Hal is now 26 months and daddy is sometimes rejected as a suitable bedtime story reader. His father, Roger Mills, explores.
Earlier this week I went to Hal’s bedroom to get him up. When he saw me coming in to the room he started wailing, ‘No, no, mummy do it, mummy do it’. I told him not to be so silly, mummy was having a bit of a lie-in, and he could go downstairs with me for a change. I picked a wailing and weeping Hal out of his cot and took him downstairs, but his keening only got worse. Soon enough a sleepy and mildly disgruntled Jo appeared. Lie-ins had been impossible at that kind of decibel level. In the end the only way Hal could be pacified was to take him back upstairs, put him back in his cot, and do getting up take two, but this time with mummy as the adult who appears at the door.
‘Mummy do it’ is appearing in many corners of Hal’s life at the moment including reading. These days I am sometimes rejected by Hal as a suitable bedtime reader. It has to be mummy who does the evening session with Dr Seuss or Fix-it Duck (two current hits in the bedtime book pile). Hal doesn’t always veto me, and often even if he starts off by protesting, he will settle down with me if he has started to get engaged with a book. But the constant demands for mummy rather than daddy to be the doer of things is the dominant shift in this month’s new behaviour patterns. The infamous terrible twos are, I fear, upon us.
But why is it that only mummy will do at this stage in his life? In earlier Hal diaries I have spoken about the terrors, for small children, that are involved in realising that you are separate from mother. This is an evolving process and it is the key factor behind children who did not seem to be so clingy and needy in their first two years, becoming more so as they move into their third.
Psychoanalysts think of this as one of the crises of development. The theory is this. By the end of the second year the child is getting very mobile, walking and running with ease. In one way this is great. So much more capacity to fulfil your wishes. But on the other hand it means frightening realisations. Because the twin of the thought ‘I can move away from mother’ is the much more frightening one ‘and mother can move away from me’.
At the same time as these changes in locomotive power are happening there are huge developments in the child’s power to think. And once again there are benefits and losses. On the profit side the child is far more able to get its needs met (the beginning of talking being another huge plus here). But the child’s increasingly able brain is also now seeing things more as they really are. And this means knowing that you are little and weak and dependent and that mummy could just walk away and leave you to it.
It is important to contrast these new ways of experiencing with what went before. In the earlier part of life psychological research suggests that the child is not really aware of the distinction between him or herself and mother. When mother meets the child’s need (with a feed, cleaning, soothing distress etc.) it is as if it has happened magically. The child can bask in an illusion of having a kind of omnipotence. The tragedy of getting cleverer and more mobile is that the omnipotence illusion has to collapse, and with its demise a much more anxious small person begins to emerge.
This, I think, is the nub of ‘mummy do it’, and of the little tantrums that can blow up if mummy doesn’t do it. Hal is trying, it seems, to return to that world of magical omnipotence where his mother’s actions seem to be his to command. He is desperately trying to reassert a control that he really knows he has lost. And so he will try to assert his little will again and again, over who gets him up, over who reads to him, over eating his supper, over anything and everything. Hal still loves and needs his evening read, it is clear. But sometimes it just won’t do unless mummy is the one that reads the book.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.