July 5, 2021

It was a Sunday morning, and we were visiting the grandparents in Rhode Island. The children had risen and breakfasted and were currently in the bath. Between the new bath toys, and the exciting deep bathtub at their grandparents’ house, it was a lot of fun.

I was trying to figure out the best way to introduce the inevitable plan, the plan we followed every weekend: washing hair. After five years of resistance, Annie was finally resigning herself to the inescapable fact of hair-washing, but Cora was not. The fact that her hair had to be washed always came as a big surprise. An increasingly unwelcome surprise. 

The previous week, she had been worried about getting water in her eyes. So she had screamed and squealed when her hair was getting washed, tossing her head around, forwards and back. This meant she had gotten water in her eyes. She hated getting water in her eyes. Cora took away a valuable lesson from this: washing her hair was a miserable experience. She always got water in her eyes.

Nothing would ever induce her to undergo the experience of hair-washing again.

Grandma Mary came in to provide backup before I even started talking about it.

“Girls!” she said, folding up a washcloth as she walked.  “I have a trick I used when I was a little girl-”

“A truck?” Cora interrupted, confused.

“A trick. A trick,” I said quickly.

“It was a trick I used in the bathtub so I didn’t get any water in my eyes.”

Cora’s virtual antennae had gone up. She was listening closely.

“When my mommy washed my hair, I would fold up a washcloth, like this, and put it over my eyes when she rinsed my hair-”

Cora began making some stuttering inarticulate noises, somewhere between anger and fear. Annie listened with interest.

“Like this,” she went on, and pressed the washcloth over Annie’s eyes. “Hold it there, yes, just like that. Then you won’t get water in your eyes!”

She then held it out to Cora. “See? Put it over your eyes and you won’t get any water in your eyes when Mommy washes your hair!”

“I am not washing my hair,” Cora informed her. “I am getting out of the bath.” Without hesitating a moment, she threw a leg up over the high edge of the bath and proceeded to launch herself out.

I swung her leg back in before her forward momentum catapulted her out of the bathtub. “No, no, just stay in. It’ll be fast, we can just wash it and-”

Cora had let out an angry scream and thrown her leg back out. I threw her leg back into the bath. She threw it back out. I pushed it back in. She let out some more angry noises and kicked the water a few times. It was almost like a bull, pawing the ground.

“Cora, if you don’t wash your hair, you can’t go to church because you’ll be a dirty girl,” I said, wrestling as she tried to hurl herself out of the bathtub again. “You can’t go to the playground next to the church. You’ll just have to stay home all day.”

Cora saw no point in arguing. What could she accomplish that way? These people wouldn’t listen. But she had her strength. She threw her leg out of the bathtub and launched herself out of the bathtub with renewed vigor.

I considered throwing her back in but it seemed too dangerous to fight this way, on the edge of a slippery deep bathtub with a slippery angry child. I put a towel around her and turned to her sister.

“Annie, what was at that playground next to church, do you remember?” I asked. “Were there swings?”

“Yes,” said Annie. “I think so.”

“Maybe there was a slide?” I said.  I hadn’t actually been to the playground since I was about twelve, so I couldn’t remember.

“Maybe,” she agreed. “There was a little bench to sit on.”

“That sounds like fun,” I said.

“There’s a really fun see-saw, with springs,” Grandma Mary added helpfully.

“Cora, don’t you want to go to that playground?” I asked.

Cora was weeping loudly, tears running down her face, her little body occasionally racked with a sob. She nodded.

“Well, all you have to do is get back in that bathtub and get your hair washed!”

Cora lay herself down on the ground, knees pulled up under her chest, forehead in the bath mat, and cried even more loudly.

I turned back to Annie and ignored her. I washed Annie’s hair. We talked a little about the playground. We discussed whether or not Annie had water in her eyes (“Are you getting water in your eyes?” “No.” “How about now? Any water?” “No,” “Any water in your eyes now?” “No.” On and on and on.)

Cora continued wailing into the mat. Eventually she got tired of this and wandered, naked, into the kitchen where her grandparents were sitting eating breakfast.

“Oh, Cora, just take the bath,” Grandma Mary advised. “It’ll be over so quickly, and then we can have fun!”

Cora stood there and wept. She said nothing.

“Don’t you want to go to the playground? It’ll be so much fun.”

“I want to go to the playground,” Cora managed to choke out between sobs.

“Well, go back in! Go on back and finish your bath! Go on, right now!”

For a moment, it seemed like a great idea to Cora. She really, really wanted to go to that playground. She ran back into the bathroom. Then she stood a moment, looking at Annie in the bath, and at me, and at the innocent-looking bottle of baby shampoo sitting by the edge of the tub. She burst into tears again and ran right back out of the bathroom.

