“Let’s make a cake when we get home from!” I say brightly as I settle Middle into the car after pick-up. “Me Cake!” Baby agrees enthusiastically while Middle grins as I promise that each girl will get to lick either a beater or a spoon when we are done.
Middle has been having a rough time lately. Having been clinically depressed myself I am pretty sure that what we have is a clinically depressed four and half year old. There is sadness and anger and despair on both of our parts. We’re doing all the “right” things to help her; a psychologist, trying to be supremely calm and understanding with her, and in my case, we do a lot of baking because it pretty reliably gives us a few moments of happiness (and at the very least muffins or cookies or cake). This morning was particularly awful for Middle with our neighbor commenting, concerned, about the depth of Middle’s sobbing which she could hear from her house as Middle got in the car to go to school. So I thought baking a cake as dinner cooked would be a good plan. And it was a good plan, with Middle happily grabbing handfuls of raw broccoli to snack on while we cooked – until Middle saw what I had made for dinner. Tonight’s meal was twice baked potatoes topped with melted cheddar with roasted broccoli on the side. I don’t know about you, but I adore twice baked potatoes. I think I could be content to eat them at least once a day for all eternity. Potatoes, garlic, sour cream , cheddar cheese; what’s not to love? But Middle took one look at them and burst into tears, “I don’t like potatoes!”, “Oh no! Now I won’t be able to eat cake!” (you have to eat dinner before you get dessert at our house). This was happening about 6 pm Pacific time, perhaps you heard the screams? As the cake baked and we set the table for dinner, she sobbed. She pleaded with us to “feed” her the potatoes – like an infant. After we sat down to dinner Middle looked at the potatoes in utter terror, refusing to eat them telling us that they were too scary. Over and over again she told us that they were too scary and asked us to feed her; these mashed up twice baked potatoes. Older calmly and slowly ate his potatoes and broccoli, lured by visions of cake. We attempted to have a conversation over Middle’s cries, but Husband and I just shook our heads; neither of us knowing what to do. We don’t generally send Middle to her room when she is crying like this; isolation is not what she needs. Of course, I also can’t say it is OK for Middle to forgo her dinner and eat the cake. I understand she’s desperately sad; but turning her into a brat won’t help anything. After a long and very loud dinner I went to clean up as the cake cooled; Middle still sitting and sobbing at her chair, cold potatoes in front of her. I had a thought. I walked over to her, sat down, and asked, “Are you really scared of the potatoes, or is something else scaring you?” “The potatoes,” Middle sobbed accusingly. Then there was a long pause. “And Blargaisntgonuinmebirfdaynexyear!” “Say that again slower”, I replied. And Middle went on to tell me, shuddering with emotion, that the girl who had the birthday party that Middle went to this weekend was not going to invite her to her party next year.
The party, by the way, was phenomenal. There was a live “Cinderella” who came and told stories to the girls and the entertained them with magic tricks such as turning rose petals into candy. There was a dog dressed as a princess. There was a princess themed bounce house and slide. There was face painting. The party was held at one of the most beautiful houses I have ever been to; there was a grand player piano in the living room playing Disney tunes throughout the party. As the girls were enjoying their cake, I thanked the birthday girl’s mother for the fabulous party. The mother replied that after this big bash, next year, the birthday girl would simply have a small family party. Recalling this I asked Middle for more information about what the birthday girl had actually said today. “She said that she wasn’t going to invite me next year! That her mom said that only she and her mom and her dad and her sister were going to be there! I am scared of her!” I let out the breath that I had been holding; worried that Middle might actually have been rejected by this girl in some way. I explained to Middle about how expensive it is to throw a birthday party, how lots of families don’t throw a big birthday party each year. We went through the names of all the girls in her class, me reiterating that none of the girls would be going to the birthday party next year.
After a few minutes of talking, Middle started to eat her potatoes. She finished them and then we all enjoyed some cake. Later, as the kids were putting on their pajamas, I asked Husband how Middle could have transferred her fear of rejection to potatoes? Why couldn’t she just tell us what was worrying her? We have been trying so hard to help her, to ask her how she is feeling. I commented that someone could certainly get their psychology PhD researching Middle. Husband responded that there is probably a whole group’s worth of PhDs out of Middle. I don’t know how to help Middle. She sees rejection and torment at every turn. I think she often truly believes that nobody likes her. I think that the real truth is that she doesn’t like herself. I love her so much. I wish cake really could make it all better.