JOPLIN, Mo. —
My husband and I knelt before the bathtub watching a pair of silly, soapy sisters play. I saw by the slump of his shoulders that his back ached. Mine did, too.
What was once a sweet bedtime ritual had become a looming behemoth on our evening schedule.
Bath time with one toddler used to be a quick chore. With a toddler and a preschooler, it became orchestrated chaos.
With a baby, a preschooler, and a grade-schooler, it morphed into something terrifying that we both avoided until our conscience required us to throw the children into some combination of soap and water.
After the kids were tucked into bed, we collapsed on the couch to bemoan the work of bath time.
“Man, I can’t wait for the day when the kids are old enough to bathe themselves,” my husband said. I would have been affronted by his lack of dutiful cheer had I not been harboring the same bath time resentment.
“I know,” I said. “But I wonder when that will happen?”
The question hung in the air while I pictured the possibility in my mind. My husband and I would cheerfully announce, “Time for showers!” and compliant kids would skip down the hall to their task. Water would run, hair would be washed, soap would be used and none of it would be done by us.
“Well, the big girls, maybe,” he said. “What if they can do that right now?”
I looked at him sideways, doubt rolling from my knit brows.
“Seriously? They’ll have conditioner lodged in their hair for days,” I said. “Some places that really need to see soap might never see soap.”
“But what if that doesn’t matter? What if we didn’t have to kneel by the bath tub barking orders every time somebody needed to be rinsed or washed? What if learning how to bathe yourself is more important than a bad hair day?”
I considered the freedom such a thing would promise. We sat back in silence. It was a strange thought: The children we’ve bathed thousands of times might not need us to bathe them anymore.
It happens like this more often than I like to admit. As parents, we become so mired in the day-to-day tasks of caring for children that we forget a vital truth. We forget that we aren’t only here as caretakers Ñ we’re also here as teachers. During the transitions from babyhood to toddlerhood to preschoolerhood, the things they require of us go from being less about physical care and more about active teaching.
Whether it means standing beside the shower a few times to point out the particulars of self care, or keeping our hands tied behind our backs while our child makes a gouged, crummy mess of a peanut butter sandwich, we are here to teach. We are here to show methods, give encouragement and step aside while our kids gain skills.
We take tiny steps backward while our kids take tiny steps forward.
Sometimes they make a huge mess or ruin the thing entirely. Sometimes they get frustrated or angry. Sometimes they need more than moral support.
And all of that is OK, because it leads to the end goal of confident independence.
I smiled at my husband. “You know what? I think you’re right,” I said. “It’s time to let this one go.”
He stretched his feet onto the coffee table and rolled his shoulders. “Yes. I’ll teach them about soap, and you can teach them about wiping their backsides. Everybody wins.”
Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife. blogspot.com.