How to Survive the Toddler Years – A Mini-Survival Guide for Parents

Today is my daughter’s third birthday. As I was listening to her dad put her to bed tonight I overheard her say “But I don’t want to be three Daddy. I want to be two again. Next year I will be three okay?” I have noticed that lately she has wanted to play “baby” quite a bit. She will lie down on the floor with her feet and hands in the air making cooing sounds. Then she will show off for me how well she can crawl. After a minute she will announce that she just learned to walk. It drives her dad a bit crazy, but, having worked as a counsellor for several years, I know all too well what is fueling this “regression”. The simple truth is this: change is scary.

We, as adults, might think of all of the changes she is facing as progress, and rather exciting progress at that. We applaud each time she masters a new task and tell her what a big girl she is. But toddlers are no different than we are as adults. Change makes us all a bit nervous. Adults, as a general rule, do not do change well. Think back to the last time you decided to lose weight, or quit your job, or eat healthier, or quit smoking. If you are like most people, before you actually attempted any of those things, you likely spent a good chunk of time in ambivalence; that lovely place where part of you wants to change and the other part is decidedly not as excited by the whole prospect. So instead of changing, we hem, we haw, and we list three good reasons not to change. Then after months or even years of this hemming and hawing, we decide we’re really going to do it this time. And we do it!  We’re off and running for a few months until we mess up or drift back into old habits.

When I think of how many changes my daughter has experienced in the last few months, it’s no wonder she wants to re-visit being a baby. In the last month alone we weaned her, as gently as possible (it did not turn out to be very gentle), from nursing and her bottles. A few short months ago she started big girl swimming lessons where mommy doesn’t go into the pool with her, but instead watches from the sidelines. We’ve been talking to her about getting her a big girl bed; which will mean that instead of sitting quietly in her room with her until she falls asleep, she will go to sleep on her own. Then we told her that she would be going to a big girl pre-school in the fall, which will mean that daddy won’t be there with her. When I think about it, being a big girl doesn’t sound exciting at all! All of it seems to involve letting go of something that makes her feel secure. Of course it’s scary. Of course she wants to regress back to being a baby where mommy and daddy were always there with her.

But there is also that part of her that wants to take the risk of growing. It is that part that I see at her swimming lessons: once her little hand leaves mine and she takes those first few steps into the water towards her teacher, I no longer exist. I see her joyous smile after she emerges from dunking under the water after slipping. I hear her tell this story with pride over and over, “At swimming lessons I dunked my whole body in the water when I slipped!” It is that part of her that I see at the playground when she climbs up a tricky ladder, slips, and then catches herself. “I’m okay mommy. I caught myself!”

It is a delicate balance, as a parent, to honour both of these parts. Our own fears can invite us to pay too much attention to her fears and insecurities and stifle the part that wants to take a risk. On the flip side our own impatience can invite us to stifle those valid fears and push the change before the child is ready. What has helped to remind me to be more compassionate to her ambivalence, is to draw on my own experiences of ambivalence and the process I went through to overcome my own fears.  I try to live the mantra “Be what you say.” If I want my daughter to have the courage to take risks and overcome her own fears and ambivalence, well then I better darn well be able to do it myself. Hence my other motto, “Do something that scares the shit out of you on a fairly regular basis”.

My favourite example was a 20-day canoe trip on the Clearwater River in Northern Saskatchewan as part of a guiding course. River canoeing was thrilling, but very dangerous. People die canoeing rivers all the time. To paddle a river safely takes skill, skill I did not have confidence that I even possessed. On this trip we were learning to be guides. The river we were paddling was a class two river, while we would only be certified to lead a class one, which was much less dangerous.

It was near the middle of our trip that it was my turn to be the guide. I had been dreading it. My experiences of guiding our hiking trips thus far had not gone smoothly, apart from the meals I prepared. That morning, as got everyone up, I tried to portray an air of confidence.  But in reality I was filled with anxiety.  I felt completely incompetent. This trip was supposed to be as traditional as possible, no fancy stoves or freeze-dried food. That day, of course, it snowed. Starting a fire to cook breakfast for our group of 20 was a nightmare. It was not a good start to the day.

