I can’t help it. I go to a dark place when my daughter behaves badly in a group activity-type environment. I see a dark little devil appear out from behind her eyes and it’s like she’s possessed. I can prime her, pep talk her, prepare her as best as I can, but it will inevitably go pear-shaped. You know, before I really start on this, I should say that there are days when it is quite literally like my daughter has got out the wrong side of her bed in the morning. These days, or at least, the first half of the day before I rush her to bed early for her midday crash sleep, is generally fraught. She wakes cantankerous, teary, whingey, prone to tantrums, in a no-no mood and a “I don’t want to” mood. If Oz and I don’t field this mood carefully, everything can go rapidly to pot. Sometimes she can be cranked out of it, but largely she sets the tone, and it aint pretty. Sometimes, in these moods, it’s like I can’t access her. She can stand and stare at me, whilst pouring water out of a bottle onto my new sofa. I can plead, I can ask nicely, but she will stare me down, but not quite look me in the eye. She is after a rise in me. A friend will come over to play and if she’s in this mood, things might start well, but if the little girl takes more interest in Maple’s dolls house than in Maple, then Mae will sabotage the play. She will steal the dolls and steal the furniture; not to play with them herself, but just to thwart the friend’s enjoyment of them. I might ask five times for her not to handle her little brother roughly, or indeed a friend’s visiting bubba. Rather than back off, she might go out of her way to topple them over, or try to inflict her entire bodyweight onto a wee newborn. She’s a piece of work. In these moments, I can’t quite believe it is the same child who can be my best little mate. At her finest, she, in my mind, is quite truly, bloody marvellous. So where does the bright, affable, chatty, polite, role-playing, imaginative little monkey go? She gets buried.
I’m not really doing this justice cos I’m writing it fresh out of a bad experience! I should probably have given it some distance. But now I’m hodge-podging this into a dog’s dinner really. Nonetheless, I shall persist. It is the contrary, provocative, devil child I describe above, who seems to take over on the occasions I have bothered to take Maple to group activities, which I think she might enjoy. The first such experience was a taster session at something called AllSportz in Melbourne. The ‘z’ in the name ought to have alerted me to the possibility that things might not go well. We went with an old friend of mine, and her son, who is the same age as Mae. His name shall be Gus for the sake of this piece. AllSportz takes children around an obstacle course of activities in a big hall according to their age group. It is quite structured and parents do not need to hang around but as this was a trial session I did, and wished I hadn’t. It started reasonably well. Gus was not giving it an inch and stayed very closely to his mummy’s side. My friend has two older boys and is far, far more chilled about how Gus takes to things, having seen her other two do things in very different ways and in their own time. I, however, do not have the benefit of this experience and despite her very calming words (“Darling heart, just let her do it her way. This might not be for her right now. It doesn’t mean she’s going to drop out of school and end up on crack.”) I found the entire affair bloody stressful. So she started off launching herself at the activities. The leader was quite gregarious and initially this stood her in good stead with Mae. But after the bouncy castle, Maple very simply did not want to follow instructions any longer. She would not follow the group into the next activity; would not join in with them all throwing the basketball through the teeny hoops and made her view very plain. But rather than sit calmly on the side watching, like Gus, she got a wicked little glint in her eye and tried to sod it up for all the little ones who were actually taking part. Oh the horror. So there they were swinging racquets and hockey sticks at balls on the floor, kicking footballs into nets, jumping on miniature trampolines (she adores trampolines so what was her goddam problem!?). And there was Maple: kicking the balls out of the way; swinging the hockey stick perilously close to a little boy’s head; tripping up the champion toddler heading straight to the goal net with his right kick and whenever the leader tried to engage her in conversation (usually her strong point), Maple was, well, kinda rude and evasive and downright irritating. I wish I had not been there to witness it. It was a small disaster and the AllSportz team generously suggested we try it again but that I go for a walk with Zeph and leave them to it. I should have taken them up on it, but I still have not yet summonsed the energy.
