Learning from a two-year-old

We went to the zoo this weekend for the first time. Sophie’s great-grand-parents were in town, they can’t walk well, and we’d already done all the other activities we could think of with limited walking: driving the coast, train-ride-to-San-Juan-Capistrano, and (the best idea) a whale-watch. The zoo — with its bus and tram — seemed like the next option of a local attraction that had limited walking.

But we had to wait in line for tickets, and then we had to walk from the zoo entrance to the bus-stop, from the bus-stop to the rest-room, and back to the bus-stop. This required stopping every ten feet for a rest. This took more than an hour. The great-grandparents were quite apologetic, but, of course, what can you do? They are old; they aren’t very mobile. We were thirty feet from hundreds of exciting exotic animals that we’d just paid a fair amount to see, but we couldn’t see any of the animals, because first we needed to get great-grandma to a restroom. There was a free-roaming peacock near the restrooms, so we did get to see that, but mostly we sat on benches and tried to explain to the great-grand-parents that the bus stop was right over there and we’d get there soon, but really, there was no hurry, we were not going anywhere until they stopped panting from the exertion of moving the length of three benches. We ate a chocolate ice cream. We sat some more.

Sophie didn’t care that we couldn’t see the animals yet. Sophie, of course, didn’t really know that there were animals to see. Sophie was enjoying watching the crowds. There was a girl in a stroller with a giraffe mask. There was the sight of those tram cars swaying overhead. There were lush trees, there were many babies, and we were about to get on a bus. Sophie was enjoying the moments without impatience.

I tried to be like Sophie.

She did eventually appreciate the animals in the zoo. The San Diego Zoo is spectacular, after all. “Hi monkey,” she said to one bonobo with particularly dramatic facial coloring, and, to every smallish four-legged creature: “Baby deer!” There was one pooping elephant that particularly impressed her. “Boop boop boop,” she announced, for a long while afterwards. I have to agree that all that elephant poop was an impressive sight.

It’s great that she’s now old enough to appreciate a zoo. But as much as she liked the animals and the sight of elephant poop, I think she also liked getting to see all those humans, ride a bus, eat a chocolate ice-cream, and hold momma and daddy’s hands for so long while the ggparents looked on. For her the peripherals are central to the experience. And because of her, we all had a great time, mostly sitting on benches or bus-seats far from any animals, still enjoying the afternoon.

The other thing that helped me have a good time this weekend was some advice I got from another mom on the playground. I had been asking many friends for help with the great-grand-parents’s visit, because I knew what would happen:  the ggps would be excessively polite, repeating at least thirty times, “We don’t want to be any trouble,” until it would start to feel like trouble to keep assuring them that they’re not much trouble. I would begin to get irritated at them, then hate myself for feeling impatient with these incredibly sweet old people, and — because I would be mad at myself — I’d be even more snappish at them. It’s a terrible cycle, and it was predictable.

Thank goodness for SoCal playgrounds. Here’s what C’s mom told me: It’s okay to feel irritated at houseguests. Houseguests are hard, especially with young kids. Go ahead and feel irritated, and don’t beat up on yourself for that feeling — just don’t act on that feeling, too much.

It sounds so obvious when I type it out here. But it was liberating for me to hear, there on the playground. I got through the weekend cheerfully, despite having the same conversation every morning:

– What would you like for breakfast?

– Oh, anything, whatever you want to feed us.

– We could have cereal or pancakes or eggs. What would you like?

– Oh, anything, whatever you want to feed us.

– Really, I’d like to feed you whatever you’d like to eat. What would you like to eat for breakfast?

– Oh, anything.

At this point, Sophie is usually busy doing something more interesting, so I can pull away and go take care of her, and hope that hunger will eventually drive the ggparents to declare a breakfast preference.

When we finally settle on a breakfast menu, then there is the negotiation of breakfast time (GGMa takes two hours to do her hair in the morning, sweet woman, and wants to know whether to do it before or after breakfast), then negotiating who sets the table (I have, at least, managed to insist on cooking in my own kitchen), and negotiating who does the dishes, and by then it’s almost time for Sophie’s noon nap.

Polite people are a whole lot of trouble.

In addition to reminding myself that it’s okay to feel irritated, I also hit on a new trick: whenever I felt especially annoyed at repeating the same thing more than three times, I chose to simply behave as if the ggparents must be hard of hearing. So I shouted my answer the fourth time. Not an angry shout, just a clear, calm, projecting-across-the-yard voice, under the guise of helping out the hard-of-hearing. Very satisfying.

It was a surprisingly good weekend.

And we got annual zoo-passes, so Sophie and I will go back sometime soon and walk around as much as we want.

This post probably sounds too churlish. Really, the ggparents are incredibly sweet people. I had a great time playing boggle with them, and getting to feed them the first tofu they’d ever eaten. I even had a great time sitting on zoo benches with them — but without Sophie’s example of delighting in the moments, I might not have had as great a time.

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One response to “Learning from a two-year-old

  1. Tracy

    I know exactly what you went through Elaine. I’ve had old people in my life for my entire life. It requires a great deal of patience. My mother and I lived with my grandparents from the time I was in sixth grade. That alternating sense of impatience and empathy is maddening. I feel guilty for all the times I was short with them, yet their were so many behaviors that would drive anyone insane. Yet I believe if I hadn’t lived with them like I did, I wouldn’t have the patience I have now to work with teenagers. With both grandparents and teens, their behavior is a symptom of their age.

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