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.

 

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Connecting with the Mystery

My theory of the mystery of life has developed from a myriad of sources, which I have pieced together like a mosaic; my version of spirituality I suppose. I read recently that people who define themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” are more prone to depression and anxiety. That makes sense to me. Religion, from what I have observed, provides many people with comfort. If nothing else, religion gives people answers to tough questions. For the really tough questions, the answer is simple; don’t question, have faith.

But for people who have abandoned organized religion, they must answer those questions themselves, create their own meaning of life and death. The really tough questions may remain unanswered, which can be quite disconcerting. The search for those answers can lead to a deep sense of isolation and despair. I remember one moment of despair as I realized how truly alone I was in the world. No one except me would ever really know me; it was impossible.

For those who have the courage to persist through that darkness, however, and discover their own answers, are rewarded with a deep and unshakable sense of connectedness and unity with the world that is beyond description. As I contemplated my loneliness and wept with despair, a simple truth came to me. I am both alone and not alone. It is true that no other human will ever really know me, but I chose to believe that the mystery of this world did, knew everything and accepted me anyway, and this belief was comforting.

I suppose I could have simply accepted religion into my life, as I seem to have come to similar conclusions. There are those who don’t need to take that difficult path to discover their own answers, who are content to simply receive the teachings that that have been passed down for thousands of years. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. I have to do things the hard way. I must find my own answers.

My conclusions about the mystery and magic of life are not well defined, but they all come from trying to understand and make sense of my own life, and my own experiences with that mystery. I have concluded that there are questions that cannot be answered. They are too complex to understand (for my little brain anyway). They require faith.

I decided to take that leap of faith when I was 21 when I determined that my life was intolerable. I allowed myself to believe that this mystery was wiser and more powerful than me, but also, that whatever it was, it was also loving. I felt its compassion and its love for lowly little me, and I surrendered to it. I allowed it to direct my life. I am convinced that it was that experience that was crucial to the transformation I experienced. Through that surrender, the person that I am now was created. I remember telling my friend Pat that when I was a teen I was certain that I would die when I was 21. I had had a dream about it and it was so vivid that I was convinced that my death was imminent. I was positive of it. Knowing my history he looked at me and said “But Julie you did experience a kind of death at 21. You completely transformed.” He was right.

Although I surrendered my life to whatever this mystery is, it doesn’t mean that I don’t, on a regular basis, try to re-assert my will. I think of it as allowing someone else to drive. I have been driving since I was 14 years old, which means that I am a terrible passenger. When I look down the road that we are driving towards I have a tendency to panic and try to take the wheel. “What are you thinking going down THAT path??? We are certainly NOT going down that one!”

This is the panic I feel whenever I get close to my dreams. It is a peculiar type of fear that makes me feel like a small child. When I was young I was quite shy (no one believes this but it is true!). There was a period of time where I hated trying anything new. The thought of walking into a strange room, full of strange people and not knowing what was going on filled me with dread. My parents, being good parents, signed me up for all kinds of classes. At one point it was too much. They had signed me up for a diving class. I refused to go. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Then my Dad did something I will never forget. He offered to take the diving class with me. All my fear drained away. I was in awe of him. My dad would be there. It would be okay.

I had that same feeling when I decided that I was really going to pursue my crazy dream of being a singer. There was a tiny part of me that desperately wanted to do it, but the greater part was completely terrified. I was sure that I had a terrible voice, that I would humiliate myself if I tried. My Dad wasn’t there anymore to hold my hand. It was up to me to face these fears, all by myself.

The pivotal moment was when I went to visit my friend Jeremy, one of my favourite people in the whole world. He is a musician and I often went to his house and listened to him play guitar. I could listen to him play for hours. I had felt for a long time that he and I shared a unique connection, one I had never felt with anyone else. It was like our souls were connected. I decided that I would sing in front of him. I swallowed my terror, grabbed the microphone, and allowed my voice to be heard. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the sound, trying to stay in key and infuse the words with emotion. When I was done Jeremy said, “That was great Julie. You have a great voice.” It was the moment of truth. I could believe him or not. I was the type of person that had a difficult time accepting a compliment, distrusting people’s assessment of my skill or their motives. I decided to trust him; trust that he would not lie to me, would not say this simply to be polite. I believed him.

This simple act had unexpected consequences and led to moments of synchronicity that Julia Cameron described in “The Artist’s Way”. I was working as a social worker for the government at that time. My office was a bizarre mix of personalities. On my first day of work no one knew I was arriving. My new supervisor was away. One of the women helped me find a desk and took me out for coffee, where she explained that the office was full of crazy people, so I was either with her and the sane ones, or with the crazy ones and I had better choose. Pronto. Later that afternoon I was told the same thing by one of the crazy ones. I became friends with one of the few sane people I found, Wendy. She was my refuge and I adored her. That office was the last place I would ever expect an opportunity to sing. But one day Wendy, out of the blue, asked me if I would be interested in singing backup vocals in her band. I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. But I accepted immediately.

