Parents hear the tiny echoes of their actions

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It had been a discouraging week in the parenting trenches. The season's first real heat had settled in, wilting our window boxes – and our will – by dinnertime each day. To make matters worse, the neighborhood kids had already begun to usher in the Fourth of July with a noisy nightly fireworks show.

Between the heat and the loud firecrackers, our older daughter, Ping, was having an uncharacteristically hard time sleeping. Four nights in a row, the 2-1/2-year-old awoke several times, crying loudly. "What's that noise?" she would ask. "I'm thirsty!" "I want my panda!" And her coup de grâce, "Sleep next to me!"

We comforted her to the best of our ability, sleepwalking in to offer soothing explanations for every sound louder than a whisper, to bring her a drink, to find her beloved bear, and, finally, to stretch our weary selves out on the carpet next to her crib, dozing uncomfortably until at last her breathing became deep and peaceful again.

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Before long, we were a family frazzled from heat and lack of sleep. My husband and I were snapping at each other and the kids. Even Ping's normally sunny disposition gave way to a bossy irascibility, most often directed at her 15-month-old sister. "No, Thea!" Ping would shout at the slightest provocation. "Stop that!"

"Take my hand!" shouted Ping one morning on our way to the car, following the command with a bellowed "Right now!" when her sister did not immediately comply.

"Hear that?" my husband asked dispiritedly. "That's how we sound. She's imitating us."

Not wanting to add to the general malaise, I brushed off his observation. "She's exaggerating," I said.

My husband cocked an eyebrow at me.

"She is," I insisted. "We're not that bad."

But inwardly, I felt deflated, too. Were we really that impatient? That cranky and nagging? What happened to the cool, calm mom I always thought I'd be?

I had wanted children for several years before they arrived. The appearance of two – one by adoption and one by birth – within six weeks of each other, was a dream come true. But it also engulfed me in a tidal wave of toddler and infant needs. The weeks flew by, full of diapers and day care. I found little time to reflect on my performance as a parent. I knew only that I loved being a mother. Whether I was any good at it seemed irrelevant.

But now, 16 months into my maternal adventure, the waters had receded a bit. We fell into a routine. The real business of parenting was under way. What kind of mother was I really, I wondered. In this weather, could I stand the heat?

That evening, my husband and I sprawled glumly on the couch while the girls played. When Ping wasn't keeping us up at night or yelling at her sister, she was showing a preschooler's growing interest in imaginative play.

Emerging from her pint-size kitchen, she would bring us a plastic waffle on a plate with an admonishment to eat our breakfast. Climbing to the back of the couch to catch a miserly breeze from the window, she would announce, "I'm a monkey now. You be one, too."

On this evening, after dressing her panda in a Pull-Up, Ping aimed her parenting play at her father and me. "Bedtime!" she told us, adding firmly, "you go to sleep now."

My husband and I caught each other's eye. What an opportunity to show Ping what her nighttime shenanigans looked like.

"I'm thirsty!" bawled my husband. "I want a drink!"

"I want my panda!" I wailed piteously. "Sleep next to me!"

Instantly, Ping's imperious expression dissolved into a look of loving concern. "Here, Daddy," she said, carefully lifting an imaginary cup to his lips. "Here's a drink for you."

Then she climbed up on the couch and stretched out next to me, patting my arm softly. "You're OK, Mommy," she said with utter gentleness. "You can sleep now."

I looked at my husband. "Hear that?" I asked. "That's how we sound. She's imitating us."

Suddenly, I felt a whole lot cooler.

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