My co-guide for our paddle that day was my friend Vicki. She took the stern of the canoe, and I was in the bow. The role of the person in the bow was to follow the orders of the person in the stern. When we came upon a set of rapids, we instructed the group to paddle to the shore so that we could plan our line down the rapids. The goal was to avoid tipping at all costs. The water was very cold and there was a real risk of hypothermia. To paddle the rapids safely we needed to plan how to paddle the rapids, what strokes to use and when to use them. Vicki and I made the plan and instructed the group on how to navigate the rapids. Each canoe made it through following our directions. I felt a small burst of pride – our plan worked! Finally, it was our turn. Everything was going well until Vicki misunderstood the signals from our instructors. Instead of slowly paddling backwards, which everyone had done successfully, she changed her instructions and yelled at me to paddle forwards at full speed. I could hear the panic in her voice. I knew it was not the right call, not what we had planned, but my job was to obey. “Paddle harder!” I heard her yell. I felt helpless to do anything but obey her. We struck a rock and the canoe slowly overturned. I felt the icy October water hit my body. Then I did what I was trained to do. I rescued the canoe and started swimming to shore with it. My instructor had to yell at me three times to let go of it and just get to shore. Once there everything went into full alert. I had to get out of my wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. Someone had to find me dry clothes as my pack was in the water. Someone else had to start a fire. I could tell that Julian, one of the instructors, was worried. I felt like a complete idiot.

That night I made dinner for the group. Dinner was usually my strong point. That night, however, I ran out of food before everyone had eaten. I scrambled to make another meal, knowing that people were cold and hungry. Once I had served everyone, Julian noticed that I wasn’t eating. I told him that I wasn’t hungry. He asked me if I was the type of person who didn’t eat when I got stressed out. I said yes. He gently told me to eat. I listened. Later that night I walked as far away from everyone as I could. I cried and cried. The day I was supposed to prove myself was a disaster. Everything had gone wrong. At least, I thought to myself, the next day I would go back to being a follower and not a leader. Tomorrow would be better.

When I woke up the next morning I was told that we were staying there for the whole day. When I asked why I was told that we were staying because they recognized that I was scared shitless. We were going to spend the day going down the same rapids over and over again until I regained my confidence. My heart sank. If there was one thing I did not want to do, it was go down those rapids again. I heard later that when I got into the canoe with Pat, our other instructor, my face was white with fear. What I remember most about that day was Pat’s determined gentleness. He knew I was scared to death, but he also knew that I could do this. He never sounded discouraged, or impatient, or frustrated. He showed me that even paddling in the bow, I had more control than I thought I had had. We paddled down those rapids together over a dozen times. The last time we went down we did it with me in the stern, barreling right down the middle at full speed through the waves and filling the canoe with water. I was calm and breathless from joyous laughter.

Later that evening, I found myself bawling again. But this time I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t from despair. I was surrounded by people and felt a strange mixture of joy, sorrow, love, relief and gratitude. They had seen me. They had really seen me. They saw my fear and my courage and they had honoured both. They didn’t berate me for being afraid, but didn’t support me in that fear either. They supported me through my fear with compassion and a belief in my abilities. I will never, ever forget that.

That is the memory that I hold on to when I see my daughter struggle with her own ambivalence. I see my daughter. I see her fear and her courage and I honour both. I have compassion for her fear. I honour it by comforting her and holding her close to me. I tell her that I know that feeling discouraged and disappointed and sad feels yucky. I tell her that I am here for her. I tell her that she’s my little baby. But I also honour her courage and her desire to grow. I gently push her towards her goals and clap with pride when she tells me “I did it mommy! I did it all by myself!” I say “Of course you are!” when she reminds me that she is not a baby or a little girl, but a big girl now. I want her to feel seen. I want her to know that I love and accept and honour all of who she is, her fears and her insecurities as well as her courage and abilities and strength. I want to see her barreling down her own rapids, breathless with joyous laughter.

