No one prepared me.
This parenting gig is hard. I understood from family, friends, and frank celebrities that the parenting journey is not some Instagram-perfect adventure (nothing is), but holy cow, the reality is stark. The daily grind of dealing with shit, literally. The constant supervision. The lack of personal space or time. The manic-depressive mood swings over trivial matters like hair clips and stuffed animals. The tantrums of a two-year-old where she refuses to hear me and instead plays “spaghetti legs” and “abs of steel” and transforms into some kind of superhero with weird physical powers of simultaneous bendiness and rigidity. If I’m subjected to this much longer, I think I’ll turn feral. And I’ve got one of the “good” ones.
I spent over a week with my daughter during her half-term preschool holiday, 10 days which, under normal circumstances, our family might have thought about camping or visiting family or splashing out on a small vacation abroad (or, you know, continuing to move into our house). But which, in this new normal of living life in a pandemic, meant staying home and not bothering Daddy who was working remotely in-between fixing up the house with the hundreds of DIY projects we still have left. Yes, I made sure she had plenty to do throughout the day: meals, puzzles, walkies, blocks, figurines, stuffed animals, books, dancing, gardening, cooking, bath time (swimming), and even playing with the dog. And still, she was a hyperactive, emotional mini-human bent on extracting the last ounce of patience sheltering in my body in a long-haul drain of the past six months. And she did it all while giggling uncontrollably. This cuteness fuel only stoked my mom-rage bonfire, which did not end well for either of us.
I found myself yelling at her every day, even though I’m supposed to be the adult. I’m supposed to be the patient one. I’m supposed to be the example. I leaned on my older sister and sister-in-law, asking them for help. Asking if this was normal. Begging for suggestions on how I could just let it go, turn off my frustration, stop snapping at her for clearly toddler-inspired moments. The first piece of advice they both gave was to realize this shit is hard. No one gives you a playbook about your kid. No antenatal class prepares you for toddlers. Parents have to wade through this ocean on our own, keeping our children afloat by instinct, even if we don’t feel we have any. To combat this uneasiness, I turned to the one source of information and stability I’ve relied on my whole life: books.
When I asked Google to help me solve my parenting dilemma, dozens of books, articles, podcasts, and blogs immediately sprung up. The results were overwhelming. The reality hit home instantly: I’m not the only one struggling. This is a pertinent topic right now. And I shouldn’t be surprised; Covid-19 and lockdowns have piled on the parental pressure. With the closure of schools and childcare earlier in the year, and with virtual learning and two-week self-isolating periods for those who have been exposed to the virus, kids have been forced to stay home with their parents (mostly mothers) for extended periods. It’s no wonder we’re losing our minds.
Which led me to my first purchase: “How To Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids” by Carla Naumburg (no, this post is not sponsored). Honestly, the title sold me. The book itself is pretty general, but she’s funny and honest. She recommends a few major changes, the first of which is to get enough sleep. And that means setting strict boundaries for yourself, turning off your damn phone, and assessing – really assessing – how you’re spending your time. Do you really need to Netflix and chill? Or is that a want? Go to bed so you can face the next day with a better reserve of patience and perhaps become less triggered in the process. Naumburg also doesn’t promise you’ll come out the other side perfect. Nobody’s perfect. And that’s the point. Just like my sisters told me – learn to live with good enough. Perfection is never attainable. Make sure your kids are safe and then learn to let the little stuff go.
I’ve been trying to ignore the little stuff more intentionally, ever since I caught myself screaming at my toddler because she wouldn’t brush her teeth on my terms. She’s two. She’s a toddler. She was tired and tapped out from a full day with no nap and laughing like you do when you’re sleep-deprived and everything in life is absolutely hilarious. I was raging. And then I realized something had to change. Clearly, my tactic of asking, telling, getting stern, counting to three, raising my voice, and then yelling while on the verge of wanting to sit her on the floor as forcefully as I could without getting social services involved wasn’t working. I’m the adult. I have 34 more years of living than she does. I have a master’s degree, flown attack helicopters in combat, and moved to a foreign country to start a new life, and yet this 27-month-old little person was crushing my soul. And smiling about it. And I couldn’t handle it.
I’m not saying the book changed my life. It didn’t. But it did get me talking – to my husband, my sister, myself – about my frustrations and concerns. It raised awareness of this problem in my own mind so at least I can anticipate the rage as my dear daughter shows all the signs of being overtired or hungry or teething. And I did start to ignore, or at least not act upon, some of my previous triggers.
Now, I back away from the change table when she is in a kicking mood. I only have to wait about ten seconds and then it’s over (no matter how long it actually feels like). I use distraction or redirection to my benefit, switching her attention away from the thing she’s upset about and onto something completely different (like ponies or milk). And I’ve started to use different tactics to get her to do what I want, like enlisting the help of Monkey in brushing her teeth or trying for a pee on the potty (“Let’s see if Monkey needs to use the toilet.” “Hey, let’s brush Monkey’s teeth before bed!”). This one works beautifully right now, so it’s encouraging to see progress. With each successful avoidance of a trigger, and subsequent meltdown and mom-rage, I get better at anticipating the scenario and dodging that bullet. And so when a whining session does inevitably occur (because toddlers), I have more patience to deal with it. And instead of getting mad at her, I empathize, talking out my frustration and hers. (“Oh, you must be so tired from a long day at preschool. I understand. Let’s have dinner and a quick bath and get you to bed early.”) It sounds a bit crazy, but it works for us.
As I navigate the different stages of childhood with my first, I’m more than aware that #2 is nearly here and I’ll have to do it all over again. And some of my tactics and successes won’t work on the second child. And that’s okay, because each kid is different. It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be perfect, but I know I have the tools in my kitbag I can use as needed.
So, yes, my toddler is a jerk sometimes. But I now feel confident that I can handle her moods better while remaining calm myself. And that is a huge win.