And then she was three…

“Lil Z” may not be such an apt name any more. The girl hasn’t been little for some time – in fact, she is surprisingly tall. Her legs go on forever and her height is only hidden by the fact she is usually sitting. In reality, I suspect she is actually quite a bit taller than some of Vegemite’s 5 and 6-year-old friends.

And now, “Lil” doesn’t apply so much to her age, either. Lil Z has turned three.

Three feels like a landmark age. Perhaps it’s because I can no longer consider her a baby – three is definitely no longer a baby. Three is firmly in toddlerdom – or even moving slowly towards preschooler. No longer a baby.

I wish I could say it makes me happy – and it does in a way – but it also highlights that Lil Z at three is vastly different from most children at that age. I remember when Vegemite turned three – particularly because Lil Z had just been born two weeks earlier. She got a CD player and we have photos of her dancing gleefully to the Wiggles. She loved butterflies and I managed to make a butterfly cake for her.  It was probably her first birthday where she realised the significance that it was her special day.

Lil Z’s third birthday was not like this. We organised a birthday breakfast party for her, but didn’t get the time just right, and she was grumpy and ready for her morning nap. When she woke up, we opened her presents – Vegemite is Lil Z’s official gift opener. But Lil Z isn’t particularly interested in toys, so there wasn’t a joyful response as her sister presented her with each one. My greatest reward was when she gave her new Lola doll (an impulse purchase on my part, as she enjoys watching Charlie and Lola) a very long and careful stare.

I am slowly learning to adapt family celebrations to Lil Z’s personality. But, like with Christmas, it is hard. Especially when Lil Z has an older sister who has been planning THE MOST AMAZING PRINCESS BIRTHDAY PARTY OF ALL TIME for about a year now. Vegemite and I have been discussing themes (it has slowly moved from princesses in general to a greater emphasis on the movie Frozen) and decorations and costumes (Elsa dresses have apparently sold out worldwide, so Grandma has sewn her one) and invitations and party bags for what seems like forever. So it feels a bit unfair to have a small low-key party for Lil Z, at which she only made a brief appearance before going down for a nap. But, I keep reminding myself, different things make each of them happy… and that is OK.

What is harder is the acceptance that not only is Lil Z not developing like other three-year olds, but that over the course of her three short years, she has regressed. She does not have skills now that she had at 3 or 4 months old. She doesn’t smile spontaneously anymore. She isn’t able to prop herself on her elbows or easily roll across the floor. She isn’t interested in hanging toys on a baby gym – in fact she hardly looks at them at all. She isn’t able to eat or drink orally. It is hard to celebrate your child growing up when it doesn’t necessarily mean learning new skills or coming closer to independence.

[Side note: Stupidly, I decided shortly before her birthday that I would do one of those lovely video compilations of photos and video clips for Lil Z’s third birthday. Of course I didn’t really have the technical knowledge (yes, I know it is supposed to be easy on a Mac, but quite honestly, it isn’t) or the time, so it never really got off the ground. But looking at video clips and photos of Lil Z from birth until present really drove home her regression in some areas. The activity didn’t turn out to be a feel good exercise for me on any level and I gave up in the end, deciding I really didn’t want to share what the video showed all too clearly to me.]

It is also about appearance. Until recently, it hasn’t been immediately noticeable that Lil Z has special needs. She has looked like any other baby in a stroller – albeit one that never smiles back at you and often does some strange things with her hands. But more and more, her differences are noticeable. And more and more, we attract looks (although so far, fortunately few stares or glares) when we’re out and about. Children point to her and say “Mummy, why is that little girl-” before being cut off swiftly by their embarrassed mother. I am usually so busy with Lil Z that the looks don’t bother me, but I worry that they will increasingly bother Vegemite.

[Side note: Vegemite came home from school a few weeks ago and declared that one of the little boys in her class got in trouble for making fun of her sister. I braced myself for the first, and certainly not the last, insult that Vegemite will endure on behalf of her sister. “What did he say” I asked, prepared to give my best warrior mummy speech. “He said she has funny hair” Vegemite replied. Oh. That. Well, actually, he’s right. Lil Z has crazy hair that grows in every direction and can only be managed by giving her a palm tree ponytail on the top of her head. Not many three-year olds sport the palm tree look, though I don’t think that has anything to do with her special needs, but rather her unfortunate hair genes. Her uncle, who also sometimes sports the palm tree look, knows exactly what I mean…]

And it is about managing a growing child with special needs. Lil Z wants to be held a lot – but at 15kg and 110cm tall, this is becoming a growing problem (if you will excuse the unintentional pun). My heart breaks at the thought that I won’t be able to hold her close and walk around, like I do now to comfort her. Or that she won’t be able to fall asleep with her head on my shoulder because she’ll be too big. But it is inevitable. I know, I know, children grow up and I need to deal with it, but giving her comfort is one of the few things I can give her…

More than that, it is becoming increasingly difficult to lift her in and out of the bath. Or even to pick her up from the floor. A baby with mobility issues is manageable, a gangly three-year old is a much greater challenge. My back regularly aches from lifting and carrying her, and I also wonder how much longer I will be able to ask those who care for her to lift and carry her. And what to do next. I suppose the next step is moving her around the house in her stroller (and eventually a wheelchair), but she still wants to be held and carried and the thought of denying her this when she has so few other comforts is hard.

And it is about letting go. At three, Vegemite attended daycare three days a week and loved it. But it is harder to let Lil Z go, not only because of her additional needs, but also because she is my baby. Speaking to the special school where she attends playgroup the other day, the teacher mentioned that beginning in the July term, Lil Z is able to attend kindy on her own, one day a week. QB’s response to this news was “great” but mine was much, much less enthusiastic, and accompanied by a number of reasons I don’t think she is ready for the move. But to be honest, I’m not sure which one of us isn’t ready. The kindy class will be small (3 children) and Lil Z already knows the other little girl in the class from playgroup. In fact, it may be the thought that Lil Z might actually make a friend (in her own Lil Z kind of way) may well be what compels me to send her in the end.

So, Lil Z turning three has raised a number of difficult issues for me. But at the same time, I also want to celebrate my beautiful little girl who has made it to three. So, rather than leaving you on a dark note, here are the top three things that make Lil Z at Three such a special girl:

  1. She can charm the coldest of hearts. She probably won’t smile at you – in fact she may not even look at you. She isn’t interested in your conversation or toys and will steadfastly look past you to the television. But no one can resist her when she snuggles up and rests her head on your shoulder. No one.
  2. She gets her point across. Lil Z is nonverbal and has very limited purposeful use of her hands, but she still manages to communicate what she wants very clearly. And thanks to her charm, as well as her ability to get her point across, she usually gets what she wants.
  3. She insists on dancing to the Australian national anthem. I’m not sure how the very strict principal at Vegemite’s school feels about it, but Lil Z loves to attend Friday assembly and have a good bounce and sing-along when they play the Aussie national anthem. Admittedly, they play a very jazzy version of it… but it never fails to make me smile at her enthusiasm!

So happy third birthday Lil Z. I can’t wait to see what adventures your third year of life brings.

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