With her pajamas finally on, I reach my hand up above my daughter’s belly, widen my eyes, and grin at her; she stills and begins to giggle in the middle of the long pause as she anticipates another round of tickle wrestling.

I growl playfully and plunge the tips of my fingers onto her belly, underarms, legs. The squeal of tickled laughter fills the tiny bedroom. This is my favorite part of the exhausting process that is the bedtime routine.
And then I remember. Dang it. It can wait until morning, right?

“Zoe, we forgot to brush your teeth,” I say, wishing I could have blocked that other part of me that whispered something about having to build consistent dental hygiene habits.

“Uh oh!” she replies smiling, the tickles still miraculously working their happy effect.

“I know, silly mama forgot. Let’s go to the bathroom, kiddo.”

We trudge down the hall and flip on the lights. I sigh as I lift her up to sit on the bathroom counter so she can only move so far. I pull out her generic caterpillar toothbrush and the Elmo toothpaste. In this house, Elmo wins everything, and so far, Elmo toothpaste has helped us with the teeth-brushing routine. Thanks, Elmo.

But tonight, Elmo toothpaste has apparently lost its appeal.

“Please, Zoe, open your mouth. We need to brush your teeth!”

I am met with pursed lips. I don’t have the energy for pursed lips.

“Come on, Zoe, we can get it done really fast and then go rock and snuggle!”

Toddler bedtime ranks right up there with doing your taxes and driving the freeway during rush hour in the way that it can suck the life out of you.

I think back to when my parents were visiting the week before, easing our routines with all the excitement of new energy and jumping in to clean everything in our house without prompting. My house is never as clean as when they visit – a welcome reprieve from the unending mess.

At dinnertime one night that week, Zoe had been refusing to eat much at all. It may have been those molars coming through, it may have been the distraction of Grandma and Grandpa sitting mere feet away, and wouldn’t it be more fun to play hide and seek?

My mom, the pediatric nurse, has always had a magical way with kids. They see her as an ally, as one of them, just living in an adult-sized body. Noticing the difficulty in getting her to eat, my mom worked her magic. All at once, the spoon full of potatoes was a train, chugging its way into the station that was my daughter’s mouth. When that didn’t work, an airplane was conjured up. And finally, when that didn’t work, the food itself became anthropomorphic.

It pleaded, in the highest pitched voice, to join its friends down in the swimming pool that was in my daughter’s belly, and with each bite there was an uproarious cheer from the broccoli, the pasta, the meat as it landed into the belly pool. Zoe was delighted with Grandma’s method and an entire plate of food was finished off.

Okay, I think to myself, how would Mom handle brushing teeth?

I choose the least dignified but most frequently successful method.

“Zoe!” squeaks the caterpillar toothbrush in that high-pitched voice as I make it come alive in my hand, “Zoe, can I tickle your teeth please?”

As if she has found a new friend, her eyes light up, and she smiles and nods. As caterpillar tickles each tooth, he continues to squeak about how beautiful her smile is, how fun it is to tickle her teeth, how yummy the Elmo toothpaste tastes. He even throws in a squeaky little song about brushing your teeth. Squeak, squeak, squeak.

In minutes, the whole thing is done – no tears, no gnashing of…teeth. We head back to her room and as I rock and sing my daughter to sleep, I wonder how many times my mother had to give squeaky voices to inanimate objects to encourage our cooperation. How many times, instead of fighting against the indignity of it, she chose to embrace it all and make herself enter into our world, speaking to us in ways we understood, on our level.

She made it look so easy, but I’m sure it took so much laying aside of herself. At some point, we no longer needed the squeaky-voiced foods, stuffed animal,s and toothbrushes. They were retired in exchange for the grander worlds of reading books, playing pretend in the cornfield north of our house, letting our imaginations run wild into our futures without her needing to necessarily prompt us. 

I wonder if she could see then what I see now, how it would all come full circle. How her imagination would inspire me to do things as small as playfully encouraging eating and brushing of teeth – and how that would reap benefits like reading, writing, and choosing to lay my own dignity aside to enter my daughter’s world.

I notice that on this particular night, even with the snafu of forgetting about brushing my daughter’s teeth, the fun of it all did not suck the life right out of me. Even the squeaky voice has not sucked the life out of me. Instead, her giggles at the fun of it have given me life and beauty. 

Imagination, it turns out, is a wonderful gift to give.