Who’s the boss?

For the past nine months we’ve been doing the same bedtime routine: At 8:30, without a word, Jerry and I walk upstairs and lie on our bed and read until the girls call out that they’re ready for bed. ‘Ready for bed’ means that everyone’s contributions are done and they’ve each washed their face, brushed their teeth, and are settled in their room. In order to get a bedtime visit from us, they must all have this done before 9pm.

What’s been fascinating to watch is that when Jerry and I stopped telling them what to do at bedtime, they started telling each other what to do instead. For the first few months, Fenner spent a chunk of time each night begging Charlotte to please get ready before 9pm. I was astounded to witness Fenner doing many of the things I used to do and to see the effects in a whole new light as I watched from the sidelines. Here’s a taste of what I would hear:

  • Fenner (close to tears): “Charlotte, pleeeassse? Will you please get ready? I really want time with mom tonight!”
  • Charlotte: “Ugh, I’m so tired of you always saying, get ready get ready get ready! It’s so annoying! When you tell me c’mon Charlotte, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, it makes me feel sleepy and I stop!”
  • Fenner: “Charlotte!! … Moooooom! Will you please help?!”
  • Me: silence
  • Charlotte (stomping her way to the bathroom): “If anyone talks to me I’ll get slower!”

As I said, this dynamic went on for months until it seemed as though one day Fenner just stopped. I asked her how she did it — how she managed to stop bossing Charlotte around. She thought for a minute, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know.”

But the saga continued because as soon as Fenner quit that job, Ellen was there to step into her shoes and has now become Charlotte’s personal, full-time micro-manager. Here’s what I overheard last night:

  • “Ellen, why haven’t you told me to go upstairs?”
  • “Go ahead upstairs, Charlotte … but come get your stuff.”
  • “What? You just told me to go up and now you expect me to come back down? You make me forget my stuff! I always listen to you and now I’m going to be late because that’s going to take me longer!” she starts to cry.
  • “I say one wrong thing and now someone’s mad at me. I hate this. I don’t want this job. I hate it!”
  • Silence.
  • “Charlotte, I’m sorry. It’s just that I tell you what to do and then you rely on me and you get mad when I don’t tell you what do to but then sometimes you get mad when I do tell you what to do and then I get confused and then I get depressed and when I get depressed I don’t feel like doing anything.”

And then this tonight:

  • “Charlotte, I’ve been doing your whole contribution every night and I get nothing in return.”
  • “Here’s what you get in return, I’m all ready for bed.”
  • “Yeah, but you’re not doing your contribution on your own.”
  • “Well, it’s your fault for wanting to help me. If you’d let me practice I’d be done and all ready by now.”

Believe me, I’ve tried to enlighten Ellen about the benefits of backing off — asking her questions like, “How’s that working for you?” and “What do you notice when you do that?” and “What might you do differently then?” When the bossing continued (the same dynamic goes on for the morning routine as well), I asked Ellen if she was willing to do one week of do-nothing-say-nothing with Charlotte so we could all remember what she’s capable of doing on her own.

Ellen agreed, but it was hard for her to stop. A few days before, she warned Charlotte repeatedly that the week was approaching when she wouldn’t be able to tell her what to do anymore.

When the day came and Charlotte stepped up, Ellen leaned close and whispered, “Mom, I think because she knows I’m not going to say anything, she’s trying to do everything by herself.”

That night Ellen said, “Mom, I can’t believe how this morning worked!” “Oh, yeah?” I said, “What did you learn?” “I learned that she can do stuff … and that I don’t have to say anything. If she knows I’m not going to say anything then she does things, but if she doesn’t know that, then she doesn’t do anything. So I don’t know what to do.”

I let her sit with that, but since then the bossing hasn’t gotten any better. In fact, it’s gotten worse. It concerns me, but as I told Jerry I don’t pretend to fully understand it either. They play off each other and test each other and conduct long, private negotiations. And although they argue over it regularly, they’ve also developed a certain intimacy around it. Because I mostly stay out of it, it’s their landscape to navigate together – potholes and all.

Hmm. To be continued …

Explore posts in the same categories: Weeks following: Contributions

2 Comments on “Who’s the boss?”

  1. Vicki Says:

    Oh I just couldn’t resist. Don’t read anything else if you want to contemplate it, but I will forget this thought in a minute so I have to jot it down now.

    You are right – they are both getting something out of it. They are both cementing their positions in the family.

    1. I know I belong in my family when people can depend on me to do the right thing for not only myself, but for everyone else and I am willing to take the blame when things don’t go well if I am allowed to continue to be in charge of my family. HMMMM

    2. I know I belong when I get get people to do things for me that I can surely do for myself. And if for any reason they decide not to do it for me, or get mad at me for reminding me to do it, then I will make them suffer by slowing down and by blaming them which will make them work HARDER for me.

    Now, along with the questions you are asking, you may want to think about what kinds of questions, observations or guesses or actions you could take that will bring some clarity to the girls so they can begin to identify new ways of belonging in the family.

    For instance

    I know I belong when I encourage independence in my younger sisters and model for them what a responsible, capable, cooperative person looks like.

    I know I belong when I remind my family that you can still have fun and get out the door on time.

    Can not wait to get in the room with you for an entire weekend. I should be paying YOU.

    • flockmother Says:

      I’ve contemplated plenty already! Your outside perspective is sooooo helpful. I’m sort of at a loss here. This morning I heard Ellen say, “Charlotte? Do I have to count to get you to come downstairs?” OMG! She’s counting her sister! And then when we got to school Charlotte stood on the sidewalk in tears, “Ellen said my mittens were in the car! But they’re not! She makes me forget!” It’s heartbreaking — the weight Ellen has placed on her shoulders and the budding independence that Charlotte has detoured away from. It’s hard to watch. I know this weekend will give me new energy to figure this out. Can’t wait!


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