring my daughter to “use her words,” around Lisa I wasn’t embarrassed to tell Beatrice “No!” or “Quit whining.” I told Lisa how I locked Beatrice out of my room to keep from coming unglued one afternoon. And how I shouted at her once so loud that I had a sore throat for two days. No gasps. No judgment. She got it. She made parenting drama feel less, well, dramatic.
Lisa and I met setting up for a rummage sale at our daughters’ preschool. Pricing stacks of stained bedspreads could forge a bond even between polar opposites, but Lisa and I had much in common. We were new to a city where we were surrounded by wealth while our own families just got by. We were blue in a state of red. Lisa liked to read. I liked to write. She had mother problems. I had father problems. Our mutual attraction was instant. Girl crush? Maybe. It was just so easy with Lisa, easy and fun. We had the makings of Oprah and Gayle, without stylish pantsuits.
But we didn’t come alone.We had the makings of Oprah and Gayle, without stylish pantsuits.
Behind a fold-out table of rummage-sale VCRs and gently used Naturalizer slip-ons, Lisa and I pointed at our daughters through a window to the playground. Beatrice held on tight in a swing, while another girl carefully pushed her higher. Evie was dumping wet sand and dirt at the bottom of a slide, while James stood at the top crying.
“That’s mine over there,” Lisa said, “playing with James.”
Our first playdate: Lisa’s house. Things fell apart quickly – screaming, tears, yanking, pouting. Anesthetizing them in front of a Little Bear DVD didn’t help – Evie kicked at Beatrice until she cleared the three-seater sofa facing the screen. The girls were tired, I reasoned. And it’s hard to share your own space and toys. The next time, we brought new ones, two of everything. Evie took both. The rest was a repeat.
We tried again, this time outside. In the wading pool, Evie blocked Beatrice from the tiny slide. She pushed her in the water, hogged the hose and threw grass. I tried getting Beatrice to stand up to her, to at least tell her “no,” but it wasn’t in her personality to fight back. In hindsight, she was probably scared.
This went on. Sure, Lisa did all the right things – time outs, consequences, “I” statements, words. Sometimes she unraveled and let loose an old-fashioned verbal smackdown. Lisa didn’t flinch the few times I barked at Evie. But that was hard for me, disciplining a friend’s kid. And draining. Plus, it never changed anything. Evie didn’t sweat me.
Beatrice looked battle-weary after our playdates. I told her to stand up for herself and sent her back in. Again and again. Meanwhile, I watched in horror from a safe distance in the company of Lisa. Except for the sideshow, Lisa and I were having a great time.
Then Evie pushed Beatrice through an archway at the top of a nine-foot slide. Two hands, one lower back and a giggle: it had been a totally intentional shove. My daughter managed to grab onto a metal bar near the opening and avoided plunging head-first into the sand below. She hung on until I climbed to where I could yank her back up. I plopped her safely next to me, then turned to face Evie. I grabbed her by the shoulders, stuck my face in hers and screamed.
The slide was no self-defense lesson for Beatrice. Just a realization in parenting for me: no more Evie. Of course, that meant there would be a lot less Lisa, too.
I didn’t tell Lisa how I felt about her kid. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. What kind of person who has a three-year-old can hate a three-year-old? Young kids are, frequently, awful. They don’t listen. They make poor judgments. They’re self-centered. Kids are not the least bit interested in my needs, my hopes, the benefit of wisdom from my experiences. Evie wasn’t actually the only kid that I disliked. I turned down playdates. I made excuses. I could stand being around the other ones, though. I played with them, laughed with them, helped them out. I couldn’t even look Evie in the eyes. The pitch of my voice changed when I spoke to her, flattening out, turning monotone. I couldn’t fake it with Evie.
So I turned down playdates. I made excuses. At some point, between my incessant napping (I was pregnant again) and her nearly full-time job (Lisa was working again), weeks went by with only phone calls. Evie now went to morning preschool, Beatrice in the afternoon. Their opposite schedules were the perfect reason to stay apart.
Just after giving birth, my husband took a job 2,000 miles away. Lisa was sad. I was too, though my sadness was tempered by the excitement of moving to a new city. And, frankly, I was relieved there wouldn’t be another endless afternoon with Evie.
Well, maybe one more. Lisa was in a bind for childcare one day shortly before we moved. She had been so good to me after the baby arrived – cooking us meals, helping with laundry and, yes, bringing Beatrice home from preschool. Clearly, I owed her. Anyway, I wanted to help.
I figured the best thing would be to get out of the house. So I packed up the baby and the now four-year-olds, and we went to the zoo. As we rounded the rainforest, Beatrice had to go to the bathroom. We headed to the nearest one. After she finished up, Evie decided she had to go too. So we waited. And waited.
“Madeline?” came her voice over the din of automatically flushing toilets and running sinks. “Can you wipe me?”
I had already yelled at Evie for running off near the wildcats and lost my patience with her when she pounded on the thick plexi-glass windows in the herpatorium. So I was counting the minutes – we were down to about 30 – before we could drop her off at home. So close.
“You’re a big girl, Evie,” I said, voice flat. “You can do it.”
“No, I can’t. I want you to do it,” she said. “Please?” she asked. “I really need you to wipe me.”
“No, Evie. You know how.”
I wasn’t the only woman in the zoo bathroom with kids, but I got no sympathetic smiles. I tried waiting Evie out.
“Please?” she asked, not a minute later. “I really need you to wipe me.”
I was seething again.
“Beatrice,” I hissed, “wait here with the stroller.” I yanked open the rusty stall door. Evie, pants around her ankles and smiling, handed me a few squares of very weak toilet paper.
Lisa and I are in touch. She is still the person I feel safest telling the dark tales of my new lows in parenting. I can’t say whether we’ll be friends decades from now, though. It seems impossible to sustain a real friendship for so many years without having known each other all that long before I moved away. Plus, the distance. How often will we ever see each other? There are all those miles between us. All those miles and a little something else.