I can hear their voices jabbing each other even though I’m at the other end of the house. Without looking into the kitchen, I picture the scene: one of them is standing on the counter, reaching into the highest shelf where we keep our snacks and processed lunch foods, swiping the last vanilla pudding. The other sister is dancing around the stool that has been pushed up to the counter, clutching her empty lunch kit and claiming the last pudding for herself. Of course there are granola bars, yogurt, crackers, apples, carrot sticks, sunflower seeds, oranges, and cheese available but that is irrelevant now. Now that everyone knows there’s only one pudding left. Now that there’s something to fight over.
Their arguing crescendos while I hunker over Vivi’s change table and decide to stay put. The lamplight throws soft shadows on her nursery walls while she sucks on her toes. I take my time, rubbing calendula salve on her bum cheeks then packaging them up in a diaper, and tickling her under her neck. No way do I want to leave my sanctuary and head out into the war zone now. Unfortunately, my daughters don’t wait; they bring the battlefront to me instead. I hear them come closer: stomp, stomp, stomp down the hall way. Loud shrieks. Names growled in exasperation. Su-S-A-A-A-N-na. Buh-L-É-É-É-n. Keeping my hands on Vivian, I balance on one foot and lean to shut the door with the other. It doesn’t help. In the next second they’re in the room, tripping over themselves and their words.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, NO,” I interrupt the onslaught of accusations. “I don’t want to hear it–”
That Susanna. She’s good at getting the last word (or many words) in and interrupting. Almost as good as me.
“Get out of the room and work this out in the kitchen. By the time I come out I don’t want to hear one word. Not one! You can figure this out yourselves.”
And I mean it. I mean, I sound like I mean it but I’m not sure. Can they figure it out themselves? Are they able to? You might think it’s nothing; two sweet girls and one little vanilla pudding. What’s the big deal? Well it turns out that two sweet girls and one little vanilla pudding are a combustible combination. Explosive, actually, according to all the “YOU NEVERs” and “I ALWAYS” crackling in the air. I figure I may as well pretend to have confidence in them even if I’m doubtful. One of my favourite techniques is the ignore-it-til-it-goes-away approach. I could try to pass this off as parenting tool, but it’s more of an exhausted surrender. And quite honestly, I’m tired of channeling Marshall Rosenberg. Tired of posing questions like How are you feeling right now? Have you told your sister what you need? and trying to be a professional mediator. I reach over, shutting the door with my foot, again, and their voices recede to a background static.
Over the last few days we’ve been watching Twelve Angry Men. It’s an old black-and-white movie with lots of talking, no action, no ice castles or princesses, and no interesting scenery. In fact, the script is played out in a single room while twelve jurors argue around a table for the entire movie. Astonishingly, the girls love it–they even ask us to pause it when they have to go to the bathroom. At first I wondered if this was downright weird. Which kids are interested in watching somewhat incomprehensible dialogue between Henry Fonda and other, now long-dead, actors? Then I thought about their lives and the amount of time they spend convincing, accusing, complaining, and provoking each other. Perhaps they loved the film because they could relate so well. Or maybe because at the end of the story, all that fighting and arguing saves the day, or more specifically, saves somebody’s life.
It’s probably a stretch to draw a connection between the movie and our lives to redeem our own domestic conflicts. Mostly, I can’t foresee anything worthwhile resulting from all the nattering, much less anyone’s life being saved. And the main reason the girls (and their parents) argue is because it’s not easy to accommodate someone else’s ideas and egos when we’ve all got our own to nurse. But maybe a teeny, tiny part of their need to argue is wired in them for a purpose. To figure out how to negotiate, to persuade, to feel the resistance of another’s point of view–like a tiger cub wrestling with their sibling–and learn how far to take the fight. Just like play is actually a survival tool for children– necessary for brain growth and development, maybe so too is fighting. Could it be impossible to keep my daughters from arguing precisely because they need to build those skills?
About ten minutes after the shouting peaks during the pudding incident, Susanna unzips her backpack. She takes out her lunch kit and opens it up. There, in her lunch kit, sits an untouched pudding. A vanilla pudding. Just like the one they were fighting over. Belén looks incredulous.
Susanna glances down and says, “Oh, that’s left over from yesterday. I don’t even like pudding.” As if that should explain it.
Belén looks even more incredulous.
Then Susanna adds quickly, “Oh, let’s not talk about that, I’m feeling jolly right now! Don’t even worry about it.”
Don’t even worry about it? Feeling jolly? Really? That’s it? That’s what a morning’s worth of conflict and angst boils down to? It’s so incredible I almost start another round of family fireworks. But I don’t. We’ve had enough of a show, and more than our share of skill-building, this morning.