The Bittersweetness of One-on-One Time

Clio woke up with a fever yesterday, and had to stay behind with Alastair while Elsa and I went to a brunch get-together with some of my far-flung writing friends. Two of those friends were bringing along their daughters, both a little shy of two years old, and I told Elsa that since she’d be the big girl, she could help “babysit” and play with them so the grown-ups could talk.

We packed up Elsa’s backpack with crayons and books and some toys to share with the little ones. She was so excited to go that I didn’t even have to ask her to put on her coat and shoes. As we drove over, I reminded her about saying “excuse me” when interrupting grown-up conversations, and we talked about being gentle with littler kids; she really loves being around babies and toddlers, but sometimes love them just a little too hard, as she does everyone.

Then, somehow, we got to talking about all the foods Elsa liked. During a pause, right after she said “Tuna fish,” I said, “It’s nice when we can go somewhere together, just you and me, and have time to talk, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said, “It’s nice when we can talk about fish, and how to act around babies.”

I laughed. “Yeah, so, what other kinds of fish do you like?”

“Salmon,” she said.

“And tilapia,” I added. Thus, we’d covered the three kinds of fish Elsa had eaten.

When we arrived at my friend’s house (her parents’ house, actually; she was home visiting from Seattle) Elsa burst in with explanations of why her sister, Clio, wasn’t here, and how they were both four, because they were twins, and how we’d brought some toys and some tutus as presents for the little girls, but she was going to be very gentle, and help babysit, and on and on and on.

She was the chattiest little thing you ever did see. Life of the party. And she was very, very good. She was, indeed, very gentle with the babies, and the one time she got into a bit of a tiff with one of them over a toy, she quickly corrected herself: “She doesn’t know about sharing, so that’s why she was grabbing this toy, but can you tell her I want it?”

Different folks at the gathering (myself included) took turns playing with and reading with Elsa, and she also played/read/drew self-sufficiently for a few stretches, too. She’s not great at entertaining herself for long periods, unfortunately — unless the activity is eating. And she did plenty of that. So I was able to have a nice visit with my friends while also really enjoying the fact that Elsa was there, and feeling proud of what a character she was.

And as is always the case when I have one-on-one time with one of the girls (and frequently, it’s when one of them is sick) I felt a little wistful, for not having more opportunities. I felt so much more tuned in to and appreciative of who Elsa is — an incredibly bright, curious, sociable, outgoing, spirited kid. One who craves attention and interaction. And who likes fish.

There’s no getting around the fact that she’s a handful. And when I’m with both her and Clio (who has needs of her own) I sometimes feel overwhelmed and annoyed by Elsa’s intensity, her mile-a-minute talking, and her tendency to act out.

She definitely ramps up the mischief and punchiness (literally, sometimes) when she doesn’t get the attention she wants: after being an angel (a loud one, but an angel nevertheless) all morning, last night while I was making dinner and couldn’t stop to help her spell some words in a “book” she was writing (like mama like daughter) she wrote on the kitchen floor–doing it with a pointed look/smirk at me, to see what I would do.

It was so clear that all she wanted was to be heard, engaged, etc., and she was acting out because I wasn’t giving that to her at that moment. Obviously, I can’t always. She needs to learn to be patient and self-sufficient. She has to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around her.

But I do wish that I could give her more of the focused, one-on-one attention she needs — so I could spend more time enjoying what is remarkable about her and less time being exasperated by it.

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