What love smells like: On bathing with my daughter
Ever since I weaned my daughter, shortly before her second birthday, our relationship has been a bit rocky. Yes, I know she loves me, but when it comes to moments of primal anguish, mommy just doesn’t cut it anymore.
“No, mommy! I don’t want you! I want daddy instead! I really need him!”
Now that she’s 3 (how did that happen, BTW?), her vocabulary for expressing disapproval of my general existence has taken a swift upturn.
Some time each night, she wakes up, and we bring her into bed. In the morning, she and daddy are inevitably cuddled into one another tightly, she the teaspoon to his tablespoon, his hairy arm gently draped across her pink-pajamaed body. When we wake, there are smiles and giggles, but heaven forbid I should suggest that she come over and give me a cuddle or–even worse–if daddy has to hit the bathroom for an urgent morning constitutional, leaving her behind. The latter scenario typically leads to a panicked scramble out of the bed and a race to pound, panic-stricken, on the bathroom door. Tears flow freely, and I am not allowed to help her with those big, big feelings. And don’t even get me started on the epic boondoggle that is bedtime–daddy had better be in a different time zone before I even attempt to put her to bed.
I’ll spare you endless other examples of times when my daughter won’t let me soothe or comfort her, despite my presence, love, and willingness to do so. For goodness’ sake, I’m a therapist! I specialize in parenting children from 0-5! Does she not know this?! Apparently not. Suffice it to say that, starting now, I have to accept the opportunities for connection she’s willing to offer. And that means bath time.
I can’t remember how long ago it was that I started bathing with my daughter. It started with me putting my tired feet in my daughter’s warm bath. I would tickle and pinch her with my toes, pretending they were crabs. She would sneak between my calves and ask for a “leg hug.” One day, she was having a particularly hard time being convinced that it was indeed bath time, and she was unwilling to be lured by the usual temptation of seeing whether a particular toy could “swim.” I would like to think that, in a moment of desperation, I was inspired to motivate her by joining her in the bath, but knowing my daughter, she probably ordered me to do it and I obeyed. And since then it’s just been our routine.
For anyone out there having a pearl-clutching moment at the thought of me bathing with my kiddo, please take a moment to let the seeming strangeness of it settle down. People all around the world share many experiences with their children that we in our radically (to the point of hostilely) individualistic Western society shun outwardly, but practice anyway, often secretly and ashamedly. I’ve lost count of the number of parents that scrunch their faces in an “I’m sorry” look while saying, “We still breastfeed,” or “He sleeps with us.” The truth is, communal family life looks very different depending on where (or when) you live. The sterile Western notion of fully scheduled, weaned, crib-sleeping little humans just doesn’t work for everyone. If it works for you, mazel tov! If it doesn’t, let this post serve as a robust invitation for all parents; I hereby give you permission to abandon that “I’m sorry” look and embrace the choices that work for your family. As long as everyone is safe and healthy, you get to be the deciders.
And bath time with my daughter is indeed a choice that works for us. Beyond the practical piece of making it easier for me to wash and comb her hair without soap getting in her eyes, this is one of my few ritual opportunities to bond and connect with my child. She pretends to be a fish, and I offer her pinches of “food.” We conjure up silly songs and sounds. She commands me to lie down and then uses my legs as a blanket, ordering me to “sleep.” We make homemade body scrubs and she swipes liberal amounts on my chest and arms (it’s never too early to learn to exfoliate). She chooses a special bath fizzy each night and we enjoy the bubbling colors and scents. We talk about our body parts and give them their correct names. She gets some quality time being close to my body, which she hasn’t had much access to since I weaned her. She snuggles in close to my chest, pressing her face against me, sometimes pretending to eat me up. We reminisce about how she once drank milk from my body, and how before that she lived inside my belly. It’s the one time she really wants me, just me, and not daddy.
Last week I was seeing clients late and daddy was on bath duty, which he does in the standard way – him outside the tub and her inside it. He recorded the following, which breaks my heart each time I hear it:
So you can probably imagine my devastation when last week, as I prepared to undress and join her, she shouted out, “No mommy, don’t get in!” I had to do something to keep us together in the bath, at least for a little longer. In addition to the fact that I had to do something about our bath fizzy addiction, even though I had found a fairly affordable source on Etsy.