 

How to Mess Up the Weekend with your Toddler in 5 Easy Steps

As a full-time working parent, to say that I look forward to spending the weekend with Maya, who will be three in a week, is a massive understatement. I cherish the time I get to spend with her. Saturdays are special time just for Maya and me, so that Dad, who stays home with her during the week, can finally get some work done. Sundays are our family days. This past weekend, however, it was special time with Maya all weekend long. I should have realized, from experience, that it is not wise to place high expectations on things that are likely to fall far short, things like an entire weekend with your toddler. In hindsight, there were several things that I did that messed up my weekend. You can learn them too! Here they are, in five easy steps.  

1. Have ridiculously high expectations

It is difficult not to do this. I cannot help but look forward to the weekend and envision everything going perfectly well: a perfectly behaved child who listens and immediately complies with all commands and requests; a child who asks for nothing, but when given something remembers to say thank you; a child who is gracious and humble; and most importantly a child who gives me random hugs whilst telling me she loves me. We walk hand in hand, skipping along through the day like Mary Poppins. The sun shines a little brighter for us. Flowers bloom as we walk by. Birds and small animals come right up to us to say hello. That was my hope. I forgot to factor in two important things, however. One, she had just gotten over a fever a few days previous, and two, she was, after all, a toddler. High expectations are just a recipe for tears and disappointment.  

2. Go to places where they will legitimately expect treats, and then deprive them

As per Maya’s request, on Saturday we went to the Vancouver Aquarium. After perusing the fish on the upper floor, we went to where the real action is, the play area at the bottom, where Maya can take a large stuffed seal and pretend to nurse it back to health. After about an hour of this I dragged her away so that we could go outside. It was the first sunny day we had had in days and I wanted to take advantage of it. Being a weekend parent means that I am not as familiar with schedules as I should be. This is coupled with the fact that I have an organization deficit. If I remember to eat during the day it is a small miracle. I often come home from work ravenous and irritable, having forgotten that bodies and minds need sustenance to function properly. When I was the full-time parent, I was quite proud of myself that Maya and I had made it through a day, properly fed. It was quite an accomplishment. 

But I have not been her full-time parent for almost a year now, and my awareness of her routine has faded. By 11:30 she was starting to get irritable. She was probably starving. I sat her down near the beluga whales and took out the snacks that Dave had prepared. I forgot, of course, that the last two or three times we had been there she had had a slice of cheese pizza. And a juice. What did I have with me? Water and slices of cheese, apple, and ham.

Maya has amazing recall for an almost three-year-old, and remembers every single pattern of behaviour. These become her routines. If we deviate from these routines, she will protest. Loudly. “Mommy I want cheese pizza and a juice!” “Maya, mommy brought nice snacks that Daddy made us. Look we have cheese slices! And ham! You love ham!” I reply. She ups the volume. “Mommy I want cheese pizza and a juice!!!!” After several minutes of this, with the pitch of her whines getting higher by the second, I try the scolding tactic. “Maya we are not having pizza and juice. Now I want you to stop this or we’ll just go home right now.” This was followed by howls of despair. When your toddler is having a mini meltdown in public, it really is difficult to ignore the fact that people are watching you. If you don’t calm your child down immediately, you can hear the judgment “Look at her! She doesn’t even know how to be a parent. If that were my child well let me tell you…”

I ignored the real or perceived judgment and took her in my arms. I used the tactic that works best with me. A calm voice and a dash of creativity. “Look Maya!” I said excitedly, “I bet those seagulls over there would love your ham and cheese snack! Why don’t you show them how good it is?” And she calmed down and started eating her ham and cheese, while the seagulls watched from a distance. I was quite pleased with myself. Which leads me to step number three.

