When you're dealing with 4-year-olds, even ones you love more than life itself, nothing happens quickly or efficiently.

It's more like wading through peanut butter.

Example: "Let's put on your swimsuit because it's almost time for your lesson!" Almost immediately, swim student is engrossed in a project that requires her to affix a pencil to a random cup with Scotch tape. It takes 10 minutes and half a roll of tape (much of it, you're abashed to say, applied yourself when you get caught up in the effort to secure the pencil tightly against the cup) before she can be induced to pull her swimsuit on halfway.

Maybe it's more like playing a movie in slow motion. Just as you get her suit pulled up around her nonexistent hips, she decides the two of you should play Ghost.

"Want to know how?" she asks. "Yes!" you say, ever a willing dupe.

She explains that she puts this sheet over her head (the sheet is dark blue) and twirls around while you pull her this way and that until the sheet comes off. You play several rounds. Actually, it's more like a dream, one where you keep trying to get to the history final but you never do.

Finally the swimsuit is on with clothes over it. Then the 4-year-old disappears. She is found playing hide-and-seek -- with you, purportedly -- in a kitchen alcove. At this point, you fall into a reverie, remembering the time you told this child's 4-year-old mother to change out of her pajamas -- now! -- so you could take her younger sister to the emergency room. Minutes later, you ran upstairs to find the mother of your granddaughter playing a game that involved putting Colorforms in her mouth.

En route to the swimming pool, the 4-year-old becomes anxious, almost tearful. "Will we ever get to fishy lessons?" she asks plaintively. "Will fishy lessons be over when we get there?"

Having promised to take this 4-year-old's 4-year-old cousin to a special event, you suggest you put on jackets and go there. The 4-year-old says "Yes!" and then proceeds to play with Matchbox cars. Explaining that it's time to go to the special event is like telling a squirrel to stop gathering nuts. "In a minute," the 4-year-old says for 10 minutes. Then he develops a new tack. "Maybe we should stay here and play cars instead," he says.

"But you really want to attend this special event," you remind him.

He seems to remember this, a promising sign. "I'll take these cars with me," he says optimistically, as the dictator of an emerging nuclear power might say, "I think I'll leave a few of these reactors in place."

You explain that zero cars are coming along, because you know from experience that the number of cars that go will be equal to the number of cars that don't come back. Undeterred, the 4-year-old tries again: "Maybe I'll take just one," he says.

The 4-year-olds you love more than life itself ask to go upstairs in your house, because going upstairs is still an adventure, like walking through a wardrobe into another land. Because you're a pushover, you all climb the stairs. Almost without warning, the 4-year-olds pile into a bathroom closet and shut the door. Four seconds later the door bursts open and out they pour like triumphant Romans, wielding rolls of Christmas wrapping paper as weapons.

Then they're jumping on the beds in the childhood room of one of your daughters, shrieking like barn owls and causing you to fear for the wrapping paper, which you hoped you could use again next year. Just in time, one of their mothers (also known as one of your daughters) arrives and instantly -- right there in the very room into which you so often marched as a mother who meant business -- puts a stop to the wild rumpus. You can almost hear an integral, internal mechanism shift. It sounds permanent.

I can't complain. A person can't be supreme commander, acknowledged disciplinarian and Grandma at the same time. If I must choose I'll be Grandma, even if I often do feel like I'm swimming upstream through potato soup, wearing snowpants.

Write to Margo Bartlett at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.