So the next day I asked her if she wanted to make some bath fizzies with me. She was immediately taken with the idea, and I used this momentum to do some very important fact-finding around our critical mission: Operation Preserve Bathtime. Here’s what I learned in my reconnaissance:
- The bath fizzies must be pink. And red. Because she really loves pink. And red.
- They must be shaped like flowers. And hearts.
- They must smell like love. She was not very clear on what this actually smells like, but as a somewhat trusty maker of things, I knew I was up to the olfactory task.
We took to the web and explored various heart and flower shaped molds. She pointed to each choice and said, “This one is my fwavorite.” I added some tasteful selections to the cart, along with a 5-lb bag of citric acid, and hit “order now.” The package arrived while she was napping, so I pre-measured all the ingredients and waited. She awoke and cried for daddy, who collected her and brought her to the kitchen table. Her tears dried and she brightened up – I explained each ingredient and asked her to pour them in the big mixing bowl. “Citric acid, like you got on your computer!” she remembered.
Finally, the big test of my skills arrived: what does love smell like? I invited her to sniff each of the three essential oils I had chosen: flowery rose geranium, herbal lavender, and musky ylang ylang. She rejected each one in turn. Hoo boy. So I took a risk and asked her to trust me, adding 10 drops of each into the potion. We mixed, sprinkled, dumped…and then she started to complain about the color of her apron and wonder where daddy was. Dang it, I couldn’t even maintain her companionship to finish some lousy bath fizzies. I removed her apron as she stood crying for daddy at the bedroom door and went back to finish them up, popping them into the oven to dry.
When I got back from work that evening, I immediately went to check on our project. Together, we delighted in popping them out of the mold, each one a perfect little crystalline flower that nestled sweetly in the palm of your hand. We paraded into the bathroom, stripped, stepped into the tub, and held our breath. As she plopped them into the warm water one by one, chemistry worked its magic. Acid mixed with base, and pink bubbles of carbon dioxide rose up in a flurry, emitting their fragrance and making the water blush.
I held my breath. “What do they smell like, honey?”
“They smell like love.”
I sank a little deeper in the soft water. My last bath with my daughter is coming one day, but I don’t think it will be tonight.
Love-Scented Bath Fizzies
- 1 cup baking soda
- ½ cup corn starch
- ¾ cup citric acid
- ½ cup sea salt or epsom salt
- 2 tbsps oil (your choice – olive, castor, coconut, and jojoba are all wonderful)
- 30-40 drops of fragrance oil
- Love scent: 10 drops lavender, 10 drops rose geranium, 10 drops ylang ylang
- 1 tbsp water
- 2-3 tsps food or soap coloring
- Mix all the dry ingredients together in a small mixing bowl. Blend well to break down any chunks and set aside.
- Mix wet ingredients in a small bowl and stir well.
- Pour the oils into the dry mixture all at once and mix well – the mixture may fizz a little, but don’t worry! Just speedily fold everything together and mix well until everything is well incorporated. Test the mix by squeezing it to ensure it can hold its shape.
- Press mixture firmly into the mold of your choice (muffin tins, ice cube trays, Easter eggs, ball-shaped Christmas ornaments, and metal or silicone candy molds work well. We used these!). Use your fingers or the back of a spoon to tamp down each fizzy and add more mixture if necessary to fill to the top.
- Allow fizzles to dry completely – they will puff up a little as they harden. I placed mine on a cookie sheet in the oven (not turned on) for several hours, which worked perfectly.
- Pop fizzles out of mold and add as many as you like to the bath!
- Store extra fizzles in an airtight, cool, dry place.
For additional reading:
- Parent Q&A: When kids prefer one parent
- Parent Q&A: When kids prefer one parent, part 2: This time it’s personal
- Green eggs and super-strong adhesives: What I learned about my parents by reading Dr. Seuss
- What’s so terrible?
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!