As a child, I looked forward to school vacations with delight. As a working mom, I dread them. They mean scrambling to find childcare on top of my writing/teaching workload.
It doesn’t help that my daughter’s superpower is refusing to go places. She is like a one-girl radical labor union, always ready to strike for more time with Mom. She has refused to go to birthday parties, festivals, and certainly to the first day of any new endeavor. Which was why I was standing out in our driveway, my hands holding her clothes, shoes, and backpack, begging her to get in the car so we could to go to the first day of holiday camp. She was standing in a tree, a few feet above my head, wearing only a leopard print nightgown and underwear, shivering and refusing to go.
It was winter in Northern California. We don’t get snow, but it was one of those days where the morning temperature was in the forties. The tree—a dwarf maple—was nearly as bare as her brown legs and feet. I stood below her in what looked like a sea of little red fallen stars. Her protests fell down to my ears like leaves:
“I won’t go.”
“I’m not going to get in the car.”
I respect her strike in theory. I’m an activist, and a union member: UC-AFT Local 1474. But I had work to do: writing, grading, emails, a podcast interview. And I had already paid for the camp.
I tried explaining: “I have to work, Baby. I really need you to go to camp today.”
I tried bribing: “If you go today, you can stay home tomorrow. Today is paid, but tomorrow you’re waitlisted.”
Her protests continued to rain down on my head.
I looked up between the spindly naked branches to her face. Brown jaw set. Lips tight. Eyes glaring. She had been refusing from the moment she woke up. “I’m too sick to go to camp,” were her first words to me that day.
I put a hand on her forehead. “Hmmm,” I said. “No fever. We’ll see.”
We read a book and snuggled in bed. I bribed her to get up and eat breakfast by promising a toaster waffle if she ate her eggs.
We ate and played music. She was having a good time, but every so often, she remembered the strike and reminded me: “I’m not going to camp today.”
Eventually, I gathered all her camp stuff and lingered in the doorway. She followed me to the door to tell me again that she wasn’t going. I got her out onto the porch by telling her I would just go put her things in the car and come back so we could talk about it. As I walked to the car, she followed me out to the driveway and climbed the tree.
I put the things in the car. I thought I had won. It was cold. She wouldn’t last up there. I had the shoes and the socks and the jacket and the pants. That’s when I began the appeal.
“Honey, I really need your help today. Will you please get in the car?” I tried various versions of this. “I’m not going to yell. I’m not going to threaten. But I need to know that you’ll respond to my calm voice.”
“No,” she said. “Go without me. I don’t care if you drive away.”
I had work to do. I hadn’t secured care for the following day. I couldn’t miss two days of focused work. I decided to call her bluff.
I walked over to the driver’s side of the car. When I opened the door, I expected her to scream “wait!” and scramble down from the tree. But she didn’t. I tried to look like I meant business as I stood at the car door.
But where would I go? The whole car trip was to take her to camp. I couldn’t drive away to camp without her. I wasn’t going to leave my seven-year-old bare-legged and alone in a tree on the street. Who was calling whose bluff?
I closed the car door and walked back to the base of the tree. I had used every option on the approved list of tools to create compliance: Delaying. Incentives. Begging. Of course, there were tools I hadn’t used: yelling, threatening, shaming and scaring her. Tools I knew could work.
My mom had been a yeller. Her screaming voice could stop me in my tracks. As a child, it would never have occurred to me to climb a tree or refuse to go somewhere. But I had had a Puerto Rican single mom who’d had a tougher childhood than me and a lot less therapy.
I kicked at the ground, desperate. When my daughter was a toddler, I had promised myself I wouldn’t yell at her. I had kept that promise. Of course I sometimes raised my voice in frustration. But that straight-up-losing-it yell? That terrifying yell that had turned my insides to liquid as a child? I hadn’t done that. Hadn’t even come close.
I could feel the tension gathering in my body, the eruption scratching at the back of my throat. I always feel the moment at which my mother would have been yelling. That moment when yelling would be the perfect release, the reliable solution to get her to comply. Yet I had forbidden myself from taking that route.
I leaned against the tree. “I just need to cry a little,” I told her. I didn’t make a sound. Simply let my head droop and sobbed, tears falling on the sea of red maple leaf stars at my feet.
I always let her know before I cry. I want her to see I’m not out of control, just needing to let some feelings out. In a young child’s world, people cry all the time. Our family believes in the narrative that crying is a good thing—people let out their emotions and they feel better. We explain the mean behavior of villains in stories as a result of not getting to cry enough when they were little.
When I looked up at her, her face had softened a bit.
“I’m still not going to camp,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I’ll just keep crying until we figure something out.” I cried some more then I looked up at her again.
“You’re so powerful,” I said. “You’re such a fierce girl. And I want that for you.” She had seen me cry before, but I had never addressed her through tears—my voice thick: “I want you to be fierce. I’m so proud of how strong you are. And then there are times like this when you use your strength to defy me. And it’s really confusing. Because I don’t want to use my grown-up power against you. But I really need you to do something for me. So I don’t know what to do.”
She shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll go to camp, but just this once.” And just like that, she began to climb down, her bare feet finding footholds in the tree.
“Wow,” I said, totally stunned. “Thank you so much.” I wiped my nose. “Would you like a piggy back?”
“Yes, please,” she said.
She climbed from the tree onto my back, and I carried her to the car, keeping her feet off the cold ground, wading through a sea of red stars.