One of my kids, I get. The other is a mystery to me.
My daughter Josie, seven, is hyper-competitive. She feels everything way too intensely. She’s a voracious reader. She struggles endlessly with moral questions. When she’s angry, she narrows her eyes into little slits and a vein throbs in her jaw. I understand her completely—and she has the power to drive me completely nuts—because she’s exactly like me.
My daughter Maxine, four, is completely Other to me. I adore her, but she’s a visitor from a foreign country. When Josie and I were her age, we sat in piles of books, flipping pages happily. Maxine, on the other hand, is all about the imaginative play. She often asks to play “the kitten game”—she’s a kitten I have to find on the street and take home. Today, I asked her what her kitten name was, and she mewed, “Rosie of the Lakes of Roses and Water Lilies.” Her favorite doll is named “Isabel Montina,” pronounced with a Spanish accent. When she’s feeling crabby, she scowls like a cartoon and says, “I’m feeling very pudnacious today.”
Maxine started talking later than her sister did, but once she started, she never stopped. Words flow from her in a gurgling rush. She can be challenging to understand—syllables crash and collide in her excitement to expel all the concepts whirling inside her. She jabbers at neighbors. She jabbers at homeless people on St. Marks Place. (“Oh my goodness, you sure lost a lot of teeth!” she told one crusty gentleman, happy for his surely-impending tooth fairy visit.) She jabbers at our cat, Yoyo. When she’s alone, she yammers to herself. Last year, during potty training, I listened outside the bathroom as she babbled, “When you are three you have to go to the potty and you have to wait for someone to wipe you. You can’t just pull up your pants and your panties and go! Mommy can wipe you, Daddy can wipe you, maybe Jojo can wipe you, but Yoyo can’t wipe you because Yoyo doesn’t have hands.”
As Maxie struggles to get her stories out, her face goes through animated, eyebrows-lifted, open-mouthed expressions. Sometimes she sings to herself instead of speaking. One of her earliest compositions:
I’M A TODDLER AND I’M NOT WEARING PAAAAAAAAAAAAAANTS!
I‘M A TODDLER AND I’M NOT WEARING PAAAAAAAAAAAAAANTS!
Josie has always craved independence, while Maxine just wants to cuddle. When I see that the crossing guard is at the corner, I let Josie have her fondest desire—to run ahead and experience the heady joy of crossing the street without me. Last week, watching Josie take off at a dead run, Maxine slipped her hand into mine. “I will never not want to hold your hand,” she told me. “It is one of my joys.” Maxine’s storms blow over quickly; Josie holds a grudge. (So do I.) When my children’s lovely babysitter was teasing Max recently, Maxine blurted, “Shut up!” and immediately blanched. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but sometimes words pop into my brain and then they have to come out my mouth or I feel like I’m swallowing flies.”
My girls are very different from one another, but not as different as Biblical siblings, who always seem to exist in counterpoint to one another: Jacob and Esau, Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Leah and Rachel. (All I ask is that one of my daughters not grow up to be dubbed “the homely weepy one.”) Real life doesn’t operate in antitheses. My girls are similar-looking, as opposed to the genetic opposites so many Torah sibs seem to be. I don’t think either of them is planning on killing the other with a rock. They seem to have an innate understanding of each other’s blessings and trials.
Both my girls had a wonderful pre-K teacher, Laurie. Last week, on Maxie’s last day of school, Laurie gave me a letter detailing Maxie’s love of numbers and patterns, her joy in words, her ability to create complex repeating designs that sometimes slip into narrative illustrations. Once Maxine created a pattern around the border of a picture, then drew her grandmother inside. “This is a pattern of my grandma dancing,” she explained.
But Maxine is easily exhausted. She has a much harder time socially than her sister. She finds it difficult to approach other kids. (Once she’s in, she’s mostly OK, and has a couple of close buddies she plays easily with.) She has trouble writing and using scissors. She prefers painting to using markers—the flow of a brush frees her to express herself more easily. Next year in school, she’ll get help from an occupational therapist for speech and motor issues.
I wasn’t surprised to learn this; Laurie had kept us posted throughout the school year of Maxine’s challenges, and Josie had warned us that Maxine was frequently isolated on the playground. What did surprise me was my own reaction to the information that Maxine would be getting extra assistance. Despite my stratospheric standards for myself, I didn’t feel any embarrassment or inadequacy for having a kid who isn’t an academic rock star on every level. I was thrilled that Maxie was in a school that doesn’t stigmatize learning differences. And I was confident that she’d be helped in a way that doesn’t shame her, and doesn’t diminish her general joy and exuberance in the way she approaches the world. Both my kids, with such different learning styles, are thriving at this school, and Laurie was a genius teacher for both of them. When I ponder how different they are, and how they face such different challenges—Josie’s competitiveness and temper; Maxine’s social and physical difficulties—I see the truth in the ditty we tell our kids about presents is true: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
I can’t imagine either of them being anything other than who they are. This is a great lesson for a control freak to learn. I worry about Maxine’s frustration, but I don’t wish for a moment that she were different from who she is. Then she wouldn’t be Maxie, my huggy, hilarious little nutball, my poetic visitor from Elsewhere.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.