My two-year old daughter, Nina, is very independent. She is learning new skills and getting more coordinated. Much to my chagrin, she regularly swats my hand away when getting out of her car seat or climbing the stairs, shouting “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” She wants to feed herself and put on her own shoes and have her own pillow at bedtime; she wants to smell and touch and try everything.

Or at least she did. The newest catchphrase in my daughter’s repertoire is “I can’t.” It has been whispered, shouted, and wailed. I’m not exactly sure where she picked it up, but it bugs the shit out of me. I can’t put my finger on the reason why it bothers me so much.

The first time she said it, I was surprised. She realized that she had forgotten one of her stuffies in the living room at bedtime, and she turned to me and said “Where is Mama fox?” I said that she must have left it on the couch, but she could go get it and then come straight back to bed.

“I can’t.”

I hesitated, because I recently made the (unbelivably idiotic and still kicking myself for it) mistake of joking about monsters in her room, and the subject has reared its ugly head a number of times since.

“Why not?”

“Because Mummy do it.”

I snickered and rolled my eyes a little and told her that her two legs work just fine, to go ahead and get Mama fox and bring her to bed. (An aside: Is she seriously refusing an excuse to get out of bed? She has complained of cold tummy, sore legs, water in the wrong colour of cup, just to avoid going to sleep.) She refused to budge, so Mama fox spent the night on the couch.

Unfortunately, that was the start of a whole shit-ton of “I can’t” over the past few weeks.

“I can’t” is not “No” or “No way.” It isn’t the refusal to get her hair brushed or eat her supper or get changed for bed. Don’t get me wrong. “NO WAY!” is uber-annoying. I know that it is sassy and rude, and I discourage her from saying it. There is a consequence for refusing to mind, like being wrestled to the floor and stuffed into the pyjamas, or the removal of a privilege. But she often laughs or smiles when she is saying it. She is aware of the kind of effect that it has on the person she is saying it to.

Not so with “I can’t.”

“I can’t” is not “I need some help.”  She asks for help all the time, with a zipper, or knots in her shoelaces, or if she can’t reach something. She trusts that if she asks for help, someone will be there.

“I can’t” is so plaintive and sad. It sounds too much like giving up. And my biggest fear is that she learned it from me. I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who frequently says that “I can’t.” Hell, I’m usually the person who says “I can” until I am so overloaded with tasks and activities that I actually can’t handle them all. And then I do them anyway.

I am a clinical depressive, but my illness is usually fairly well-managed. Lately I’ve been going off the rails a bit. I’ve withdrawn socially. I don’t get much pleasure from the things that usually make me happy. I can’t fall alseep at night, which makes me tired and weepy. I’m trying some things, but it takes time.

I’m scared that I haven’t been as good at compartmentalizing the issue as I thought I was, and that maybe Nina’s “I can’t” is her way of expressing what she has been observing. I don’t want her to think that being sad is normal, and I don’t want her to get in the habit of giving up before she even tries. She has so many adventures ahead of her: school, friends, family, travel.

I am probably overanalysing the situation. She has been eating and playing normally, and she is full of smiles and giggles when I pick her up from daycare. “I can’t” is probably just a silly phase, nothing to worry about. I really should let it stop bothering me, but I can’t.


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