Last Saturday night, at the end of a long contrarian day, Jay stood in the middle of the bathroom floor, spinning. “I want…I want…I want…” he said, three times, while I stood waiting—junior toothbrush, pea-sized dollop of paste—for him to exhaust this latest flare of will and submit to the nightly imperative that we clean his teeth.
For the last couple weeks Jay’s personality has been out of balance. At the end of our East Coast driving trip I wrote about how 10 days on the road had brought out the Vacation Beast in him. Since arriving home those tendencies have seeped into the cracks of our days. He’s been by turns contrarian and willful, charming and dispossessed, and, as he was last Saturday as I waited to brush his teeth, overwhelmed by the urge to specify his wants and order his world.
This turn is all the more striking in light of the calm that preceded it. A few weeks ago, I wrote at the beginning of our vacation, “Traveling with Jay this time has felt very freeing, in the sense that it’s easy, all of a sudden, to imagine taking him just about anywhere.” I meant that and indeed, throughout the spring Caroline and I remarked almost daily about how calm and mature Jay had become: On the downward half of his third year of life, he seemed to have made peace with his place in our daily routines.
A couple nights ago Caroline and I were talking in bed. She remarked that the long calm was itself probably the surest predictor that his personality would heave by June. “This is what kids do,” she said. “They fall apart and come back together.”
We’ve noticed with both Jay and Wally that their development tends to be punctuated. They’ll go long stretches without changing in obvious ways and then all of a sudden it’s like a biological alarm goes off: Time to grow again.
Caroline has a theory that this alarm sounds every nine months. She notes, for example: Jay and Wally started to come alive as people when they were nine-months-old; Jay’s talking took off when he was 18-months-old; we potty-trained him around 27-months; and now, at 36-months, his personality is on fire.
The nine-month theory isn’t science, of course, but I think the concept makes sense: Kids undergo a period of rapid change and then spend time retrenching as it were—incorporating their new skills among the ones they’ve already mastered. There’s a period of equilibrium but it’s brief: When you still can’t tie your shoes it doesn’t pay to stay in one place for long.
It’s an exhilarating process to watch, but it’s sometimes bittersweet to be a part of. Since February, maybe, Jay and I have had this bedtime routine. He’ll be lying in his crib and I’ll be standing over him. We’ll look into each other’s eyes and smile a bit because we both know what’s coming. Every night, word for word, the exchange goes like this:
ME: Are you going to have dreams tonight?
ME: What are they going to be about?
JAY: You don’t know until you have them. What are your dreams going to be about?
ME: Don’t know until I have ‘em.
It’s my favorite part of the day. I love the play on Jay’s face and the bright conspiratorial glow in his eyes. If I could have him remember just one thing that we shared together when he was very young, it might be this.
So it was with enthusiasm that last Saturday night I stood over Jay in his crib and launched into our routine. After a day of doing battle I was eager to share at least one quiet moment together. “Are you going to have dreams tonight?” I began.
But instead of replying in turn, Jay just stared up at me. “I don’t want to do that,” he said, in a tone of voice I hadn’t expected to hear from him for another decade, at least. “Oh,” I thought to myself. “That’s how it is.”
As I walked downstairs I realized that from Jay’s perspective, it’s hard for him to reconstitute himself without reconstituting his relationship with his parents at the same time. To Caroline and me his defiance often seems arbitrary but when you’re growing as fast as he is, it’s probably necessary to take a slash-and-burn approach: Knock it all down and see what grows back.