When you have a newborn, you start out with a lot of stuff. For one thing, newborns require a lot of stuff, even for a quick trip out of the house. But a main reason you find yourself drowning in a sea of infant doodads is that you don't quite know what they're going to respond to because every baby is different. Even between my two children I found there were items that were crucial for one and inconsequential for the other. By the time my kids were toddlers, I found the toddler essentials that have saved my ass. And while those items will certainly be different from child to child, I'll share them with you in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can help a fellow parent out. You're welcome, guys.
Now some of the things on my list are items that I know for a fact will garner me judgment from some people for whatever reason. To that I say: OK. If judging is what gets you through your day, that's cool. Kind of obnoxious, but cool. The list I've compiled is the stuff that gets me through the end of each day and bright eyed and bushy tailed for the next. (Well, relatively.) Toddlers are tough. Pound for pound, they're way trickier than most adults so, sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do to get them to preschool and kindergarten. And so, in the spirit of "whatever it takes," might I suggest the following from my humble experience...
Pacifiers a.k.a. pacis a.k.a. binkies are often the subject of some debate, some pearl clutching, and some obnoxious and unnecessary and unhelpful judgment. But you know what? My daughter's pacifier is a useful tool to help get her to calm down and go to sleep and I need that kid to go to sleep from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to at least 6 a.m. Because all those other hours? She is adorable but friggen exhausting. And she's even more exhausting if she hasn't had a nap or a good night's sleep. In her two years, her paci has been clutch in making sure we all get what we need.
You know how the poor captive dolphins at aquariums will do all sorts of elaborate tricks for fish? My kid is similarly motivated by crackers. Watch these two scenarios:
"Sweetie, clean up your toys."
"NO! *runs away screaming*"
"Sweetie, do you want crackers?"
"Clean up your toys and I'll give you crackers."
I time this with her unofficially scheduled snack times, of course, so technically I don't know if it counts as bribery. But please know I am absolutely not above bribery and I am not even a little bit ashamed of that. They also keep her occupied when it's time to go shopping. A snacking toddler is a toddler who isn't pulling everything off shelves... usually.
Hate away, haters, but sometimes mama needs time to get something done. Cooking, showering, folding laundry — precisely zero percent of any of that could be accomplished without the warm glow of educational children's programming (and, yeah, annoying and non-educational children's programming that nevertheless holds her attention). "Well I would never let a television babysit my children," some might say with their noses in the air. OK. Good for you. Go ahead and pay a college student like a chump. My TV babysitter is free, always available, and I've known her for years.
No need for bells and whistles or anything fancy. A simple dollhouse and little figurines to put in it will keep your child occupied for a shockingly long time. Some days I don't even need to rouse TV babysitter because Dollhouse babysitter is on the job. Bonus! Unlike a ton of other toys they don't outgrow this one for a while. My 5-year-old son is just as into our dollhouse as my 2-year-old daughter. Bonus-y bonus! You will get to see how your children see you based on how they play with the corresponding parent doll. (Apparently my daughter only ever hears me when I say "I love you" and "Lie down and go to sleep." My son focuses on timeouts, but I must say he is firm but fair.)
Crayons, watercolor paints, stickers, a metric ton of cheap paper. These things are a pain in the ass to clean up and store, but when you need your kid to focus on a single activity for more than five seconds they're completely worth it. And every now and then you get some scribble art that actually looks kind of cool! I'm one of those parents who actually has some of it framed some of my children's masterpieces because, I don't care what you think, I find their use of color and form masterful. Masterful, I tell you!
A Baby Carrier
If your kid is down (and I know some aren't), a baby carrier of some kind is a damn game changer. And some of those things can carrier kids until they're, like, basically adults. Without my carrier, I don't think my then-20 month old and I would have survived our family vacation to Disneyland. I don't think I would have been able to venture out of the house without my kindergartener between the ages of birth and, like, almost 3. Bonus: It's a great core workout!
Because sometimes kids are doing their own thing and while they're super interested, it's really boring for the adults present. Even really adorable fun things, like doll and teddy bear tea parties, can get old after a while. As the adult who is always present, I would have gone crazy a while back if I didn't have my phone to connect me to the world of adults. Yes, yes, you're adorable, child, but I need to text my bestie for a hot sec about the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Oh, wanna judge me on this one to with your smug blog posts about how I'm missing my child's most wonderful years because I won't stop looking at my phone? You can judge me all you want, but it's not going to make me care. I'm living my child's most wonderful years with them basically 24/7; excuse me for taking 15 minutes to see what's happening on Facebook. (This is especially rich, by the way, when it comes from people of a generation who take pride in the fact that they let their kids do everything and go everywhere unattended. You can't have it both ways, self-righteous Baby Boomers!)
You know how sometimes you just need to let a greyhound run? Like... really run? Kids need that, too. Playgrounds have been absolutely essential in raising my children and remaining (relatively) sane. With any luck, they'll find another toddler with a cool parent and then they have a buddy to help them burn all that energy and you have someone to chat with. It's a win-win.
When playgrounds are not an option (either too hot, too cold, or rainy), libraries are absolutely amazing and, in my experience, a completely underused resource. You guys! There's books! There's toys! There's movies! There might even be special programs you can attend! And if there's something you want that they don't have, they can very likely get it for you through an interlibrary loan. And it's all free! How is everyone not peeing their pants in excitement over this?! Not only will you instill in your toddler a love of books, reading, and incredible and important public institutions, but you will get out of the house, entertain, and occupy them and it will be glorious.
Because instilling a love of books in your little ones is a process. For some kids, the first step in that process is destroying books (tearing paper seems to be a favorite) which a) no; b) hell no, WTF are you doing?!; and c) gets expensive AF. Board books? Not an issue. Oh sure, they can chew the hell out them and very likely will, but it'll take a while and concerted effort to completely destroy them. In that time, you can teach your child how best to interact with books and, eventually, they'll get it.
All The Hair Ties, Barrettes, Bobby Pins, And Bows
This is my 2 year old. No, she is not wearing a weave. She just has that much hair. It's pretty in this picture, but IRL it can get straight-up gross. Anything she eats automatically becomes encrusted in her mane. If she has a runny nose, those lovely blonde locks are stiff with boogers. If she takes a nap with her hair down it becomes matted and crazy-looking. Keeping that hair up and off her face (even when it was much shorter) is essentially if you don't want strangers asking you if things are OK at home. So this little darling is the mini-queen of the messy bun and pigtails.
Living with a toddler means living with a mess, and I have yet to find a mess — organic or not — that is not either ameliorated or cured through the application of vinegar. That stuff is magic and must have been given to us by sour little fairies or something, because damn. Perhaps the most common suggestion to any question in my home is, "Did you try vinegar?"
Having two kids is not always easy (it usually isn't), but I swear there are days where I would be lost without my older child there to help my toddler, whether he means to or not. He plays with her, he can keep an eye on her while I go to another room for a few minutes, and sometimes he can serve as a toddler translator, like when my daughter wants a very specific episode of a TV show and there are, like, 75 to choose from and I have no idea what "pink-and-purple Sofia" means. Not only will he know exactly what she's talking about, but he will find the episode and set it up for her. I'm not saying you should have a child just to help you with a toddler. I'm just saying they're handy if you happen to have one lying around.
Bless this child. For real.
What's in the cup? Coffee for a morning pick me up? Tea for an afternoon breather? Coconut water for a boost of energy? Chocolate milk for some indulgent self love? Wine because it's 5 p.m. and finally socially acceptable? A cocktail because mommy can't even?
The answer could be any of these. They are all crucial elixirs when it comes to raising your toddler. So here's to you — cheers!