On the morning of Eid last year, my then three-year-old daughter fell off a chair and hit her wrist on a table leg. She got up, dazed, we fussed over her, then she shook us off and then continued with the rest of her day. Still, she wasn’t her usual rambunctious self - she was a lot more subdued, and clung to me. But she didn’t complain about the pain. My husband’s uncle, a senior doctor, suggested that we take her for an X-ray, just in case. So our Eid celebrations ended in the hospital emergency ward.
The x-ray machine was big, loud and scary, and our sensitive three-year-old girl was terrified. My husband and I had to hold her still while she screamed. A friendly nurse helped to carry our 6-month-old baby outside the X-ray zone, and she peered into the window and watched us.
The x-ray was the most upsetting part of my eldest daughter’s day. But the worst was yet to come. The attending physician showed us the clear grid stick fracture showing up in her wrist, and I stared at it, and then at her quiet face.
“She’s brave,” the doctor said. “I’ve seen kids her age with less serious injuries crying a lot more.”
I teach her to self-regulate by regulating my own emotions.
That is a summary of my daughter. She will wail if she feels wronged, and remain stoically silent while nursing a fracture.
If you don’t know what a strong-willed child is, then you either don’t have kids, or don’t have a strong-willed child. Since the morning she was born, she has known exactly what she wants, and she is in a hurry to get there. She was in a rush to roll over (four days), crawl (six months), walk (11 months), run, jump - you name it, she wanted to be there, yesterday.
When I get in the way of her single-mindedness, oh, hello, pain. When she is tired, hungry or hangry - then she is much more likely to dissolve into screaming fits. By that stage, there is no point telling her “Don’t scream,” because that car has long crashed over the cliff.
I have learned, over the years, to stay calm when she screams. I can say no without screaming back, I’ve realised. To deal with my emotions parenting my daughter, I need to maintain a daily meditation practice, weekly yoga and pilates, regular cardio at the gym, and more - all of this, to keep me balanced enough to parent. I teach her to self-regulate by regulating my own emotions. This has been remarkably hard work because of my own childhood emotional wounds.
Online parenting courses have been life-changing for me. The premise of the approaches I've learned from is good parenting comes through connection, which starts by regulating our emotions first.
If you’re reading this and think to yourself, “Wow. Her kid screams a lot", you’re right. She does. But after she screams, wails, and shouts, she always feels better. Like how we feel better after a big vent, or a big cry.
I would love reassurances that sound more like, “This is hard, but you can do hard things.”
My daughter’s intensity can very easily make people feel very uncomfortable. Well-meaning friends suggest things like time-outs, and not being so accommodating to her needs. It stings when I hear comments like this, even though I know it comes from a place of concern. Each time, it comes from parents who do not have a strong-willed child. Instead, they have what a close friend smugly dubs “Saint Babies”. These Saint Babies are deliciously compliant, have sunny temperaments, and basically don’t scream anywhere near as much as strong-willed ones.
Naturally, my concerned friends care about my sanity, happiness, sleep and all that good stuff. But I don’t need their pity. I don’t need their unsolicited parenting advice. I don’t need them to jump into emergency fix-it mode.
What I would appreciate is their belief in me, and in my daughter. I would love reassurances that sound more like, “This is hard, but you can do hard things.” Even better, I would love to hear some positive comments about my daughter like, “Well, a strong-willed 3.5-year-old will make a courageous 15-year-old, a discerning 25-year-old and a determined 35-year-old!” But of course, only fellow parents of strong-willed children say that.
I say that to myself, when I am on the brink of my own breakdown. I have a friend whose strong-willed baby is now 15, and she is a celebrated artist. All that emotional charge had to go somewhere, and I am so excited to meet the incredible young woman my preschooler will be some day.
Every day, I commit to parenting my strong-willed firstborn differently to how I was parented. I want her to know that her determination is a gift she can harness, and not an inconvenience to me.
In the meantime, I relish the good times with my eldest girl. Believe it or not, there are more good times than tricky times. Her big feelings point to her huge, loving heart. She loves us with fierce intensity. She is a loyal and protective big sister who knows which toys to give her baby sister, encourages her to hold a pencil and write, and helps her practice walking. When I was lying down with a stomach ache, she pulled the covers over me, pulled the curtains shut and said, “Rest Mama. I’ll be okay. You rest.”
She is so full of intense emotions, and I love her exactly as she is. Is it easy? Not really. Is she worth it? Absolutely.
Raidah Shah Idil is a mother of two, poet, writer and dreamer. You can find Raidah hunting for patches of green in the city, playing puppets with her young daughters, and writing when she really should be sleeping. Follow Raidah on her Twitter @raidahshahidil or at www.raidahshahidil.com