A Lever On My Heart
Published on August 13, 2012 by guest author: Adam Rust

I let my children have a lot of power over my feelings.

On Friday, it fell to me to escort Rosie through the process of brushing her teeth. At age 7, Rosie puts brush to mouth but since we insist that she use a red disclosing solution, some adult has to attest that she has adequately scrubbed. Our kids accept the solution. I would not. The solution feels viscous. It has a strong power to stain. We have a spot on our hardwood staircase where John, unable to remain in place while brushing, left a drop that was not immediately removed.

Rosie and I do not have a lot of space to share. Our bathroom measures 7 feet by 8 and one-half feet. The door opens inward. The previous owners of our home built a 13-inch closet in to the corner between the bath and the sink and a small window on the right cancels some of the space. The aqua tile is cracked in places and the matching banana-hued bath and commode shout 1960s.

She always fights me when it comes time to start. Friday is no different. She turns away from me and then pushes her chin toward the ground. I think she wants to sit down and talk. On a day when I work late, this is one of the few times when she gets to have me alone. Susie likes to expedite, but Rosie grits her teeth. Her neck muscles flex, her eyebrows constrict, and her nose hikes up. She hold her elbow above her shoulder and arcs her wrist. She is sawing across a gum that lost a tooth last week. It makes me anxious.

She taps my chest. If she used words more readily, she would say “check my back teeth.” I nod. I should say, “Yes, Rosie, they are fine.” But I feel compelled to use this opportunity to instill high standards for brushing.

As I wait, I sit down on the edge of the yellow tub. I am an arm's length from Rosie. Thus, when Rosie screams in her pitched 110-decibel voice, it makes me crazy. Each one of these screams probably downgrades the future viability of my ears one more notch. I lose my cool. “Stop. That. Right. Now!” She relents.

But I feel bad. I am one of those parents that wants to forgive all transgressions. It is cultural thing. Some people can get away with slapping their child silly in public, as long as they fit within a certain, expected demographic. But I feel guilt. In "Parenthood," a cable show that we watch intermittently, one of the parents realizes that they always let their daughter win. They prevent her from experiencing a difficult moment. Thus, when their child does lose at charades, she quits. This is the risk. Nonetheless, I have snapped already. The only person feeling an improper shame is probably me.

Rosie finishes and this time I am making it happen. I put my hand around her chin to keep her directed. I can feel the unbalanced weight of her head being rocked by the back and forth push of the brush. She leans into hip, letting me bear her weight. This is no longer just about teeth. It is a quiet moment of intimate trust.

If only for myself, I should tell her that I am sorry for raising my voice. This is the end of a good day whre we had real fun. We acted out a skit about Jacob and Rachel and Laban from the Bible. We played tennis. We had waffles with peaches and pecans. We giggled in the pool and dove for plastic torpedoes. That is just what we did together. She played dress ups. In the pool, I pretended that she was lost, even as she held on to my back while I pivoted in circles. Children love to play “lost” because they love to be affirmed that their parents will search. I care about you. I can tell that you feel the same way.

Susie says that I let brushing teeth draw out for too much time. I disagree. It has become one of our reliably close times. In a small space, we expect to have a good moment.

“Rosie,” I ask, “what is something that you want to do tomorrow?”

She says nothing. She folds her eyebrows. I hate that this has become her habit. Someone took a picture after her grandmother's funeral last year, and although most people are smiling and a few are merely plain-faced, Rosie has a stern frown that looks critical. This look evokes a bit of that, except that there is as much confusion as there is frustration.

“Not anything with Daddy,” she says.

Then she jumps out of my lap and leaves the bathroom. Our bath is off of our bedroom. With the door closed, I cannot see into the room. I think she might be waiting for me. It could be some kind of entreaty to a game of chase. She likes to play tickle games with me before bedtime. It jazzes her up, which is problematic, but we both enjoy the fun. I understand that fathers often prepare their children for the anxiety of the unknown by presenting them with protected moments of abandon.

But she is not there.  I can hear her voice carrying from her bedroom down the hall. I feel slapped and suddenly much of today’s fun seems saccharine.

I give her a lot of power. I can make her brush her teeth, tell her when she has to go to bed and insist that she finishes her milk. But she holds a lever over my heart.

Adam Rust lives is a father and husband who lives in Durham, N.C. He also blogs at

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