Annie had some bath toys. Not many – just a toy duck, a toy whale, and a wide-toothed comb. It was difficult to say if she instinctively understood the plan that we needed to try to entice Cora back into the bath, or if she was just in the mood to play with toys, but she made those three toys seem like as much fun as a trip to Disneyland. She pretended to eat the duck; then, we set up the comb on the edge of the tub and had the duck climb the comb like it was a ladder, and then slide down the side of the tub like it was a slide; Annie was shrieking with laughter. Then we played with the whale and turned it into a boat. Cora couldn’t help it. She came in to watch. I put some underwear on Cora so she wasn’t completely naked

“I want to play with that duck,” she said.

“Sure, just get in the bath,” I said cheerfully.

Cora burst into noisy tears again, and continued to watch the playing, feeling forsaken and abandoned – the picture of tragedy on her little face. We ignored her and kept playing with the toys.

Time passed.

It was time for Annie to get out to get dressed for church. Cora continued to weep.

“It’s so sad Cora won’t get to play with you at the playground,” I would say to Annie periodically. “She would have so much fun. It’s such a fun playground.” I timed this sort of statement for whenever Cora seemed to be losing her crying stamina – for when the weeping and wailing seemed to be trailing off. It was a sure thing: she would immediately burst into loud tragic wails again.

“It’s ok,” I said. “We can have fun here, by ourselves, while Annie is playing with toys at church and then going to the playground. We can sit and look at the wall. Look, Cora, this is a very nice wall, isn’t it?”

Cora, looking confused, nodded between sobs.

“We can have a lot of fun just sitting and looking at it, right? We don’t need to go to the playground.”

“I want- to go- to the playground!” she sobbed.

“It’s so sad that we can’t go,” I said.

“I want to go to the playground!”

“No… you don’t really want to go,” I said calmly.

“I do! I want to go to the playground!”

“You don’t really. If you did, you would take a bath. That’s how I know you don’t want to go.”

Cora burst into loud crying again. She didn’t move towards the bathroom, though.

Bathtime had started around 8:15. Annie and Peter and Grandpa Roy left for church around 9:05 or 9:10. Annie was dressed in a beautiful Fourth of July Minnie Mouse tutu dress and was feeling very lovely and grown-up. Cora half-noticed them go, but half of her brain was trapped in her own little world of sorrow, so it was a few minutes before she really processed they were gone.

“Where is my daddy? Where is my sissy?” she asked her grandma. Cora usually calls her sister “Sissy” when she is feeling particularly childish and/or cutesy/babyish.

“They went to church,” Grandma Mary explained calmly.

This set Cora off again. “I want my Daddy!” she wailed, turning her tear-stained face to her grandmother for sympathy. “I want my sissy! I want my sissy! I WANT MY SISSY!” Then she broke down, unable to speak due to the depths of her sadness and despair.

“She went to church,” Grandma Mary repeated calmly.

“Cora, we have five minutes,” I said. “If you jump in the bath now, we can wash your hair really fast, and we can jump in the car and drive drive drive to church so fast and we’ll still make it on time. You can see your sissy and go to the playground and everything. C’mon! Let’s go!”

Cora followed us into the bathroom, her face stony. Tears were still streaming down, but more quietly now.

“Go ahead, Cora, just get in,” said Grandma Mary, kindly.

“Drain it,” said Cora softly and calmly.

“What?” I said.

“Drain it,” Cora repeated.

“You want fresh water in your bath?” I asked, confused.

“Drain the bath. I am not taking a bath.”

There were a few moments of silence. Cora’s face was set. 

“But Cora, then you can’t change your mind. There won’t be any playground at all.”

“Drain it,” said Cora. She turned and marched out of the bathroom, stating again as she left, “I am not taking a bath today.”

A few minutes later, Grandma Mary went to church, too.

“I want my Grandma!” Cora cried as Grandma Mary left. “I want my Grandma!” Her tears poured out again and she choked on loud sobs.

“Well, Cora, you can be by yourself while they are in church,” I said over the crying. “I do not want to spend time with you. I wanted to go to church but I can’t because you are being a bad girl. I am not happy with you. I am not happy with you one bit. I am going to go read a book by myself.” I picked a random book off the shelf and walked into the other room, ignoring the increase in volume of the screaming at this declaration. Being abandoned by her mother was as bad, if not worse, than being abandoned by her “sissy”.

“Mommy! Mommy! I want my mommy!” she cried, and I heard her little feet pounding after me. I sat on the couch and pretended to read the book. She came over and sat next to me. I turned my body away from her. She hopped down, walked around me, and hopped up next to me on the other side of the couch.

I stood up and walked into the other room without saying anything, sat down on the bed, and continued to pretend to read.

Cora climbed up onto the bed and sat next to me, pressing her little body against mine.

I turned to face the other way.

She crawled around so I would still be facing her.

I turned away from her again. I felt like a kid again, playing one of those irritating childish games that kids play to annoy each other. She crawled around me again so I was still facing her. I could play this all day, her body language said.