3. Ensure your toddler returns home wounded

Just as Maya was happily enjoying her snack and wondering when we would give the seagull some of her cheese, a gull took flight and flew right towards her. I stared at it in shock as it swooped right in front of Maya and tried to take the cheese right out of her hand, biting her finger in the process. I was so shocked that I barely reacted, except to say, “Maya watch out!” which was completely and utterly useless. It was another parent who had the sense to shoo the gull away. Maya, of course, burst into tears, with the cheese still in her hand. I did my best to comfort her, but I knew, immediately, that I had lost. I had lost all credibility as a person who could make things better. If anything I was the one who invited the gull to attack her for her cheese snack in the first place.

I took her into the line for the cheese pizza. The only battle I won was that she settled for water instead of juice. Wound or no wound, I wasn’t paying $4.00 for a juice for the love of god. I asked an employee if they had some kind of bacterial wipe or handwash. The gull had broken the skin. I was pretty sure that gulls beaks were teeming with all kinds of exotic bacteria that were now making their way into my child’s bloodstream. I may have made it sound worse than it was. Two first aid attendants rushed over with a gigantic first aid kit. Seeing that there was no blood, they got on the walkie-talkie, “It’s not a Code Two, just a Code One.” One sighed, with relief or disappointment I couldn’t tell. But in between bites of her cheese pizza Maya got two bandaids and a sticker. I wondered if they had a sticker for “worst parent ever.”

4. Only visit playgrounds where no one will play with your toddler, no matter how cute she is

The next day I couldn’t decide what we should do. It was going to be a beautiful day and I wanted to go to the beach. I had hoped to go to Crescent Beach, where I had spent my summers growing up, but we had quite a late start to the day and it was a long drive. We settled on a beach closer to home that had a playground. Maya LOVES playgrounds. I love watching her interact with other kids. Her eyes light up when other kids play with her and she smiles the most wonderful smile that is reserved for the pleasure she gets from playing with new friends. Knowing she will be an only child, watching her can be an emotional experience for me. I am always so happy when other kids play with her.

But this time, no matter how hard she tried, the other kids ignored her. It didn’t help that she tries to play with kids a bit older than her, or that all of the kids seemed to come to the playground in pairs, not needing or wanting a third. I watched with distress as Maya’s attempts to join in the play were rejected. She is so good-natured that she kept following these kids, scampering after them, saying “I’m coming!” so that she could go down the slide with them, never noticing that they weren’t really interested. For whatever reason, that day, watching her broke my heart. I felt like weeping. I am weeping now as I write about it, and wept earlier today as I told a male colleague about it. He was mortified that my tears just kept coming. I couldn’t stop them.

I struck up a conversation with one of the moms of the child that Maya was following and lost sight of her. I peaked around the corner to where the stairs were, and saw her. Her mouth was open in a silent cry. I ran towards her and saw an indent in her forehead. Within seconds it grew into a terrible, giant lump. It made me wince just looking at it. As I held her and walked to the bench, one of the dads told me that she has slipped on the metal steps. It looked like she hadn’t even the time to brace herself. I held her and did my best to soothe her. She cried and cried. But, being a toddler, within a few minutes she was fine and wanted to go back and play. Luckily all of the older kids, that I now wanted to throttle, had left. There was a little girl with her mom. Maya went right up to her, and she looked up adoringly at Maya. Maya took her hand and led her to the slide and we all went down together.

It finally looked as I might have turned the corner on the weekend, but no! Any semblance of redemption was eliminated by the fifth and final step.

5. Make sure your toddler does not nap under any circumstances 

We have been experimenting with Maya and her nap schedule. There was a period of time where she wasn’t going to bed until 9:30 or 10:00 at night. I would put her to bed, then walk from her room to mine and go right to sleep. No time to myself. It was intolerable. That is when Dave and I had “the talk.” His eyes widened in horror when I told him we should take away Maya’s afternoon naps. “I’m not ready for that yet!” he exclaimed.

So we experimented. The days she didn’t nap she went to bed at around 7:30 and wasn’t all that grumpy. But there were some days where she still needed it. Desperately. Saturday was one of those days. Of course because we were out for the entire day doing fun things, napping was not part of the schedule. We had recovered from the seagull incident and had relocated to Second Beach, with the best playground in the city. There were lots of kids there, and Maya found friends easily.

