When I was a little girl, I loved Little House on the Prairie. It was not just entertainment to me, it was gospel. Sacrilege, I know. But at 8, I was much more concerned with what Laura Ingalls would do than Jesus. And for a time, I was exceedingly interested in what she would not do—particularly in the realm of personal hygiene.
I would sit in the bathroom, running the water in the tub and sink at the same time. I’d drench a washcloth, then wring it out and move the shampoo bottle a couple of inches so even the world’s best detective (at the time I believed that to be Jessica Fletcher, aptly played by Angela Lansbury) could only conclude that a shower had in fact been taken. It was all part of an elaborate plan to avoiding bathing and brushing my teeth. It took effort. More effort than the actual act of bathing would have required, but that wasn’t the point. I was exercising control…and justifying my actions by reference to Little House on the Prairie.
Your average 8 year old does not have much control. I had even less at this particular time. We had moved to a new place, a new state, that I had not picked. I hadn’t been consulted on the neighborhood choice or bedroom selection. And just as was the case with our prior household moves, I was missing friends and some of my very important stuff. I can’t even remember what stuff was lost. But it was stuff that was mine, and then it was not.
I sat on the floor of the bathroom as steam from the shower I would not take clouded the room and I thought, Laura Ingalls didn’t have a lot of stuff. If she didn’t need a ton of stuff in order to maintain her sunny disposition and constant, toothy grin in the face of all of those late 19th century pioneer troubles, then I didn’t need much either. It also appeared that she only needed to swim in a river once a while to get clean and didn’t need to brush her teeth to maintain that winsome smile–which is how I justified my own skirting of the laws of dental hygiene.
My ruse didn’t last long. My mom indulged it for a couple days before finally telling me, as she kissed me good night, “If you’re going to try to make it look like you brushed your teeth, you should think about wetting the toothbrush while that faucet is running.”
She wasn’t mad, and she didn’t send me back to the bathroom. I think she understood.
All people, even the little ones on late 20th and early 21st century prairies, need to feel they’re in control…of something.
Now, three decades later, I have more stuff and more control. Yet things often feel so out of control. I’m brushing my teeth regularly, so that’s a start—but there are so many other things that are not getting done and need to get done, or are not getting done the way I want them done. So many things–big ones and little ones–spinning, beyond my control.
Laura Ingalls is no longer the spiritual leader of my cult of one, but I still think about her and the way I felt back when I was a powerless kid. I try to remember that feeling when my 6 and almost-5 year old girls fire their own control-seeking missiles. Their stubborn refusals to eat that last bite of dinner, or to brush their hair, or remove the stuffed animal they have shoved under their shirt for Laura-only-knows-what-reason, they are not just annoying–they are damaging, albeit largely unconscious, strikes against our state of parental control.
When my 2 year old flails like a Sharknado 2 hammerhead on a Manhattan rooftop because he was given a green-handled fork instead of a blue, I want to scream that his reaction makes about as much sense as a Sharknado. (I don’t know why, I just had to watch. The original Sharknado and its sequel were awful[ly] brilliant[ly] terrible.) I want to yell that I am the mom and I pick the forks, and the food and the clothes, and the bad television. So deal with it, kid! But I usually don’t. When I’m not already teetering on the edge because of my own control issues, I remember to remember that these little people feel powerless.
I remember that a few bites of peas and a stuffed sheep protruding from a very stretched shirt collar, just like a night or two of not bathing, don’t make a bit of difference. To them though, it’s everything. It’s everything they’ve got right now.
And they’re everything to me.