I stood up. “Cora, I do not want to be with you right now,” I said. “I am not happy with you at all and I do not want to sit with you.” I walked into the other room, Cora’s fresh wails following me again. Soon the pattering footsteps followed. She wandered over to me, sniffling again, but this time her eye was caught by the toys, set up along the back wall of the room. There was a Fisher-Price castle, barn, and house with little Fisher-Price people scattered around – some set up around a table, eating; some sleeping; a little girl hiding behind a staircase. Many of them were lying on the ground staring up at the ceiling, or lying on the ground staring intently at the wood floor underneath them as if they were depressed. There was a careful fence erected next to the barn, and a horse and cow stood solemnly within its bounds, surveying their surroundings. Cora’s face started to look a little happier. She sat down next to the castle and picked up a little girl, saying quietly to herself, “I will play with the castle.”

Well, this quiet happiness, this independent happy play was not part of my plan. I walked over to her. “No, I don’t think we should play with toys,” I said, scooping up the people, along with their beds, and rocking chairs, and motorcycles, and baby strollers and tossing them into their plastic bin. “These are toys for good girls to play with. They are not toys for bad girls to play with.”

The tears came back; the wailing started again. “No!” she cried, frantically wrenching a boat out of my bin and putting it on the floor. I scooped up all the other toys and as she panicked, and rushed to defend them, I scooped up the boat too. I put them on the counter, out of reach.

Cora immediately climbed up onto a chair that was near the counter. She was in full-on panic mode. Realizing my mistake before she reached it, I grabbed the bin and moved it to another counter, which didn’t have any easy method of climbing up.  She ran over and jumped up and down and tried to reach, but couldn’t.

“No! No! Give me those toys! I want them! I want to play with them!” she cried, desperately.

“No toys when you are acting like this,” I said.

Cora realized the futility of her actions very quickly. The toys were out of reach, and she had no way to get them – at least not under her mother’s eye. In another situation she would have searched the house for a stool (on another floor, if necessary), brought it to the counter, and obtained what she needed. But that would not be possible this time. Her mother would be there to prevent it. To prevent any fun at all.

Cora’s face fell and the tears spilled out. But now I saw defeat etched in her red-rimmed eyes. And then she turned and wordlessly headed to the bathroom. It was a few minutes before 9:30. It had taken an hour and fifteen minutes before her spirit was broken.

I turned into Nice Mommy instantly. “I don’t know if the bath is warm or cold, so if it is too cold I will add more warm water,” I said sweetly.

Cora climbed into the bath. “It is warm enough,” she said, sitting down.

I carefully avoided mentioning her hair.

Cora picked up the toys that she had watched her sister playing with. She set up the comb against the wall of the bathtub and made the duck climb the comb, as her sister had done. She made the duck slide down the side of the bathtub into the water, as her sister had done. It was a lot of fun. She laughed. We put the whale under the water and watched bubbles come out of it. We did this over and over and over because it was so strange and interesting.

But I still had hopes of dragging her to her grandparents’ church, albeit late. We could not put off the hair forever.

When Cora was facing the other way, I casually picked up the cup that I would use to pour water over her head. Cora sensed this and immediately jumped to her feet. “No, I don’t want you to wash my hair!”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll be really careful. Here, try Grandma Mary’s trick. It worked for Annie. She didn’t get any water in her eyes.” I handed her a fresh washcloth. “Here’s a very beautiful towel, more beautiful than the towel Annie used.”

She put it obediently over her eyes.

“You can sit down if you want.”

She stayed standing, very still.

I poured some water on the hair on the back of her head, far from her face. She squealed and started dancing back and forth. I poured a little more water.

“No no no!” she shrieked.

“I’ll be really quick, I just have to wash your hair, here, look up – No, look up, Cora, and there won’t be any water in your eyes – just press that to your face, yes-”

Cora looked up and pressed the washcloth to her head. I rinsed her hair very, very carefully, shampooed it very, very carefully, and then rinsed it again. She protested again, and every time I poured any water over her head she told me I was done and tried to get out of the bath, and a few times she did a little fearful stomping dance, but otherwise was well behaved and looked up when I told her to look up.

Once her hair was finally rinsed (enough) with only a little residual shampoo, Cora transformed. The sadness, the anger, the fear fell off her and she stepped out of the tub, like a snake shedding its skin, rosy and cheerful and fresh. She had a big, happy smile on her face. She didn’t argue about putting on clothes, or socks, or shoes, or about getting her hair combed, or getting buckled into her car seat. We were on our way to church within about five minutes, where we were able to tiptoe in during the sermon, disturbing everyone by trying not to disturb anyone. And everyone looked at Cora, with her wet curls bouncing around her face and the innocently-cute look on her face, and they all smiled at her, and probably thought what a sweet and wonderful little girl she must be.