On the way home, Maya fell asleep in the car. I had asked Dave to meet us at the shops so that we could pick up a few things. I figured he could use a nice walk. He found us in the parking lot and got into the car. Maya woke up. She was not happy to see her daddy. She screamed the entire way home. She screamed and thrashed when I got her out of the car. She screamed when we got into the house. She wanted juice. Dave brought it to her and she almost kicked it out of his hands. She screamed for juice again, and again thrashed wildly when he tried to give it to her. She struggled to get out of my arms but then screamed if I wasn’t holding on to her.

Normally, in situations like this, I would use my super powers and have the situation immediately under control: super powers being my boobs (see Bye Bye Num Nums for a more detailed description). But my super boobs were out of commission. Dave and Maya had gone to Ontario for 10 days and when they returned, I had tried, as gently as possible, to let Maya know that mommy didn’t have num nums anymore. That first night she arrived home was terrible. After a long day of flying and time zone changes, she settled into my arms all set to nurse. I tried to remind her that mommies don’t have num nums forever, and she wailed in reply, “I don’t want to be a big girl mommy!” After several minutes of her hysterically trying to withdraw my boob from my bra, we both sat in the big chair in her room and cried. She finally fell asleep with me stroking her hair saying, “You’ll always be my baby sweetie pie. Mommy will always be here. You’ll always be mommy’s baby.” The next morning she protested slightly, and that was it.

But that Saturday, I would have given anything for those super powers. I had never seen her like this, completely unable to calm down. I was at a loss. Then I remembered how terrible it is to have feelings like these that are completely out of control. I had felt like that before. It was an awful experience. I felt a deep sense of compassion for how horrible she must feel. I contained her thrashing as best I could and cooed to her “I know it’s really hard to have these yucky feelings sweetie. It’s really hard to feel all of these yucky feelings. I know. Mommy is here and we’ll just wait for all of these yucky feelings to go away. I know it’s hard sweetie. We’ll just wait.” This seemed to do the trick. She quieted down and eventually drank some juice. Then she was back to my loving child. Sundays “no nap tantrum” was thwarted by the arrival of my friend Jeremy, who Maya adores, particularly because he drives the same Triumph Bonneville as her Uncle Jason.

As I took the sea bus to work this morning, I couldn’t figure out why I was in such a terrible mood. It was a gorgeous sunny day. Flowers are blooming while the rest of the country is under a thick blanket of snow. I should feel good. But I felt miserable. It was when I started weeping while talking to my mortified colleague about the playground rejection incident that it hit me. The weekend I had so looked forward to wasn’t perfect. There were some terrible moments in there, moments where I felt like a failure as a parent. There were moments that were heart wrenching. I know that part of it is that I’m not there for her the majority of the time. I need to grieve those bad moments. Because when I do, when I look at these moments with compassion, the magical moments appear. As we were driving home Sunday, after a weekend of emotional highs and lows, a part of my dream weekend did come true. Maya said to me, out of the blue, from her car seat in the back, “Mommy I really love you.” I really love you too Maya.

Surviving an Attack of Working Mom Guilt

Yesterday as Dave and Maya and I were having dinner, Dave told me that Maya had said this to him on their way to pick me up at the sea bus. “Daddy I don’t want Mommy to be a lawyer. I want Mommy to be a Mommy.” All of the good feelings I had built up while writing my last two posts about successfully challenging the guilt of being a working mom came crashing down. Thud. Heart starts breaking. “No!!!” I said and covered my face with my hands. Dave shook his head. “I shouldn’t have told you. I knew it.” Maya looked at me “Are you crying mommy?” “A little it.” I peer at her between my hands. She smiles. “Cry mommy!” she says with glee. She is laughing. “You little scampy scamp!” And the moment passes.