I went to audition not long after, and was completely nervous. Here I would discover if Jeremy really had lied to me. I started to sing and quickly looked for any signs of a wince or a cringe on any of their faces. I saw none and started to relax. After the audition they welcomed me to the band. I was ecstatic. We practiced every week and played three shows together. It was the most fun I had ever had. I felt like a little puppy dog who had just been let off the leash; I wanted to sing more and more and more. I was in love with the experience.

But, as has happened before in my life, other things called to me. I had worked as a social worker for two years. It was stressful and often heartbreaking.  A career in child protection social work had an average shelf life of two years. I had just barely passed that mark. My dream career was to be a therapist. I saw myself having my own office,  with beautiful art on the walls, and helping people like I was at 21, helping them as my counsellor had helped me. The problems I would deal with would be manageable. That was the idea anyway.

There was only one program in Canada that offered the kind of graduate degree I was interested in. It was very competitive and only allowed 6 people per year. I applied and was accepted for a series of interviews. I flew to Guelph, Ontario for the interview. They offered me a spot a few months later. I accepted.

Although I was happy about the opportunity to further my career, I was not excited about the move. I had dreamed my whole life of living in Vancouver. After 8 years I still pinched myself, not quite believing I was really living there. I had never even wanted to visit Ontario. As I drove across the country to start a new life in Guelph, I was acutely aware of what I was leaving behind in Vancouver; friends, family, opportunities to sing and to act, and a city I was in love with. All I could do was have faith that I was on the path I was supposed to be on, and if I wasn’t, that I would be able to receive that message. It was a familiar anxiety, wondering if I was on the right path, whether I was listening to the mystery of the world or the sound of my own anxieties. Whatever it was, I was driving towards a new part of my life, having no idea where it would lead, but knowing that it would likely change everything.

Dream a little dream … Mid Life Crisis Part II

Life without dreams, I discovered at a young age, is a particular kind of hell. It is the kind of hell where all meaning is lost. Whether it is day or night has no significance, because they are both intolerable. There is nothing to look forward to, no point to existence. I had lived in that kind of hell in my early adulthood. I had dropped out of university after two tortuous years to work in the “real world” as a restaurant manager.  It didn’t take too many long nights of washing dishes to realize that my life pretty much sucked. I had no idea who I was. No clue what I wanted from life, or significantly, that you could want something out of life. More importantly, however, I didn’t know what life wanted from me. If this was all that life was, working at a moderately crappy job, going from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, than what was the point exactly? Before I would go to sleep I would quietly ask God to please take me back and let me start all over again. Hopefully the next time I wouldn’t be a massive disappointment.

The darkness and despair I felt was a signal, the discomfort meant to propel me to make drastic changes in my life. But change is, frankly, terrifying and I was having none of it. Instead I muddled around in the world, buying all of the self-help books I could find. I was searching for answers, but not too hard, because I was certain that the answers I found would be too difficult to bear. I had no doubt that if I were faced with the truth of myself, who I really was, it would suffocate me with its awfulness. It would choke me with shame.

I stayed in this uncomfortable ambivalence for many years. I was 21 years old, and miserable. Yet another boyfriend I had been madly in love was distancing himself from me. I could feel the desperation growing in me like a wild fire, needing to call him, needing to talk to him, needing him to know how I felt, needing to understand why. I knew that need would drive him away further, but it was fierce. I picked up a book instead, trying to make sense of this pattern of failed relationships. It was called “Leaving the Enchanted Forest” by Stephanie Covington. The only thing I remember is reading one line, and it almost knocking the breath out of me. I don’t remember it word for word, but the message was this: You cannot depend on others for your happiness. Your happiness is yours alone to create.

I had heard this probably millions of time before, but the words had always floated by and never really taken hold. This time, however, it shocked me with its truth. I realized that that was what I had been doing my entire life. I was only really happy if others (specifically a man) loved me. If he didn’t, I was deflated, absent, like all of who I was could escape with a simple exhale. With this appalling truth staring at me in the face, I decided that I would not be this woman any longer. I went to my room and looked at my phone. I knew that I needed help. I picked up the phone and put it down. I was crying with fear. I hung it up a second time. The third, however, was a success. The person who answered calmed me down, and I made an appointment. I was going to change my life.

I threw myself into recovery, determined to be honest above all else. I held nothing back. All of my shame came to the fore, and I realized, with relief, that it wasn’t powerful enough to kill me. With the help of others who witnessed all of it and accepted me anyway, I learned to accept myself. What I noticed, however, in this culture of recovery, is that many people who had been in recovery for years, were not really living. They were stuck in fear, always recovering. In recovery, their dreams came with a disclaimer.

“Please dream with caution as you are powerless and your dreams might be dangerous for your recovery. Don’t get too confident or sure of yourself. Remember. You are powerless over your (name addiction/weakness here).”

I noticed that recovery and survival were enough for many people. But it was not enough for me. I wanted to more. I didn’t want to just survive, I wanted to thrive. I had recovered my spirit and was eager to re-claim and discover who I was as a woman. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in recovery, attending meetings that reminded me of how powerless I was. I felt powerful. I wanted to taste life, to dive into its waters and learn its mysteries. I wanted to dream. I wanted adventure.

