The same day my daughter Annie learned to walk, she learned to run. For weeks, Bill and I had performed stoop labor, holding both upraised hands of our fourteen-month-old, high-stepping daughter who collapsed into a sobbing puddle every time we let go. Our backs ached, our tiny, adamant child refused to detach herself or stop marching us around the house. Then one day, as Bill and I sat on the living room floor ten feet apart, Annie toddled alone between us. And again. Back and forth, from one hug to another. Proud, giggling, and running.
At five, Annie announced, “I’m a girl who takes her time.” At nine, Annie’s baby teeth still refuse to loosen without surgical help. This is my daughter Annie, the inchworm.
The inchworm, a small, hairless caterpillar, plants its front end, shifts its posterior prolegs towards its anterior prolegs thus raising its midsection high, higher, into a tall loop, then propels its front end forward in one swoop, an inch gained. So, too, my daughter Annie refuses change, stubbornly digging her metaphorical front end in until her midsection looms high over her head. Only when truly ready does she propel herself forward, in one gorgeous ground-gaining movement.
We are all born with tendencies and temperament. But never were Annie’s inchworm tendencies to resist and then embrace change so obvious as the six week period before she turned three, when my sweet girl looped high and pushed forward, and I was, all at once, the mother of a child, not a baby.
Six weeks before Inchworm turns three: Annie is finally learning to use the big girl potty. We’ve discussed the concept for months to skeptical hazel eyes; we present “Big Girl” underpants and trips to the bathroom before putting on a clean diaper to go out in the stroller. She remains dubious.
Then one day: “We’re going to Hudson Bay Café,” I tell her.
“Do they have a bathroom there?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I will go potty at the café.” And that’s that — we put on her underpants and they stay dry. For a few weeks, she asks to go to the bathroom in every business establishment we enter, for the fun of it.
“Do they have a bathroom in this store?”
“I don’t know, honey. Let’s ask.”
Four weeks before Inchworm turns three: Annie moves to her own bed in her own room. She’s had beds before — bassinet, crib, sidecar, crib mattress on the floor — but she’s refused to go down unless snuggled or in a moving car. Bill and I have lived with fatigue, parenting a strong-willed child who never slept more than two consecutive hours until she was two. For us, the family bed has been a necessity, not a lifestyle choice. Yet, Annie is turning three and I need to stretch out, so we get her a bed — a twin, a Big Girl bed in her own room — where, one night, snuggled among forty-odd stuffed animals, she finally falls asleep alone.
Three weeks before Inchworm turns three: I wean Annie from the final bedtime nurse.
She holds my nipple inside my shirt, she fumbles against me, “I want to nurse,” she whispers.
“No honey, we’re already in bed.”
“But I wanted to nurse before bedtime . . .” and she cries. It’s been two days since she’s nursed, each skipped time negotiated, or forgotten.
I hold her tucked against my body, warm and soft. A couple of shuddery breaths, and she stops.
“I’m so proud of you. You’re my big girl. You’re such a big girl, and I love you so much. You’re doing such a good job with your weaning.” I tell her.
“I’m weaned,” she says.
I stop, unwilling, myself, to commit. But after all, that’s what’s happening. She’s inched again.
“Yes,” I say. “I think you are.”
She stops, then. “But I am still Annie!” In the dark her face beams, smiling, proud.
I hold her close, her hand still on my nipple. “Yes, you are still Annie, you will always be Annie. Even when you are a grown-up. And I will always be your Mommy and I will always love you very much.”
“Some grown-ups are named Annie.”
“Some grown-ups are named Annie, but they are not you. You will always be you.”
Her body relaxes. Her lower lip trembles.
“I’m very happy and proud but I’m also a little sad,” I tell her. “It’s a big thing, Annie, to be weaned. And I’m so proud of my girl. But it’s okay to feel sad, too.”
She is quiet, her breathing matches mine.
