One day at the beach, my fearless 3-year-old escaped from our sight just long enough to plunk her wet, sandy little self onto the lounge chair of a complete stranger, reach over to touch the woman’s bare toes, and exclaim, “Tickle, tickle, tickle!”
Then she just grinned, giggled, and scampered off.
It was mortifying.
Our kids know they’re not supposed to talk to strangers, but our youngest daughter had just taken things to a whole new level and tickled one. Fortunately, the woman just laughed and said, “Wow! She’s a fierce one!”
And indeed she is.
Sometimes I wonder how this fierce, confident extrovert of a child can really be mine. If you, like me, are a mostly introverted person parenting the kind of child who introduces herself to naked strangers in the women’s locker room at the gym, announces in her very loudest voice at preschool pickup time that “Joshua and his dad are boys so that means they both have penises,” and who charges through life with no fear and no filter, you know how exhausting it can be.
While some days I love getting caught up in the excitement of life with her, other days it’s too much. Her constant need to interact is overwhelming, and it takes a toll on me, both mentally and physically. I’ve always needed alone time to process things, to recharge, but my dynamo of a preschooler wants movement, conversation, and adventure. Now I’m starting to realize how much having an extroverted child affects my health. Since giving birth to this child, I have gained weight, gray hairs, and a heart-squeezing anxiety the likes of which I have never experienced before.
She is a lot, to say the least.
At the end of one particularly long, tiring day, I trudged upstairs to begin the bedtime battle. By hour 13 with 5-year-old twins and a wild, willful 3-year-old, I would give my right arm just to be alone in a quiet room. And the kids can feel it; the electricity shooting out from my frazzled nerves fuels their final wild romps before they crash for the night.
Finally, the twins and I settle down to read a book, but a gleeful shriek from the laundry room tells us that the 3-year-old is up to no good.
I am so over this. I’m over the constant moving and running and doing. She never stops. “Get out of the laundry room!” I yell, too tired to wrangle her.
No answer. I start reading to the twins.
And then suddenly, from the laundry room: Thud.
She cries immediately.
My first thought, at what is clearly not my finest parenting hour, is, “For fuck’s sake! I told her to get out of there!”
And then of course I feel guilty and run to make sure she’s okay.
She has fallen off the laundry room’s spare bed and hit her head on the hardwood floor. The bump on her head grows right before my eyes. It seems impossible that skin could stretch so much without breaking. I have to take her to the ER. And just like that, my dream of being alone in a quiet room has evaporated.
I park near the emergency entrance to the hospital, and my girl and I head into the bright lights and the unknown. The hospital’s atmosphere gives me a whopping headache, but it seems to energize the little patient, who charms and chats with nurses and strangers about everything from dogs to Daniel Tiger.
Finally, at almost 11 p.m., the doctor bursts into our room, looking harried — and hairy. He’s a burly guy, with a full, dark beard and a stocky build. My daughter stares at him, wide-eyed and uncharacteristically silent. “This is the doctor, sweets,” I say. “He needs to check out your head.”
Her eyebrows furrow, and she looks skeptically from the doctor to me.
“This guy is a doctor?” she demands.
I am once again mortified. In her mind, I guess, a doctor looks like our petite, fair-haired, female pediatrician, but fortunately, this doctor laughs, unfazed by her outburst. Then my daughter laughs too and sings, and her head is deemed free of concussion or other damage. We’re finally released.
I tell her I’m proud of her as we walk back outside, trading the hospital’s antiseptic glare for the soft air of a summer night. Here is this little person whose headache must be much worse than mine, who is up and about in the middle of the night when she is usually snug in bed, and she’s still cheerful, high on adventure and the fun of making new friends.
With their exuberance, charm, and fearlessness, our extroverted children can teach us about living in the moment. You can take risks and you might get hurt, but that’s just life when you live it in the loud, limitless way that they do.
And so, despite the gray hair, the high blood pressure, and the frazzled nerves, I’m grateful to my daughter for helping me to learn to let go. I hope that in return, I’ll be able to teach her to temper her exuberance with tact, to be charming but genuine, and that sometimes it’s better to use good judgment instead of acting with reckless abandon.
I smile at her in the rearview mirror. “I’m so glad you’re my girl,” I tell her. She smiles back at me. “I’m glad you’re my girl too, Mommy,” she says, and I am filled with a peaceful, unexpected joy. She may be exhausting, this wild girl who leaps without looking and takes me places I’ve always been afraid to go, but all that matters is that I am hers, and she is mine.
We make our way through the darkness, toward the warm lights of home, together.