Instead, I enrolled Mae in three trial dance classes in St Kilda. She talks incessantly about ballet. To the point where if I hear the word “ballet” on some days I think I might explode. Angelina Ballerina this, Angelina Ballerina that, ballet shoes, tutus, pink pink pink…on and on it goes. I asked if she would like to go to ballet lessons and she twirled and danced her resounding yes. So we enrolled along with her little buddy whose name shall be Beatrice. I thought that a few months had elapsed since the AllSportz fiasco and ballet was such an obsession, nothing could possibly go wrong. We turned up. All the other little 2.5 year olds were wearing an assortment of tutu skirts and fairy dresses and Maple immediately had clothes envy, despite wearing her favourite, most dreadfully bright pink ballet dress. We got over that. The teacher was bright and vivacious and ever so slightly manic, but I thought, “if she can’t hold Mae’s attention, then god help us.” Again, it started well. She sat, straight-backed, legs out in front of her like all the other little girls, and followed the hand movements and the songs; she jumped up and down with some pom poms and then tried some free-style dancing, but the teacher wasn’t about freestyle dancing, so Mae found herself on the outside again, not wanting to conform. Theoretically, it sounds nice doesn’t it, to have a daughter who knows her mind, is independent enough to assert it, wants to express herself creatively in a kind of hedonistic spin of colour and movement, unrestrained by the shackles of tap-dancing technique and wand-spinning tackiness? But in reality it’s a pain in the arse. Beatrice was following every single word the teacher was saying and followed the movements to the last letter. She was the picture of perfection. Her mother and I sat side by side. Old friends. Maple became frustrated that nobody was joining in with her dreams of a freestyle showcase. She was offered some colourful scarves to wave about but refused them, preferring instead to choose her own. She was given a sparkly wand to march with but would she march? Hell no. And when she saw that Beatrice was entranced by the teacher and a little confused by why Mae would not be doing as she was told, Maple tried to cuddle her, and snuggle. Beatrice was not having it. She was in a dance class, which she had been excited about all week. Maple’s attempts to cuddle morphed into a head lock which had to be broken by my dear, very understanding and forgiving friend, who fortunately thinks Maple is a wonderful character with her own mind and loves her for it…at least that’s what she tells me! Then it was holding hands in a circle time, but Mae snatched her hand back from the poor wee fairy to her right, then broke free of the circle altogether, snatching at other girls’ wands, pushing Beatrice, pushing a couple of other girls, generally disrupting a perfectly pleasant toddlers’ dance class. I’m sure I heard the other mothers tut.
The class ended. We had to leave the room so the next class could begin. Maple threw a huge crying plonker about having to leave and then cried all the way outside until she found Beatrice again who was just standing there looking confusedly at her friend as if to say; “I’m surprised by you honey. What the hell is your story?” I remonstrated with her in the car and suggested we not return to the ballet class, for the sake of the other kids but also for my sanity. She became very tearful and insisted that she had enjoyed herself and wanted to continue. She passed out the instant her head hit the pillow and I tried to console myself with the fact that she was probably just stupidly tired (despite at least twelve hours sleep) and would be a different child next week should I wish to return.
So why should any of this matter? She’s only two and three-quarters. She has a lifetime ahead of her for dance classes, music classes, sport, academia, writing, reading, art, dreaming, travelling, falling in love…oh god…not so fast. What’s the rush? Surely Mae’s idea of free play, freestyle dance, freestyle everything, is the way forward for this age, and for childhood in general. The fact that she demonstrably refuses to partake in structured play doesn’t matter does it? It’s just a mother’s wish to see her daughter take part and enjoy group participation and get something out of it. To expose her to new things and not just dance around the livingroom with her (which, by the way, she seems to prefer hands down to the class). But it is the cringeworthy hell, which accompanies having to sit and witness my child being the only one not to join in. The only one to sabotage! I guess I was also a little paranoid that I was being judged by the other parents there for my daughter’s behaviour. Sitting there with my baby on my lap, helplessly yelping at Mae now and then to stop her taking down a purple fairy. Had the ballet shoe been on the other foot, and Maple had been one of those Beatrices in the class, perhaps I might have rolled my eyes at the little devil pushing my child to break free of the circle. Actually no, I would just have felt for the poor mum! But look, I actually wasn’t particularly fussed about that. I was just so intensely frustrated by the fact that my child would not behave as I had hoped she would. And that this is totally and utterly out of my control. And the neurotic side of me suddenly had her down as someone who would never stick with anything, never commit to anything; she would be the disruptive pain in the butt at the back of the class, or the twerp who doesn’t concentrate on any of the dance moves but expects to be in the show. I’m an idiot. I know this. I posted something on Facebook back at the time of the AllSportz fiasco, and an old school/uni friend reported back that her two older daughters both absolutely refused to do as they were told in any kind of structured play environments until they were much older. Now they dance, sing, play very nicely thank you maam. I needed to hear that.
So we will return to dance class on Thursday after pep talks and encouragement and see how we fare. Perhaps in the short term I should save my sanity and some dosh, and just take her to the playground!