The Pattern Trap

You can be perfectly happy trapped in your net, but...

I’ve been re-reading some old blog and journal entries from our first weeks home with Rory. Mostly, I’m seeing how amazingly far we’ve come (and how painful it was to get there). But then there was this, taken from an incident just two months after we came home from China. (Because of her foster home, Rory spoke some basic English when she first arrived.)

I decided to make Rice Krispie Treats with Wyatt.
I read Rory a book first. When Wy ran to get the cereal, she strode confidently into the kitchen.
“I help too!”
“No, this is Wyatt’s job. You can help with dinner.”
“But I help too! I wan’ do butter!”
“No, Wyatt is going to butter the pan. Wyatt is going to put the marshmallows in. I will give you a marshmallow to taste, but this is Wyatt’s job.”
Rory wasn’t happy. She wasn’t happy while Wyatt dropped butter into the pan to melt. She wasn’t happy when Wyatt added the first bag of marshmallows. She wasn’t happy when he got to hold the wooden spoon, and at that point, I turned her firmly around and walked her out of the kitchen and around to a seat on a barstool.
“You can watch,” I said. “But you have to stop asking to help. This is Wyatt’s time.”
She pulled in a deep breath and I put a hand over her mouth.
“And if you start to cry or scream, you have to go upstairs. This is Wyatt’s time. When we are done, you can help make dinner, and Wyatt won’t help.”
A long moment passed, me with my hand over Rory’s mouth and Rory glaring at me above my fingers. I removed my hand and waited. If she started to scream, Wyatt’s “time” was over: I’d have to drag her upstairs, put her in her room, hold the door shut and go through the entire tantrum ritual. By the time we were done we’d be lucky if I had time to cook dinner, let alone finish the Rice Krispie Treats.
Instead, she nodded. I went back to Wyatt, so happy I handed him six mini marshmallows and gave as many to Rory. We were on! We were making Rice Krispie Treats, just like in the old days! Wyatt began to stir.
“Is I good girl, Mommy?”
“Yes, you’re a very good girl. Wyatt, get the spoon down to—“
“I very patient.”
“Yes, you’re very patient. Get the spoon all the way down to the bottom and—“
“I good patient girl?”
“Yes. Keep stirring, Wyatt.”
“Is you done yet?”
“No. Ok, let’s add the next bag of marshmallows.”
“Is my turn yet?”
“No. Here, let me help with the bag…”
And so on. Yes, she was patient. Yes, she was a good girl. Yes, she would get a turn next. Yes, she would help with dinner. Wyatt never said much at all. I made dinner, with Rory’s “help,” and then I locked myself in the bathroom for half an hour.

I read that with disbelief—because Wyatt and I made Rice Krispie treats yesterday, and—minus the initial teetering on the edge of tantrum—I could have written that fresh today.

Rory and I have fallen into a pattern. One of my favorite writers, Sarah Susanka, says “a conditioned pattern is a set of actions and responses that you’ve set to replay on automatic because it worked for you once a long time ago … and you’ve continued to replay the same pattern every time the circumstances arise ever since.” She says these patterns come from our hidden beliefs: in Rory’s case, that if I’m not constantly acknowledging her presence, I’ll forget her, and in mine, that I need to respect that need of hers even when it’s to Wyatt and my detriment.

This isn’t our only similar pattern. I’ve found a couple areas in which Rory and I are still saying—-to the word—-the exact same things we were saying to each other two years ago. I thought we’d come so far–but it one particular area, that of Rory competing for my attention–we’re still very much trapped. And it’s not good for either of us. I’m getting more and more impatient in my responses, and Rory is getting more and more desperate in her attempts.

And–this is key–I can’t change Rory’s behavior. I can only change me, and hope that my change helps her change. So, what am I going to do, the next time she goes with her frontal assault on my interactions with a sibling? I have a couple of ideas.

I’ve tried getting it out in the open (I’ve been aware of this as an issue, just not how long ago it started and how precisely, eerily similar our conversations are). “I love you so much, Rory,” I say, “But I’m reading with Lily now.” Or even “I know it’s hard for you to see me work with Sam and not you, but I will work with you when I am done—IF you don’t say anything else while I work with Sam.”

That last one works–sort of. In that circumstance, she’ll stand there, as close to us as possible, without speaking. Told to stand somewhere else, she stands on the edge of wherever she’s supposed to be. In other words, she does as much as she possibly can of her pattern unless specifically, in so many words, required not to–to the point where giving her the instruction to get her out of the way is as time-consuming and attention-getting as, well, she wants.

