Have you seen those multi-tools you can buy? The ones that look like a pen knife but when you open them up, they’ve in fact got a pull-out spanner, a pen, a bottle opener, a screwdriver and a corkscrew somehow stashed within them? You buy one tool but you actually get five. Very nifty.
I feel as though these tools are a metaphor for adopting Little Bear: he looks like one child but I’m pretty sure he’s comprised of at least three.
Sometimes it feels more like a whole band of delinquent imps, but I digress.
There’s the Little Bear who is a complete and utter joy to be around. He’s cute, funny and gentle. He’s considerate – he wants to help you and he’s concerned if you’re hurt or upset. In fact, he will be prepared to defend you to the hilt if he perceives some wrong doing towards a loved one: there’s the time he punched a girl in the face because she picked on his brother; the time he pottered down the hall with his dummy and blanket, to give a neighbouring child a stern telling off at the front door, as they had, again, been mean to his brother. That stern word reduced a child three years older than him to tears. It was impressive, I have to say, and totally belied the image conjured up by the dummy and blankie. There wasn’t any malice on either occasion – just a pure sense of love for his brother and a strong sense of injustice. If you had to pick teams, you’d want that Little Bear on yours.
And he’ll tell you how much he loves you. He’ll weave his little arms around your neck and in your hair and he’ll press his face to yours and he’ll say you’re the best mummy in the world, that he loves you to all the planets and back again. That he loves you a googolplex. That he’s never leaving you and even when he gets married, he’s going to live at home with his wife.
That Little Bear is also thirsty for knowledge. He listens intently. He learns at an impressive rate and dedicates himself to improving – thinking about how to get on the next reading level; if he can fill up another Maths book; how to get his mouth around that multi-syllabic word that is proving a challenge. He’s receptive to direction and can show a good level of resilience.
He’s smiley and affectionate. We can take him pretty much anywhere. And when we do, he will doubtless find a person with a dog, approach them slowly, saying, “Please can I stroke your dog?” He’ll pet the dog and the dog will love it. He will thank the owner extremely politely and you will see them thinking what a cute child he is, how well-mannered he is, how unusual it is for a child to ask before touching the dog. You can see him restoring their faith in children.
Then you wake up in the morning and he’s all but disappeared. In his place is another Little Bear who is unpredictable. He’s a bit like the one I just described above one minute, and then the next he isn’t. Sometimes he wants to please you and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he listens and sometimes he won’t. Sometimes he’s kind and gentle and occasionally he will whack you with a toy sword for absolutely no reason. This one can be skittish. He might sit down for a while and play Lego but when it’s dinner time he will hop and climb and do roly-polies on the bench. You can enjoy your time with this one but then you might ask him to do something that doesn’t suit, such as get out of the bath or stop playing football or to turn off his iPad, and he will become miraculously deaf.
This Little Bear is the one who might do something shockingly unpredictable from time to time, such as dip his hands in the toilet or lick the bottom of his shoe or maybe, the cat. One minute you feel like smothering him in kisses and the next like tearing out your own hair. We do meet him quite often. You’d probably describe him as ‘spirited’. He’s loud, incredibly so – in fact you wonder if this one is a child within a child, like Russian doll children, with a combined lung capacity and double-energy to match. This one talks incessantly – literally from waking until sleep – and especially when you are trying to concentrate on driving everyone home alive or conducting an important phone call.
Then he’s a dog. A puppy. And he wants you to give birth to him. Then he’s a gorilla. Then he won’t answer to his actual name because, as he’s just tried to establish, he’s actually called ‘Woof’ and he’s a different species and no, clearly he can’t understand the language you’re speaking to him in because he’s a DOG. Idiot!
And you get to the end of the day and you’re tired, but in a you’ve wrangled a mischievous pixie kind of way, not a you just can’t do this anymore kind of way, and you giggle at his antics and think how cute he is and feel quite ready to do it all again tomorrow, despite the challenges.
But that Little Bear has disappeared. The minute you wake, you sense there’s a problem. Ideally you would reach for your flak jacket and tin helmet before going downstairs, because you already know you will need them. There is a sense of mania permeating the walls. He’s speaking too loud, too fast and with a lot of non-speech noises thrown in. You know he must eat breakfast and that might lead to the return of one of the other Little Bears.
