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.

 

My Top 3 Not So Easy Steps to Raising a Daughter

When I was an angst-filled teen I remember a family member saying to my mother “It’s so much easier raising boys. I’d rather raise 10 boys than 1 girl.” I recall feeling rage, initially, which morphed into a kind of shocked surprise. I had no idea that girls, as a group, had a reputation for being difficult. I thought it was just me! Perhaps I wasn’t as alone as I had felt after all. Looking back on those cringe-worthy teen years, I suppose it was not surprising that one might think raising me was a tad more difficult than raising my brother. I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to meet up with boys, got sent home from a junior high dance for being completely drunk, and so on and so on. When my parents suggested I should see a psychologist for my bizarre behaviour, I informed them indignantly that I was completely normal, which would be proven when my little brother started rebelling in the same way when he got to be my age (I think it was 14). Unfortunately, my hypothesis was flawed. My brother was a perfect child who grew into a perfect teen. He never got into trouble. Not once. (He may dispute that). So much for that!

When I discovered that I was pregnant four years ago, I knew that the little bean growing inside me was going to be a girl. She had to be. All of the first born children in my complicated family tree have been women. I was right. Now I have my own daughter (which still seems surreal). Dave, my partner in crime, is already preparing for her tumultuous teen years by practicing the line, “Go ask your mother.” Having worked with troubled teens for several years, I am well aware that many young women struggle at the age that I did, 13 or 14 (or in my case from 13-21). It seems to be a well-known phenomenon. Being one who handles anxiety by being as prepared as possible, I have developed a list. It mostly represents a blind hope that something I do now can help to inoculate her from the misery of being a teenage girl. Or at least make it slightly more bearable.

1. Encourage mastery

Mastery, in my experience, involves two things that are equally scary; failure and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Some of the most important learning I have experienced, however, is when I was nudged out of my comfort zone. Even (maybe especially) as an adult, I think it is important for us to do things that scare the crap out of us. It helps us discover that we’re made of stronger stuff than we had thought, that we can master more than we thought possible.

I remember one moment distinctly when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I had been taking piano lessons since I was 5 and had been asked to play in front of the whole school. I had agreed without comprehending how terrifying it would actually be. I stood backstage waiting for my turn. I could feel my whole body shaking with anxiety. “What if I screwed up? Everyone would laugh. It would be the worst thing in the whole world. I can’t do it.” As those paralyzing thoughts were going through my head, I experienced something completely extraordinary. I can only describe it as another part of me appearing from within, rising up through my body and becoming me. This part was totally calm and confident. She knew, without a shred of doubt, that I would play beautifully. My body stopped shaking. I became totally focused, like I imagine athletes are right before the shot of the starting gun. I walked to the piano with confidence and I did play beautifully.

That part of me may never have appeared had I not needed her to help me navigate something new and scary. She has come to my rescue many times since and is the source of much of my confidence. As a result I encourage my 3 year-old daughter to try new things and to take risks (within limits of course). I do my best to encourage curiosity by providing opportunities to explore the world around us. Walks in the forest are adventures where anything can happen. At the playground I let her climb things that the worried part of me thinks might be too high. When she falls I hold her and soothe her, and when she’s ready, I encourage her to try again. I am there to offer small, barely perceptible assistance when she needs it, but not more; what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development”. The look on her face when she has mastered something difficult, all by herself, makes my heart soar.

2. Encourage generosity and gratitude

In a world that seems to be ever more focused on consumption, generosity seems old fashioned, like hand-written letters. I admit that I am not immune from its seductive power. Maya is an only child and I like to spoil her by buying her things. Part of it is likely guilt from working full-time. I want her to know how much I think about her when I’m not there. I tell myself that spoiling her now is inconsequential, as she won’t remember any of it, but the truth is that I am creating a set of expectations that will be difficult to break. Consumerism reminds me of addiction. It fills people’s feelings of emptiness, but it is a temporary fix. The good feelings that come from new things are illusory. There is no substance to them. I remember reading a study about people who were chronically depressed, helpless and hopeless. What turned their lives around was not consuming. It was giving; giving of their time to their communities. It gave them a sense of purpose, that what they did mattered. Their emptiness was filled up with something real, solid and lasting; generosity and compassion, which in turn led to self-confidence and a feeling of being connected to the world around them.

A definition of generosity that really challenged me was to be given something you coveted and to then immediately, with an open heart, give it away. I wondered if I was even capable of that kind of giving. There were possessions I had that I treasured and couldn’t imagine giving away, let alone with an open heart. So I decided to experiment with this. I had dolls that my grandmother had given me. She had died several years before and they were the only things I had left from her. The thought of something happening to them filled me with grief, as if I was experiencing her loss all over again. But the dolls were not her. If they all burned in a fire I would still have her memories, would still feel her love. I decided to give one of them to a friend of mine who would take good care of it. That act of giving was very powerful.

Giving invariable leads to feelings of profound gratitude from recognizing just how much we are given. I have often found that in encouraging myself to feel gratitude, to really feel it right into my bones, is the best antidote to depression. It opens my heart, helps me to understand how connected I am to the world around me, how much I am loved.

