Having a baby would change my life forever. I knew that much. But I didn't know—I couldn't know—exactly how it would change my life.
I was, I thought, as prepared as one could be. At 32 years old, I had a law degree, some life experience, and a wonderful example of healthy parenting in my own mother. I thought, how hard can this parenting thing be? Billions of women do it, right?
Then our daughter entered the world on September 9, 2008: screaming, swollen, helpless, and completely dependent on me for survival. As I held her 8 pound, 2 ounce body for the first time, the enormous weight of the responsibility hit me with such force that my heart ached just as much as my body did from the trauma it had just endured. I thought how miraculous, how beautiful, how scary this parenting adventure is going to be!
After the blessed newborn sleepiness wore off, and our daughter had been home for a few weeks, she started crying inconsolably, every single day, for hours and hours on end. My husband and I tried everything that we had learned from the baby books, all to no avail. I felt completely inadequate because I could not comfort my baby. I felt exhausted, isolated, and guilty. I had longed for this baby, and indeed loved her with my heart, but I honestly did not like being a mother, which I had thought would come so naturally to me. The weight of this burden bore me down into a long, dark depression.
It turned out that our daughter had a milk allergy, colic, reflux, and an assortment of food allergies. Eventually, she outgrew these ailments, but the same qualities that enabled her to cry for hours on end remained: she had seemingly endless reserves of energy, a superhero's determination, and an extremely strong will.
When I fed her solids for the first time at five months of age, she immediately snatched the spoon away and cried unless I let her feed herself. As she was learning to talk, she insisted that every four-legged animal was a "dog" and every kind of fruit was an "apple." I tried to point out that there was a difference between a dog and a cat, and that there were pears and oranges as well as apples. Although she could barely talk, she believed, in her newfound wisdom, that I needed correction. As a toddler, she seemed to take every opportunity to challenge my authority. When I told her not to color on the table, she looked directly at me and colored on the table. If I gave her a time-out for her defiance, she hid a crayon in her hand and colored on the wall next to her time-out chair. She has broken three of our windowpanes from throwing things with such force! She frequently exclaims, "I want to be the boss!"
Both my mother and mother-in-law recommended Dr. James Dobson's book, The Strong-Willed Child. Originally released in 1978, the book has sold nearly three million copies. Another of Dobson's books, Dare to Discipline, provided more nuts and bolts in how to raise a child like ours. Both books have been updated, now entitled The New Strong-Willed Child and The New Dare to Discipline, but the principles are timeless.
Dobson won me over in the introductory chapter of The New Strong-Willed Child. He writes that it is very common for parents of strong-willed children "to feel great guilt and self-condemnation. They are trying so hard to be good parents, but the struggle for control that goes on at home day after day leaves them frustrated and fatigued . . . While she can and must be taught to respect authority and live harmoniously with her neighbors, she will always have an assertive temperament. That is not a bad thing. It simply 'is.' During the childhood years, it is important for parents not to panic. Don't try to 'fix' your tougher boy or girl overnight. Treat that child with sincere love and dignity, but require him or her to follow your leadership. Choose carefully the matters that are worthy of confrontation, then accept her challenge on those issues and win decisively. Reward every positive, cooperative gesture she makes by offering your attention, affection, and verbal praise" (p. 11-12).
Dobson discusses two guiding principles: love and control, which are like two sides of a scale. He notes that if love and control are understood and implemented properly, then the parent-child relationship is likely to be healthy. "It is often very difficult to balance love and control when dealing with a strong-willed child. The temptation is to tilt beyond one of the two boundaries—toward white-hot anger and oppressiveness, or toward permissiveness and disengagement. Why? Because the constant battles that these tougher kids precipitate can cause a parent to become a screamer and a tyrant or one who lets the child rule pathetically. There is a danger for a youngster on either side of the 'runway'" (p. xii).