I always wanted to be tough as a kid. I’m not really sure why. Tough wasn’t a huge deal in my family. Maybe when I was three someone saw me be sort of tough and gave me the right bit of praise at the right moment. Whatever the reason, that was a big value for me when I was little. Not necessarily strong or athletic, just resistant to pain and stoical in the face of danger. Braden would tie me up in the bathtub and instead of crying for Mom like the other kids, I’d calmly work my way out of the knots without springing the line that was set to turn on the bathwater if the victim struggled. Stuff like that.
That characteristic became a little exaggerated in later tellings. I wasn’t ever very tough by the standards of most people in the world. And the contrast with my siblings (of whom, let’s admit it, our older sister was actually the toughest) helped my toughness profile considerably. But whatever my success in staring down pain, it did instill in me an impatience for whining and theatrics when it comes to plain old suffering. I haven’t always been successful in passing these prejudices onto my kids, but it’s not for lack of trying.
Anyway, last week I had to take Rex and Molly to the hospital for some blood work.
They both have some serious food allergies and it was time for an analysis to see if they’re getting better or worse. We scheduled it on a Saturday so Macy wouldn’t have to do it, as I have an easier time restraining screaming children through painful medical stabbings than she does. As we left for the hospital, Lucy came out and told Molly not to be scared, that it’s “just a pinch and then you giggle.” Molly is two and a half. She had no idea what was coming, but she conjured some scenario that would make her giggle. I let her hold onto her fantasy.
“. . . Actually, Molly, it’s much more likely that you’ll scream in terror and pain when the needle enters your arm. But yeah, you might giggle instead.”
At the hospital, Rex, who is seven, volunteered to go first, to show Molly how to be brave when a large hollow needle is stuck in one’s arm. I went to sit in the victim’s chair and hold him in my lap, but he declined, opting to sit there all by himself as an added show of bravery. The phlebotomist jabbed the needle into him and I took in a vicarious sharp breath. Rex, knowing that Molly was watching, minimized his reaction and stared straight ahead while the tube running out of his arm ran dark viscous red. In a few seconds I was holding a cotton swab on the gusher and it was Molly’s turn.
Rex was feeling a little too nervous to stick around for Molly’s turn, so he quietly excused himself. I sat down in the chair and grabbed Molly to pull into my lap. She said “no, Dad, I wanna sit in the chair by myself.” I knew she couldn’t possibly mean that, so I persisted. So did she. But I wasn’t going to let Molly just sit in this big chair all by herself, free to flail around once the needle pierced her chubby arm. We argued to an impasse. She was very firm with me, and it became clear that if we were going to get the blood, I needed to let her win this one. What would possess a toddler to do that? The phlebotomist quietly said “well I’ve never seen this before,” as Molly climbed into the big blue chair by herself and volunteered her forearms across the padded bar.
I sat beside her, a little useless, but with my arms wrapped around her shoulders, holding both her arms for the crisis to come. Having watched Rex, she was fully aware of what was about to happen now. I saw Rex peek his head tensely through the doorway and then withdraw. The lady readied her needle and I grabbed Molly’s head to turn it away from her arm, toward me, so she wouldn’t see the needle sliding into her flesh. She shook me off and stared at her arm. Poke. The metal tube slid into her soft tissue. I tightened my grip. We all waited for the response. Molly kept staring, and I felt a slight flex in her shoulder. That was it.
But we didn’t strike a vein. So the needle probed around in my two year old’s arm. Both Molly and I stared with scientific interest as the metal pivoted around in the hole in her skin, looking for a vein. It took around 30 seconds of feeling around, severing fat and skin, to finally hit a line. Molly didn’t react. Not a word, not a sigh, not a sound. And not a hint of a movement or recoil as she watched the whole grisly process. As the blood slid into the bottle at the end of the line, she exhaled a little laugh– just a tiny giggle. It took a few minutes to fill the bottle, but she sat perfectly still the whole time. Then we put on the band-aid and walked out of the room. Rex had wandered in surprised when he didn’t hear any crying. He and I just sort of exchanged incredulous looks as Molly toddled out under her own power. Rex made me go back and ask if there were any treats for the victims, but there weren’t. Then we walked out of there with two shiny new band-aids. I almost felt a little cheated not to have had a single tear to wipe away, or even a shudder to stabilize.
I don’t know what makes a kid do that. She could have just as easily decided to make a huge painful production of it all, and on a different day she probably would have. But for some unfathomable reason, she decided she wanted to be tough that day. Something made her kick me out of the chair, and made her hold in her breath when she got stuck. I would so love to know what it was that made her do that. But whatever it was, I tried not to overpraise it too much. I love that she’s tough, but I don’t want her to feel like she has to be for me. But still, now I know I got a tough kid. It’s not the most important thing in a kid. But I’ll take it. Especially in a chubby two year old girl.