Even though Maya is not yet 3, and in the “mine!” stage, I try to encourage generosity. I try to involve her in daily routines like cooking and cleaning to show that we are a giving, helpful family. We put together care packages of her old clothes, books and toys and talk about how we are going to give them to the new baby and how happy the new baby will be to receive all of her things. Weeks later she will talk about how the new baby will be “sooooo happy” to have all of Maya’s clothes.

At Christmas Maya helped me wrap presents for my aunt’s mother, Old Gran. We talked about how much we hoped Old Gran would like them and how happy she would be to receive this gift from her. Maya was so excited to give her these presents. Every twenty minutes or so during dinner she would get down from her chair, walk to the Christmas tree, take them from under the tree and bring them to her. “We have presents for you Old Gran!” she would exclaim excitedly and with a huge smile. Even though she likes presents, I have yet to see that huge a smile on her face when she opens them.

Even mundane acts of generosity are important to acknowledge. During our dinners together I will make a point of thanking Dave (when I remember) for making us such a delicious dinner. Now Maya on her own will often say “Thank you Daddy (or Mommy) for making such a delicious dinner! It’s so yummy!” Of course it’s a daily commitment; she still demands things with a furious look on her face (I want JUICE!!!), we still have crying fits when she doesn’t get what she wants, and when she has opened her last present at Christmas or on her birthday she be disappointed that there aren’t more (“Are there more presents?”). It is a work in progress.

3. Encourage wisdom

Looking back on my youth I often marvel at the fact that I survived. I got myself into so many messes that it is truly by the grace of god that I made it through adolescence relatively unscathed. Since Maya has been born I have wondered, often, what I can do to help her through her own messes. How will I help her know who to trust and who not to? How do I help her embrace life to the fullest, but with awareness that there are people out there who may want to hurt her? The only thing I have been able to come up with is helping her to trust and honour her own wisdom.

One of the most difficult lessons in my own life has been to acknowledge and value my wisdom. There have been countless times where I have experienced intuition or a gut feeling and ignored it to my peril. In the aftermath I would wonder, “Why I had ignored my own knowing?” It has been a long process filled with successes and failures to learn to first recognize my knowing, and second, to give voice to it. I grew up in a time where children were supposed to be seen but not heard, although this was changing. The unfortunate consequence of that is that a child’s fledgling knowledge about themselves and the world around them is also silenced. It is in that silence that terrible things can happen.

When I was in grade 4 my science teacher, Mr. Alan, was overly friendly with the little boys in the class. He constantly brought them up to the front of the class and put his hand up their shirts to pat their backs, and patted them on the bum. He never called on the girls, despite me having my hand up to answer every question. I remember thinking that the way he touched those boys was not right. No other teacher did that. But instead of trusting that knowing and speaking out, I decided that my unease must be wrong. My mom and dad touched me like that and they are adults, Mr Alan is an adult, so it must be okay. My mother remembers me telling her that Mr. Alan didn’t like girls. I wonder if she had been curious about that statement, if she had asked me more about it, if he would have been caught sooner. One day when I arrived at school we were told that Mr. Alan was no longer a teacher, but not why.

I know that standing up and giving voice to one’s intuition is a scary prospect. It makes you vulnerable, the lone deer in a crowd of wolves. There is a reason that people don’t do it, that they conform to the silence. It takes courage to speak up, particularly when all you are relying on is the little voice inside your head or that feeling in your gut that is telling you that something is not right. I want to help Maya develop the courage it will take for her to trust and give voice to her own wisdom. I have already shut her down once, out of embarrassment. It was at the Christmas dinner at my cousin’s house. Their two boys are older than Maya and weren’t particularly excited to play with her. Dave and I spent a good chunk of the evening trying to lure her away from them and their toys that they didn’t want her wrecking.

At the end of the evening, when we were at the door getting our shoes and coats on to leave, Maya looked at my cousin Matt and his wife Tracey and said, calm as can be, “I don’t really like Matt and Tracy.” I was mortified. I told her sharply that she was being silly and to please stop it. She repeated herself, more forcefully. Tracy, bless her heart, said “If that’s how you feel Maya I think you should just go for it.” I could feel the discomfort, and heard Tracy’s dad jokingly tell Maya, who was 2 1/2, “that’s my daughter I’ll have you know!” I suspect he was only half joking. I just wanted Maya to be quiet. Instead, she used a version of a line I had used to try and explain why some kids won’t play with her. I would say to her “Some kids are friendly Maya and some kids aren’t. That’s just how it is.” Still calm, Maya held up her hands in an “I can’t figure it out” posture, and said to Tracy “Some people you like and some people you don’t.” And on that note, we left.

What bothered me later wasn’t the fact that she expressed herself, I was sure it was directed more at the boys, but the fact that I had done my best to silence her, purely out of embarrassment. I never did ask her more about it.

Since then I have made a conscious effort to ask more questions and to coax out her own knowledge into the open. When she asks her million “why” questions, I more often than not respond with “why do you think?” I encourage her to tell me stories, instead of me telling stories to her. I am trying to refrain from offering my opinions on her accomplishments, and instead invite her to explore her own opinions. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

I’m sure that as I ponder this question of raising a daughter more steps will come to mind. What are your thoughts? Your experiences? What have I missed?