I decided to go on a vacation. It was my first real vacation while working as a restaurant manager. I was really excited because I had decided to go to Club Med for one simple reason, I had always wanted to learn to water ski. Growing up in land locked Calgary, Alberta had meant that things like water skiing had been out of my reach. It was a crazy dream I had had since I was little, and I was going to honour it. I picked a Club that had an abundance of water sports: scuba diving, sailing, water skiing. My mother, who has supported me throughout my life, and does still, gave me enough so that I could stay for two weeks. I was so excited.

I arrived in Mexico and threw myself into every activity. I water-skied every single day. I learned to sail. I took tennis lessons. I learned to scuba dive. I danced all night long. I met loads of people. The people who worked there were the friendliest people I had ever met and they came from all over the world. At the end of my first week it dawned on me. These people actually work in this place! This is their JOB. Every morning they wake up to go to work and this is what they see. This is what they do. This is AMAZING.

I realized something. I wanted this life. Just the thought of it felt delicious and dangerous.

When I came home I told my parents that I had made a major life decision. I am positive that they were hoping that I had learned that the “real world” wasn’t so great and I would go back to university where I belonged. When I had dropped out of university a few years before, it was with the promise that I would return. They had informed me, very seriously, that when people drop out of university they never go back. Dropping out of university, would, therefore, be the worst decision I could ever make. It would negatively impact the rest of my life. All of that potential from the brains in my head would be wasted. I dropped out anyway and promised that I would be the exception.

When I told them, instead, that I was going to be a scuba diving instructor and work for Club Med, I was prepared for my dad, especially, to lose it. I wasn’t disappointed. But strangely enough, when the shock wore off, they both supported me. Coincidentally the very first instructor’s course was just starting up in Alberta. If there hadn’t been one, I doubt I would ever have followed through. My parents paid for me to complete my training, which took about 9 months.

In my instructor’s class I found others, like me, who had become disillusioned with life. A few were lawyers.  What we all shared was the desire for something more from life than what we woke up to, day after day. We were all searching for what that something more might be. We all dreamed of waking up to beautiful sunshine and sandy beaches every morning. In the meantime, however, the actual training was brutal. My first open water dive was in a glacier lake outside of Banff, Alberta. The water was so cold we had to keep surfacing to warm up the regulators so they would work properly.

I dove in water that was in the process of freezing while I was in it. It was one of our last dives in Alberta, before we did our exam dives in British Columbia. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, even colder with the wind chill. We were all moving quite slowly, not really believing that our instructor, Don, would actually make us dive in water this freezing. After watching us dawdle for a period of time, Don called us together. Instead of a pep talk, he let us have it. “You people are the biggest whiny children I have ever seen! This is the easiest fucking dive you are ever going to do! Now get off your fucking ass and get in the fucking water!” We all stood frozen in shocked silence. We had never seen him lose control before. He had always been so happy and cheerful, in a used-car dealer kind of way.

I got dressed more quickly, but his reproach did not change the fact that I dreaded getting into that water. The air was so cold that steam was coming off of the water, even though it was at the point of freezing. As grumpy as I was, there was a sliver of hope. I had noticed that Don was almost a bigger wimp than me when it came to the cold.

As soon as I got to the bottom I started inhaling as deeply as I could, practically hyperventilating, so that I could use all of my air quickly and be forced to return to the surface. I didn’t need to. My hunch about Don’s ability to adapt to the cold was correct. He signaled to us to go up to the surface within ten minutes. We crammed into the back of someone’s van, trying to remove frozen solid gloves from fingers that could barely move. I would have glared at Don had I not been so grateful to be out of that water. 

After I passed my exams, and was certified as an instructor, I applied to work at Club Med. They called me within a few weeks. I flew to New York for an interview. A few weeks after that I was on a plane, leaving my life behind and flying to Sonora, Mexico, to work as a scuba diving instructor in Club Med.

I had dreamed a dream that was totally and completely mine. It was not my parent’s dream, not the women’s programmed “get married and have children” dream. This dream was utterly and entirely mine. And I had made it come true, with help of course. For the first time, I was excited by what life held in store for me. I had crawled out of the darkness that was my life for 21 years and emerged transformed by that experience. It was surrendering and connecting to something greater than me that allowed it to happen. I hadn’t defined what that was, hadn’t named it, and had no desire to. I simply felt a loving and compassionate presence in my life. That presence helped me to heal and encouraged me to have the courage to stand up for my life, for my dreams. It helped me believe that anything really was possible. I felt certain that whatever that presence was, it was partly responsible for me being there, on that plane, flying into the unknown possibilities of my life. I was incredibly grateful and excited.

Almost a decade later, at 30, I faced another existential crisis as I faced my own mortality. What helped me through it was recovering my dreams, dreams that were precious to me. One was acting, and the other, singing. I knew, from experience, that the key to recovering meaning in my life was to reach out for my dreams, to start a new adventure. I reached out to the universe to ask for help. Help this crazy rock star dream come true. And just like Julia Cameron warned in her book “The Artist’s Way”, there is a reason that people say “Be careful what you wish/pray for, it might come true.”

Stay tuned for the next installment