In the painfully white but surprisingly dark glare of the tiny LED plug-in night light in the bathroom at 4:00 am this morning, the counter appeared straight out of some turn of the century chemist’s lab. Balancing the kiddo’s sleepy dead weight on one hip, I stirred dollops of honey into warm water with a long handled tea spoon, trying to get the cough drop stuck to the bottom of the glass to dissolve. The steam from the shower was causing his hair to stick to his forehead and the vapor rub to ooze off of his neck and onto my arm in long trails of sticky menthol. Various medicine droppers, liquid measures and industrial sized bottles of neon pink antihistamine were barely discernible underneath the littered collection of snotty tissues, amassed in less than 5 minutes.
It had been a long night.
As the common cold wreaked havoc on our nightly routine and the lil’ man’s ability to get any real sleep, I desperately searched for ways to get him to stop fidgeting and stay still for those critical 20 minutes of breathing hot, moisturizing steam to ease his chest and nasal congestion. Or stay still, laying upright on my chest against a heaping pile of pillows to drain his sinuses without kneeing me in the chest or flipping upside down every few seconds, in that unavoidable, incredibly kinesthetic way that little boys interact with the world.
All it took was a simple thing. A story.
Starting a few days ago, with the snuffling, oozing, squirming mass of perpetual motion cuddled to my chest, I’ve started telling “Diamond Age”-style Primer fairytales. Those messy, strange and all-together uncomfortable tales of quests and wishes, of encounters and battles. I usually let the kiddo fill in the first few blanks and take it from there (it seems to keep his attention longer and calm his twitching feet and tickling fingers if he’s invested in the topic from the start). All of yesterday’s stories were about a little fish. The day before, it was a little dinosaur.
From a writer’s perspective, I’m rather proud of myself for being able to weave a simple story into such a powerful tool of sedation and engagement. They all use the same tropes of repetition to ensure he’s following along the complicated parts, and the same structural elements to reinforce the messages and interactions. But from a mom’s perspective, I’m finding myself shying away from the big bad guys, the evil doers, the less than tidy endings. I can’t seem to bring myself to write things where something bad happens to the hero (because it’s always a little boy of some kind, of course) that isn’t resolved into a positive thing. I tell stories where a character has a problem to solve, or a journey to take, or something to do. And whatever he actions he takes will have consequences. And if his actions are positive, the consequences will be positive.
Maybe it’s the Mom in me looking at the toddler who is locked in the epic age-appropriate struggle to understand the idea of cause and effect. Or maybe it’s the fact that most of these stories are told in the dark of night, with a sad, tired boy who just needs that escape from feeling sick, an escape from the discipline and battles that pepper his day, an escape from just how tiring it is to be almost three. I know children need those strange and messy stories, the Grims, the fables. But for now, I just want to preserve for him the idea that the world is uncomplicated, beautiful and fulfilling. That friends are there to help you, problems are there to be solved, and Mothers are there to love you unconditionally. No matter how many times you kick me in the nose.
Today’s stories are all about a little bear, who has red hair and likes to eat cupcakes.