That night, as I helped her get ready for bed, my love for her felt like it was going to leap out of my chest. I desperately wanted her to know how much I love her. The tinge of desperation in that desire was reminiscent of me as young woman and the agony I felt when I would fall crazily in love with a man and frantically want him to know how I felt. It should not have come as a surprise that the most common reaction was for him to run, quickly, and as far away as possible. Thinking about it now makes me cringe. Desperation is really not my most attractive quality. Understandably so. So I reined it in. Maya and I had several tickle fights and read some Christmas books together and I MAINTAINED CALM within myself.

This morning I felt a familiar dark weight in my heart as I thought of those words, “I want mommy to be a mommy.” In my past that darkness could be, and often was, invasive. It would take weeks out of my life with its suffocating presence. It reminds me of when I visited Australia and a guide on one of the excursions I went on described the introduction of a new species of toad to Australia. Cane toads were brought from South America to Australia for the sole purpose of ridding the sugar cane they were trying to grow of a particularly destructive bug. What seemed like an easy fix, however, turned out to be a disaster. The bugs and the toads didn’t share the same sleep cycle; when the toads were awake the bugs were asleep. They didn’t share the same habitat either. The bugs lived on top of the sugar cane and the toads lived on the ground. The toads were very poisonous, but the animals, not having experience with these particular toads, ate them and died. The toads, having no natural enemies, proliferated, and are now threatening to destroy the entire ecosystem. So it is with this darkness. Originally I’m sure it had a valid purpose. A cue, a warning that there was some loss or sadness that I should pay attention to. But like the cane toads, it had no enemies, nothing to limit its growth. Left unchecked, each day it would grow just a tiny imperceptible bit until suddenly I would be paralyzed by its murky weight.

I am well aware of the toll that darkness can take if I allow it. It can take weeks, months to climb out of that hole once one has fallen in. I used to be terribly judgmental of that woman who allowed herself to be sucked into that hole over and over again. I judged her mercilessly, that dark and angry girl who held all of my sorrows. I hated her. I wanted her imprisoned, locked up in a cold, black place with her misery and her pain. It took me a long time to be have the strength and courage to face her. To look into her angry eyes, unafraid, and give her permission to release all of her grief and rage and to love her anyway. It was me that had locked her there, left her there alone with her pain. No wonder she was angry.

Now, when I feel that tinge of heaviness in my heart head, I know that I must face it head on. But I take more of a Buddhist (my version anyway) approach to it now. I name that weight. It is grief. I give it permission to wail all of its sorrows. “This isn’t fair! I don’t want to work anymore. Why are we so poor? Why do I have to work? This is too hard! Maya will hate me. She will think that I have betrayed her. She will think I don’t love her. She will feel abandoned by me. She will love Dave better.” I listen, but not with judgment, which only made the weight in my heart dig its claws in deeper in defiance. Instead I listen from a position of curiosity and compassion. As I listen, there is a part of myself who notices, “So this is what I do when I feel grief and guilt about working. I think this. I feel this. How old is this part of me? Quite young. Interesting.” And there is a part that observes all that is being released with compassion, what I would feel if a small child was in pain. You love them even though you can’t take the pain away. And then, I move on.

I have found that this stance of curiosity and compassion is the best way to melt the heaviness, lessen the guilt, and get on with my day, as I must. I have found that as I nurture compassion within myself, I feel more compassion for others. I laugh more. I don’t take life as seriously. My mantra is one that I learned from a speaker at a conference I attended. His name is John Briere, a psychologist who specializes in working with people who have been profoundly traumatized from war, torture and abuse. He described humanity and our connectedness like this: “We are all just bozos on the same bus.” His humour and irreverence were endearing. My favourite line at this conference, however, was when he was explaining to a room full of “experts”, mostly doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, how important it was to have compassion and not judgment for their patients. He said “If you had lived through the same experiences that these people have, you would be sucking that guy’s cock too.” I loved that. Years later he came out as a practicing Buddhist. His brand of irreverent compassion is what I try to emulate.

Now, I feel back to myself again. All of the empowering messages I wrote about in my last two posts come flooding back, and I am calm, resolved and knowing that it is Friday and I have two full days with Maya. And that is something to be grateful for.