“Let’s go to sleep now.” It takes a few minutes for her to drop off to sleep in her big girl bed, and I hold her close and watch her breathing settle.
The inchworm propels herself forward and then, after all the resistance and looping, she’s in a different place. Too much at once; we’re all shell-shocked. Annie reacts. She strains her foot and can’t walk. She howls, pre-verbal again, rips toilet paper to shreds, and crawls across the floor. So much so fast, poor little inchworm. Tomorrow she’ll wake up with us in the family bed, put on her Big Girl underpants, give me a hug, and move on.
In celebration of Inchworm turning three, of Annie’s massive accomplishments, we have a party. Actually, we have parties. Plural. Four of them. One for extended family, one at home on the birthday day, one at daycare, and one for her little friends. Four parties? For a three year old?
Back in the day, I streaked my hair pink, wore basic black, and cultivated an attitude. I frequented Parisian cafés, read Marcel Proust in French, and never, ever expected I’d turn into a woman whose sleepless nights were caused, not by nihilism, but by worries over whether the balloon theme for my three-year-old’s birthday party was non-commercial enough. To top it all off, I have the pre-birthday jitters. I brood: to bake or to bakery?
Party number one is for family and assorted adult friends. Annie’s second cousin Robin has a birthday three days after Annie’s so his mother and I combine forces to have a party at her house. I’ll do the pepperonata, the beans and rice with all the trimmings, the tabbouleh, bagels, cream cheese, hard cheese, chips, tomatoes, bread, and ice cream. Cousin Diane will do the chicken, green salad with figs and goat cheese, caprese, salsa, chips, and pick up the three cakes: chocolate, lemon, and other.
“That should be enough,” I say.
“Oh, I’ve just begun!” says Diane.
Party number two lasts the entire day. It’s her birthday. Bill and I wake Annie with presents in the living room, and she has just finished carefully opening these (she’s gotten faster since party number one) when there is a knock on the back door: Grandma and Grandpa. They’ve spent the last four hours constructing a modular play structure in the back yard. Annie requests a fancy birthday lunch: chicken without the skin and boiled carrots. Grandma stays for chocolate cake.
Party number three is at Annie’s day care and I attend, wracked with guilt that I didn’t invite any of these lovely kids to Annie’s children’s party. But due to the non-exclusionary day care policy, if you invite one child you have to invite them all, and six more kids and twelve more parents is more than I could cope with. The children have baked muffins and the teacher places three candles in Annie’s.
“Make a wish and blow, Annie.”
Annie stares so long at the burning candles that the other kids get antsy. Then she blows them out easily. She’s become a pro.
The kids’ party, the fourth and final one, almost does me in. My morning is calamitous. The bagel shop is out of bagels causing an emergency change-of-menu. The ice chest is discovered to be lined with black mildew. The seven-minute “no-fail” frosting requires forty-five minutes of continuous beating and overflows, generating two kitchen fires. Annie sleeps through it all, on her back full-froggy (in the Family Bed), tiny snores issuing from her lightly freckled nose. We make it to the park by 10:30, just as the guests arrive.
Then it’s over. Two sets of parents aren’t talking to me because I put candy on the cake. The kitchen is covered top-to-bottom with green and blue frosting, and Bill and I numbly wade through Lego and puzzle pieces, shove aside piles of torn wrapping paper, and collapse on the rug.
Annie comes and sits on me, freckles sprinkling her nose, messy big brown hair, wide smile. Definitively three and still Annie, the Annie she always will always be.
“It is my birthday,” she tells us.
“Next year, Paris,” I announce. After all this year’s hoopla I need to regain my youth. We have an intense year of hoopla ahead of us; Annie resisting, looping forward, and reacting. And I can just picture my little inchworm in a matching black turtleneck and beret, blowing out four candles lodged in her chocolate mousse.
“Inchworm Turns Three” appears in Toddler: Real-life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love edited by Jennifer Margulis, Seal Press, 2003.