Let’s Take a Bath in the Magical Forest

By Laurel Dawson
Issue 102, September/October 2000

Little girl playing at chore timeIt’s time to leave. Eliza, three and a half, and Chloe, 18 months, are dropping rock after rock, pebble after pebble into the lake. I announce, “Five more minutes until we leave.” Sometimes this is enough. They finish what they’re doing, and in five or ten minutes we leave. But today they have work to do. My world of clocks ticking, cars moving, naps approaching, and chores to accomplish is insignificant compared to the splash, splash of the stones as they sink into the sparkling water. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. We really have to go. I steel myself to be firm, gather my children, and prepare to leave. And then I remember: I can play, too!

“Train is approaching,” I say loud and clear. “I have some tickets here.” Quickly I pull some blades of grass for tickets, and I “read” them. “Eliza and Chloe, here are your tickets.” The girls leap up and grab them. The train whistle is blowing in three-part harmony, and we are off, chugging down the track toward home. I am so successful that two other children, whom we have never met, are following along behind us.

Playing turns uncomfortable transitions and difficult tasks into fun. Whenever I remember that trains can arrive at the beach to pick us up, jackets can sing, and swings can wave bye-bye, our day goes better.

When Eliza was a baby, transitions made her cry. Everything from diaper changes to riding in the car was upsetting. Basically, anything that took Eliza out of her cozy perch in my sling was cause for cries of protest. When I found myself weeping as I leaned over my tearful baby to change her, I knew there had to be a better way.

Slowly, I mastered the art of making transitions work. I talked to my baby and explained to her what we were doing next. I would say, “Soon we are getting dressed. Here are your clothes. Mama will take this shirt up over your head and then put this one on, and your little head will pop out the top.” Sometimes we played peekaboo with her shirt before putting it on.

I tried to make up little “getting dressed” songs. I do not sing particularly well, but voice quality is not what mattered to Eliza. When I chanted, “Jacket on, shoes too, out we go, the sky is blue!” she smiled. It was a small leap from there to singing hairbrushes.

In our house, hairbrushes sing songs and tell stories about untangling brambles and finding shiny waterfalls. Lonely toys strewn across the floor call out for help when they cannot find their way home. Being creative takes some extra effort, but the rewards are huge. Inanimate objects with a voice and invisible trains run by a friendly engineer have provided me with an essential helping hand in otherwise desperate situations.

One day I heard a very tired mother saying, “Eliza, put your clothes on.” Suddenly I realized the exhausted woman was me, and my child was nowhere near her dresser. I had newborn Chloe nursing in the sling, and I really did not have the energy to pickup Eliza and carry her to the dresser. Besides, she would just run away once I got her there. I reached into my shallow creative well and announced that I was opening a clothing store. I said that as soon as I set out all of her clothes on the bed the store would be open for business. She could hardly wait to come over and get dressed.

Another day Eliza decided that she really needed to be carried home from the park. Now, I could carry a baby and young child part of the way home, but I could not make it all of the way. Just after I had tried to explain why she had to walk, and just before I broke down and cried, I got a good idea. I told Eliza I would run ahead and hide. She could come right after me and try to find me. We got all the way home playing traveling hide-and-seek.

The bye-bye game is what works best for baby Chloe. Even if she is already upset about leaving the park, if I stop and say, “Bye-bye swing, bye-bye slide, bye-bye sand!” she can leave with a smile.

Although it may seem silly to talk to inanimate objects and sing and dance my way through town, my daughters deeply appreciate it. The world is alive to them. When I affirm this for the girls, they are able to leave with me and follow my seemingly silly adult timetable. Also, it’s more fun to stretch my arms wide and be a big mama jet with two little airplanes soaring beside me than it is to be one serious adult dragging two unhappy kids to the car.

Sometimes my creative well dries up. The other day it was naptime, and I was exhausted. I said, “Girls, it’s time to sleep.” It did not feel right to be creative. It felt right to be unconscious. I added, “I am going to bed.”

As I walked toward the bedroom, the girls ran after me. “Mama,” Eliza whispered, “we can be a raccoon family.”

“Ahhh-cooons,” chimed Chloe.

Two babies and one mama raccoon snuggled in their nest and went to sleep.

Of course, I am not the only one who gets grumpy. If I find myself in the presence of two completely out of sorts children who just need to go home, then I say something like, “Eliza, Chloe, we need to leave. We can make it fun by being a mouse family, or we can leave yelling and crying and feeling yucky. Either way we are leaving.” Somehow it is easier for mice to scurry toward their hole than it is for tired children to go home.

Most of the time, thoughtfully planning the day and talking about things before they happen means we arrive and leave without fanfare or fuss. But at those times when walking through a door is a monumental task, the language of play and the voice of rhythm move us in a way that words cannot. As my children grow, difficult situations seem to transform themselves into workable solutions. Transitions that were once hard flow more easily. The work of blending my adult responsibilities with my children’s needs to play has created an atmosphere of compassion in our family.

We giggle as we move through the day.

Laurel Dawson is a full-time mama. She lives and plays in Seattle , Washington , with her husband Mike and their daughters Eliza (4) and Chloe (2).