But he won’t. ‘Would you like toast?’ is met with ‘I hate you’ and ‘shut-up’. He flatly refuses to come to the table. Seconds later he is scooting around the living room, on an actual scooter, not wearing an actual helmet, a pre-requisite rule of scooter-riding that he knows only too well. The scooter riding and the circles are winding him up further. You suggest he gets off the scooter but he won’t. He starts to crash it into the furniture. If you somehow manage to get the scooter out of the situation, he finds a ball to kick at the patio door or a toy knife to saw the table with. You mostly end up sitting him in front of the TV because safe containment seems wise. You check back, at regular intervals, but he mostly still hates you, still wants you to stop talking, doesn’t agree with any of your wonderings about the situation and may or may not threaten to head butt you.
Sometimes, foolishly, you wonder if a change of scenery might help. You let him choose, to help with buy-in. Sometimes, things are ok when you get to wherever it is but then other times you might ask him to come back and he will look you directly in the eye and stride in the opposite direction. You might calmly explain that walking along the curb-edge is not wise because a car might clip you and he will look you in the eye and fully step onto the road. You will ask him to come into the ladies toilet because he’s too young to go into the men’s alone and he will purposefully walk into the men’s. You will attempt to intercept him, because what could possibly go awry in the men’s toilets feels frightening and, because he isn’t listening to you being rational, you will make the men’s toilets sound scarier and more dangerous than it likely is and he, because he feels pumped and indestructible, will tell you that he can take these weirdos down and that you are in fact an idiot and the worst parent in the world and you never, ever, even attempt to keep him safe.
You may then lose your shit with him, because you are frightened that you actually can’t keep him safe if he won’t do anything that you say. Your brain starts to fear several aspects of the future: how can this Little Bear ever cope in a mainstream high school? How will he fair in the real world where there are very real rules that really do have to be adhered to because otherwise the Police get involved?
When he’s calmer, you attempt to explain this to him. He says he will punch the Police in the balls. And you think, shit, he might. Then you explain how prison works, not to scare him, but to explain that there are consequences to such actions and he says, ‘I’d like to go there and fight the prisoners and kill them,’ and you think several more unrepeatable swear words.
This Little Bear is pretty unreachable. You can try being supremely therapeutic, you can try being very firm, you can try reasoning. But, generally, nothing works. You mainly need to resort to survival – getting everyone to the end of the day, with all their limbs still attached and without having said anything you will live to regret.
Little Bear will say many things he may later regret. This Little Bear will even needle his biggest hero: his brother. He will say he’s going to kill his cat or his future wife (after asking her out first). Big Bear will understandably run of patience with this constant commentary in his ear and will shut himself in his bedroom. Little Bear will not be able to leave him alone, will not heed your instructions to do so, and will wonder why you are getting increasingly exasperated.
This Little Bear will say you’ve hurt him when you haven’t, call you all the bad names he can muster up and, if you intervene physically, to stop him absconding say, he may very well dig his nails into you or bite or hit you.
When this Little Bear visits you are very grateful for bedtime. Parenting has not been a joyous experience and you find yourself really hoping tomorrow will not be like that and that the apocalyptic future you are now imagining will not come to fruition. You wonder if you should start researching alternative high school provisions. You wished you drank and could seek solace in alcohol. Or even chocolate. But you don’t have either so you chomp aggressively on an innocent carrot.
You know, rationally, that Little Bear is not in fact three children in one; he’s one child who is differentially impacted by trauma. You also know that the harder your parenting day is, the more turmoil he’s experiencing and the more empathy he requires. You would also defy any therapeutic parenting expert to spend that sort of day with him and not lose their cool. That Little Bear would laugh in the face of PACE. Or probably punch it in the balls.
You remind yourself about the first Little Bear I mentioned. You struggle to compute that he is the same child as the last one. How could he be? They seem so polarised that you start forgetting the first one exists.
Then you wake and he’s back. A little curly head rests itself on your chest and a voice asks for a cuddle. And you forget about the last one.
Until he visits again.