The Peanut and I are in a tough spot. True, most almost-3-year-olds are in a difficult stage parenting-wise. But add to the age a determined, opinionated, and persistent temperament (hers) and the difficulties multiply exponentially. And then, factor in a Stonewall-Jackson-I-shall-not-be-moved temperament (mine) and–well, it begins to approach a disaster of epic proportions. I have a friend who called my relationship with the Peanut “The Immoveable Wall meets the Unstoppable Force” and it was so true that  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

These difficulties have been lying close to the surface lately as we’ve been potty-training. The first week was excellent and I thought “Wow! Piece of cake. We’re done with this in a week!” And then I spent quite a bit of time being sick, and the Sweetie Pie was out of town for several days, and I became very inconsistent about the potty training. And the Peanut decided she was fonder of going potty whenever and wherever she chose than she was of the treats she got for dry underwear and sitting nicely on her padded seat. The Immoveable Wall was determined that she would not be buying another box of diapers. The Unstoppable Force was equally determined that she did not want to use the potty (except for the times that she did).

This resulted in a stand-off, each of us with a stake firmly thrust into the ground. My pennant was a roll of toilet paper. The Peanut’s was a diaper. The stand-off was annoying, but it lent its own humor and variety to my days, and gave me something to talk about at dinner. And then it turned ugly. The Peanut began to kick and hit and bite me. She would scream at me in what could only be a string of unintelligeable toddler expletives. I didn’t connect this behavior to the potty-training. It would come unpredictably in response to any sort of request, not just the hourly potty-reminders.  Because I couldn’t attach it to a specific stimulus, I figured it must just be her. And I began to resent not just the behavior, but also the Peanut.

One Sunday morning, I was carrying the Peanut to the bathroom to sit on the potty. She was screaming at me and then she bit me on the shoulder, and broke through skin and I bled. I cried out in pain and she cried out in fright and I set her down and walked away, because I felt that emotion rising that takes every mother’s heart by surprise–that I did not like this child of mine at all.

The battle might have kept going like that, the resentment getting deeper and wider, if it hadn’t been for what happened next. At church, I took the Peanut into the bathroom before the service. She came agreeably enough, but once we were shut into the teeny tiny stall, and I was kneeling on the filthy floor, and she was standing there with her tights around her knees, she changed her mind. She threw the biggest fit of resistance yet, right there on that dirty floor–me wrestling with her to keep her bare bottom off the dirty floor, her screaming and flailing and hitting me. I managed to pull up her tights and told her that we’d stay there until she was ready to sit on the potty. Her screaming got quiet and her eyes locked onto mine. “Mama,” she said, “Look.” She pointed down to her feet. She had peed on the floor.

I sat in that stall for a few minutes crying in frustration and anger. I handed the Peanut and a diaper to the Sweetie Pie and asked him to change her. “I can’t even look at her right now,” I said, and surprised myself with my own words. The Unstoppable Force and the Immoveable Wall were both on the verge of destruction. Neither of us was willing to relent, and it was only too obvious where we’d end up if we both held our ground. And so, with great force of will, the Immoveable Wall moved and bought a box of diapers. I haven’t asked the Peanut to sit on the potty in a week, and she hasn’t volunteered. But she also hasn’t kicked me, hit me, or bitten me (though she continues to yell at me for other things she doesn’t want to do. We’re working on it.) And my heart is recovering its tenderness. We like each other again.

This potty-training session, a failure by all earthly standards, turned out to be one of God’s weighty mercies. It revealed my own white-knuckled grip on results-based parenting; on choosing “success” over mercy and joy and grace. Loving my children means honoring them and their choices and their unique designs. It means knowing when to move aside and make room for their desires and age-appropriate developments. It means knowing that it’s unrealistic to ask my 3-year-old to restrain her force, and that it’s okay to move my wall to make room for her to pass through.

To be clear, this is not a parenting platitude that I apply evenly to every situation. And, further complicating things, each of my children have different needs and different levels of responsiveness. Like most parenting, I go here with fear and trembling, praying for daily discernment and hourly insight into their needs.

As I struggled with my pride over my decision to get out of the way of the Unstoppable Force, I remembered some recent words to a new homeschooling mama. Her oldest son is still quite young, and she is a Loving Mama eager to instruct him in math and history and grammar. I encouraged her to not be in a hurry to leave a place where our time is short, to arrive at a place where your time will be long. These toddler years are fleeting (notice I said the years are fleeting; I am the first to agree that the days are quite relentless) and the years for using a toilet properly are (one can only hope) plenteous.

I can’t say I was surprised to find that by loving my children through difficult spots I end up liking them more. Somehow I expected that. I think what surprised me was to find  that loving them sometimes means getting out of the way. “Getting out of the way” in my old heart-language translated into “failure”, and who wants to fail their kids?? But thankfully, He continues to give this heart of mine grammar lessons in love. What I once saw as failure, I now see as grace. It is this grace that helps me love in difficult places, helps me bring my children into the fullness of themselves, helps me to learn to love even when I don’t “like”.

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