The Ambivalence of a Working Mom

Today I missed one of my most favourite moments of the day. For Dave, it is likely the moment that morning cup of coffee meets his waiting lips… but for me it is the moment that I go to wake Maya up. Dave and I have had our morning coffee and I’m awake and ready for the day. I go into Maya’s dark room and whisper “Good morning Maya. Good morning sweetie pie.” I reach over her crib and rub her back. Eventually she turns over and I will unzip her sleep sack. She helps me to pull one arm through the armhole, then puts Pinky Bear in the other hand to get the other arm out. All of this is done without a word. Then I pick her up and she wraps her arms and legs around me. This is the moment. I feel her little legs around my hips and feel her sleepy head nestled on my shoulder. As I carry her into the living room I breathe in her little girl smell and savour the experience of holding her in the sleepy silence of early morning. I whisper to her “That’s my big girl” as we walk into the living room to say good morning to Daddy. Until quite recently I used to be able to croon “That’s my little baby” but now even in that sleepiness she will remind me by mumbling into my hair “I”m not a little baby anymore mommy!”

I missed this most treasured of morning rituals because I had to work early, so as per my “dreaded commute” post,  I took the dreaded bus. The night before I tried to explain to Maya that mommy wouldn’t be there in the morning, but I could tell that she wasn’t listening. She was focused on her mission to avoid going to bed at all costs. While she was waking up, I was likely standing in the cold, dark morning, waiting for the bus.

About an hour after I arrived at work I received a text from Dave telling me that Maya was not at all happy to wake up and discover me gone. My heart sank. I pictured her crying “I want my mommy! I want my mommy!” and the ambivalence I feel about being a working mom hit me with its fullest force. I usually ignore it, avoid looking at its sad little face because the reality is that I have no choice. Unless I suddenly win the lottery (I very occasionally will buy a ticket despite my cousin Gavin’s warning that lotteries are taxes for people who are bad at math), this is my life.

It was simple math that made the decision for Dave and I about who would need to work full time. If we wanted to move back to Vancouver, and we both did, it came down to two choices. Either I would work full time, or we would both work full time. It seemed ridiculous for Dave to go to work full time just to use that money to pay a stranger to take care of our child. We decided that one of us would stay at home with Maya. As Dave was the only one who could do some work from home, there was no stay at home mom option. Dave is the stay at home Dad. Not a role, I can safely say, that he ever imagined himself in. And not a common role either, it seems, at least in the neighbourhood we live in. He is the only Dad at the parent participation pre-school, the only dad at ballet lessons (also parent participation to Dave’s chagrin).

I, on the other hand, have joined the ranks of the dads. On the weekends when I would take Maya to parent/tot swimming lessons (before she joined the big girl class), I would have the opposite experience. I was almost always the only mom in a rather large class. I thought maybe the dads were all weekend-access divorced dads, but no. Their wives were waiting for them after class.

Full time work as a mom has been a tough transition for me. When Maya was born, I was just finishing my first year of law and was working full time. Because of that, I was able to take a year off work (thank you Canadian socialism), be paid half my salary (by said socialist government) and go back to school full time in the fall. Full time school, however, is not full time work. I was able to work my schedule to be home at least 2 days a week, sometimes 3.

But once school was done, I knew the real world was waiting. The transition was not easy. When Maya and Dave would drop me off at the sea bus Maya would glare at me in silence and not give me a kiss good-bye. When I left the car I would hear her wailing as Dave drove off. When they picked me up she would cry and whine and Dave would say “Maya you’ve been good all day why are you doing this?” I knew why. How do you explain to a 2 year old that mommy has to work?

In our process of making sense of this,  one conversation stands out in particular. One weekend we were driving together and she started talking about feeling sad. It came out of the blue and I guessed that it might have something to do with me being gone all day. I said to her “Mommy feels really sad when she leaves you and goes to work Maya. Mommy misses you all day. I”m so happy to see you when I get home.” I could hear her in the back repeating this to me and talking to herself. As weird as it sounds, it felt like we made a connection from that conversation. The tears at drop offs stopped.

Our current routine is that I must kiss and hug her, then Pinky Bear, with instructions to “Take good care of my Maya when I’m gone and give her hugs if she is sad please Pinky Bear”, and then Daddy.

I realized today that I have been so focused on helping Maya through her 2 year old grief, I haven’t acknowledged my own. Today, it hit, with full awareness that the job I am doing now still isn’t the real world. I will be going into a career where workaholism is considered a necessary mindset. It was a tough day.

But when I got off the sea bus and into the waiting car all was well. Maya ordered me to turn the music up on the CD “Mommy I want this louder!” (Black Betty by Ram Jam) and told me about her ballet lesson with Madame and Miss Brittany. When we got home we played together and it warmed my heart.

While we were having dinner she said to me “Mommy if I go to work with you and you get a little bit sad or angry I will give you a hug and that will make you feel better.” And that did make me feel better. Image