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Tich’s Terrible Twos

So the good news is that Agotich is comfortable enough with me to unleash her terrible twos in my presence.

And the bad news is that Agotich is comfortable enough with me to unleash her terrible twos in my presence.

Between the hour and a half she spends at my house in the morning twice a week, the thirty-five minutes in the car, the time settling her into her class and getting her ready to leave it, and the time visiting with her mother, Agotich spends more time with me than anyone in her family other than her parents. More than with Gabriel and Alek’s friends. More than with their cousins* in Louisville.

Knowing that mostly makes me sad. Sad that she can’t know her grandfather in Saudi Arabia or the one the Sudanese government murdered in 1986. Sad that her grandmothers both live far away and were separated from their own children for so many years. Sad that few of Gabriel’s 17 siblings survived the Second Sudanese Civil War and that none live here. Sad that the realities of the men’s schedules and the women’s access to cars means many of these young mothers spend their days alone.

But I can’t change it, and when Alek mentioned casually a few weeks ago that Agotich knows me better than any of the other Dinka in town, I was somewhat thunderstruck. “Of course she is learning English fast,” Alek explained, “besides me and Kwai**, she knows you and Simon and Matt best of all.”

The good side of this is that Agotich has opened her full self to us. She’s a very discriminating child; an observer like Simon, but much less quick to smile or engage. Whereas Simon waits to make sure it’s safe to make a friend, Agotich waits to see if a person is worth befriending. She is, without a doubt, her father’s daughter—a serious little soul who will one day cut an imposing figure and not suffer fools gladly.

So when a stranger gets too close, tries to elicit a bye or a wave, or pats her head, Agotich is stone-faced. And if they then say something about that, “Oh, she’s not very smiley” or the like, I get defensive. “She has to get to know you; she’s very smart, and she she’s very careful.” But none of this goes in our house—Matt, Simon and I are treated to cackles, smiles, and hugs, high-fives, and dancing.

The flip side of being square in her comfort zone is that Agotich is discovering the power of “no” and her own desire to control the world around her. So she turns off our TV during Curious George in the morning, grabs Simon’s toys and is unhappy if I take one away because it is fragile or dangerous for a child her age, wants to rummage through my fridge, goes ballistic if Simon uses his potty (she thinks it’s hers), tries to color directly on my table, and is generally doing all the maddening things two-year-olds can and should do.

Plus, she hates leaving school. But whereas a month ago she registered her desire to stay by lying down on a nap mat and pretending to be asleep, she now yells “no” and runs from me and/or flops to the ground when I try to put on her coat, hat, and mittens. And, of course, these moments inevitably happen when I am surrounded by two or three child-care experts who are looking on and waiting to see how I will handle it. This situation is awkward enough with your own kid (“Do they think I’m being too harsh? Total milquetoast?”) But try it with an honorary niece being raised in a different culture who is not yet fluent in your language.

Good times!

Tuesday she was enough of a handful that I realized I couldn’t just passively wait for things to be OK. I was going to have to take charge. Very tentatively, I did so. It’s a delicate two-step, marked by the twin desires to not undermine her parents’ rules while establishing my own.  So when it came to something like putting on her coat and leaving school on time, a must if I am going to be on time to collect Simon, I put my foot down.

“Agotich, I’m going to count to three. And if you don’t let me put on your coat then, I’ll have to hold you down and do it for you. You won’t like that.”

She understood enough to comply.

Other times, when my rules are different than her mom’s, I use a line I first heard and admired from a friend.

“Agotich, I know you can walk around with your cup at home. But in Auntie Jessica’s house, I need you to sit down with your drink. Different houses have different rules.”

And still other times, I have to gulp hard and follow her mom’s habits. If Agotich is cranky in the morning because she is hungry but won’t eat, instead of fighting her I heat up some milk (she likes hers warm) or give her watered down juice. I’d rather she learn to eat more, but that’s not my battle to fight.

I was so happy when Simon’s terrible twos were over that it never occurred to me once I’d be going through them a second time.

*It’s hard to say how most Sudanese in Louisville are related without launching into a pretty rude interrogation. From what I can gather, a “brother” is often what we think of as a cousin, and a “cousin” is often a member of the same sub-clan or tribe.

**Though I suppose he will always be “Gabriel” to me, he’s Kwai or Akech among his fellow Sudanese. I’d be tempted to push the issue a bit except that I love his English name so much.

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