I’m writing those off as failures. Here’s my current plan: I’ll ask her to do something for me. Something that should take her a long time. Something that should get her brain doing something else during the tough moments when she’s not in what she perceives as the inner circle of my attention. But it can’t always be the same thing. In other words, this is going to be a pain in my ass for a while. But two years of agreeing that she’s a good, patient girl–when really she’s NOT–aren’t good for either of us. This is a pattern we’ve got to break free of.

I’m welcoming any other ideas!

Cross-posted to No Hands But Ours.

7 Responses to “The Pattern Trap”

  1. Eliz. says:

    You can try telling her what “good patient girls” ACTUALLY do. Like, “Good patient girls sit quietly and draw in their coloring books until it is their turn.” Since what you’re trying to do is change what she perceives it is good patient girls do, you have to give her an alternate definition.

    And since I’m being all bossyboots here, you want to avoid telling her she’s wrong. You can agree that she *is* a good patient girl, you just have to be clear what a good patient girl she is by what she is doing. In other words, you don’t need to go down the road of saying, “Good patient girls don’t bug the shit out of me when I am trying to spend time with a sibling.” 🙂

  2. Everytime I read your posts about Rory I’m simply amazed at how similar she is to our daughter (seriously, I think they must be related!). L just turned 3 and we’ve been home 6 months…and it’s been a nightmare. Your post today is identical to the pattern L has gotten herself into. When I spend time with her brother, she either shoves herself into the mix, melts-down, or hovers an inch away from us constantly interupting…”Mama happy wit me?”, “Mama love me?”, “Me good girl?, “my turn now?”. I try so hard to keep my patience, but patience is just not my strong suit. It’s just SO taxing when she is so clingy 24/7 and I have no idea how to correct it (and it turns the day into a negative with her and ruins the one-on-one time I’m trying to give her brother who is 4). If you come up with anything that works..please, please let me know. Poor brother is getting no quality time with me and L and I are constantly in a cycle of ups and downs.

  3. Penny says:

    You say Rory wants to know if you love her, whether you think she is a good girl, and when she will have a turn with you, and that you want to try something different because the pattern of asking her to wait patiently isn’t working.
    So. OK, here’s another idea. Two. How about hiring a baby sitter to do something fun with Wyatt so you can give Rory your undivided attention for a two or three hours? How about giving her lots of skin contact — maybe back rubs — because touch is a powerful way to communicate love. Maybe you could give her some choices about how she wants to spend that special time together. Well, that’s three — just to get you started. You’ll have better ideas, tailored to your own situation.
    I don’t know you, or Rory, but I have enormous respect and admiration for your willingness to give your life and love to a kid who needs you so desperately. Remember to take care of yourself, too!

  4. Flamingo says:

    hmm….i don’t really have this issue at all. i am not saying that smugly…because i see the issue with other people like grandparents, ect. i always thought it was due to tremendous parenting skills where I rebelled against all book advice. i know if sparkles would ask me that i would say, “no you are not being patient” she would then stomp off i can NOT stand the silly little dances and I immediately send off to her room if she invades my time with another kid. and no …standing beside us and quietly watching does not count.:) yea…just writing this response makes me realize that we have come a long way! yea! 🙂

  5. KJ (aka Lola Granola) says:

    I think those are good ideas. I especially like the back rub idea. Maybe we could have a back rub ritual. I think she’d love that.

    Oddly, if Wyatt got to go with a babysitter, she’d be jealous of that, too. But I can get him some play dates…

    It’s really all about doing something differently. I can’t believe how long we’ve been doing some of the same stuff!

  6. KJ (aka Lola Granola) says:

    Oh my gosh! I know JUST where you
    are at six months…it can just be so hard. I say, break some rules and give yourself a break. I also–I’ll have to come read your blog–but I have benefitted ENORMOUSLY from learning to just let what happens happens without trying to change it or make it move at my pace, and also by not trying to do more than one thing at once. Of course, sometimes you can’t help it. But I find it’s so much kinder to ME to slow us down, to allow lots of time to get anywhere, to agree to play a game and not try to answer emails or make dinner or help another kid with homework while we play…

    I’m still not that great at some of this. There is a reason why she’s so desperate for my approval. We get in a vicious cycle–she is so much more demanding than the others that I get frustrated andq she feels it, so she knows I DON’T approve…and so on. Good luck! Keep in touch.

  7. KJ (aka Lola Granola) says:

    I think you may know me too well!