As far as mothering goes, I'm by no means an expert. After all, I've only been at this gig for six years now. Then again, I've been at this gig for six years now, and considering it's a 24/7, high-demand job, I can say I've learned a thing or two. "Never trust a bare baby butt," for example. Or, "No matter how old your child is, carry diaper wipes." But one of the most important lessons I've learned is that the toddler years are the hardest. Now I'm sure there are moms with teenagers out there who are laughing at my inexperience and eagerly await the day my oldest hits 13, and that's fair. But in my own experience, there's nothing quite as exhausting as having a toddler.
Certainly every stage has its challenges. The newborn stage is demanding and gives you no time to recharge. The school years bring a slew of social and educational issues that need to be addressed (and, hey, good luck with some of those, because I still don't know how to focus let along how to teach my first grader to do it). But the toddler years are, so far, a potent combination of big and little kid problems. But whereas infant problems are tempered by the fact that the child is compact, largely immobile, and sleeps a lot (if at the wrong times) and the school years are made better by the fact that your child can (technically) be reasoned with, toddlers don't have the milestones underneath their belts that makes them manageable. In other words, you're swapping some difficult behaviors for others, but aren't swapping any of the old solutions for new ones. You're just kind of stuck in this bizarre No Man's Land, completely without cover, but still responsible for ensuring everyone involved makes it through in one piece.
My youngest is an "older toddler" at 3-years-old. As far as toddlers go, she's a good one. Her brother, on the other hand, was a decidedly more difficult toddler. He sort of broke me in, so I can deal with whatever shenanigans his sister could possibly throw at me. But, easy or hard, a toddler is a toddler and therefore a ton of work. It's like having a puppy, but less fur.
Here's what makes it so damn hard:
Between pregnancy insomnia, having a newborn, and now having a toddler who is very likely still either waking you up in the middle of the night or making you get up at the crack of dawn, it's been a long couple of years. Your "working your ass off" to "sleep" ratio is pitiful. Even though you're probably getting more sleep now than you were when they were 4-months-old (I hope) the sleep you're still missing out on builds up and creates an exhausting cumulative effect.
And it's not just the things you aren't doing. It's all the things that have been occupying your time, too. For the past few years, your time and mental energy have been all but entirely devoted to keeping your small human alive and happy. Even when it's fun (and it is a lot of fun sometimes) it's engaging and tiring and, over time, it can sort of wear you down. So when your toddler tests you it's going to hit you harder because you have less fight in you than you perhaps once had.
In some ways this can make your life easier, as they don't need to be carried 24/7. On the other hand, well, they're mobile. They can get around your home and get into trouble in ways that were literally impossible when they were just precious little infant blobs. And they're still, you know, toddlers, so they have a really tenuous grasp of safety and basic physics, so toddler parents live in a perpetual state of justified worry.
And, on top of that, they don't understand why you don't understand them, because in their little kid brains they are being crystal clear. This makes for a maddening combination for everyone involved. Kids fly off the handle, and parents get frustrated. It's the worst.
My husband stayed home with my son until he was 2-years-old. At a certain point, my husband would bemoan the fact that my son "only took one nap" that day.
"I think he might be dropping his second nap," he sighed, pitifully.
"But he napped, though, right? Is it a huge deal that he only napped once? He's getting older."
My husband glared at me and dropped the subject. I didn't really think about it again until a few years later, when I was home with my son and new daughter, and she dropped her second nap.
"But I neeeeed her to sleep more than once a day. I can't. I just can't. I need more time to myself than just one nap."
My husband nodded smugly.
"Yeah," he replied. "I know."
I remember when my first child was an infant our social lives were still pretty active. He was one of those babies you could just sort of tote around — either in his car seat or by babywearing him — and he'd be totally chill. Brunch? No problem. Dinner party? Can I just lie him down on your bed next to this pile of coats? Movie? He's going to sleep through the entire thing.
Once he got mobile, though? Nope. He wanted to explore, which meant taking him to places that were safe and appropriate for him to explore. True story: he once squirmed away from us to go "meet" the skeleton of a giant ground sloth at the American Museum of Natural History. Yeah, that was fun.
It's a different kind of messy you get used to with infants. Don't get me wrong, infants are a hot mess. They poop and puke all over themselves. They're really bad at eating purees and get them all over their faces. They get a crust of milk under the folds of their double chins that you don't discover until, finally, the smell gets too powerful to write off as "probably nothing."
But they can't help it. Toddlers are messy in a way that is both insistent and declares their agency. I thank the universe every day that neither of my children had a "painting with poop" phase. Because I know a lot of other moms whose children were more poop-oriented and there but for the grace of God go I.
Gone are the days that I could just put my kids in whatever outfit I pulled out of the drawer. Now it's all, "Did you wash my red pants? Also I need my 'Thursday' socks because it's Thursday!" and, "No! I want my flower dress! I don't want the robot shirt! Put it back!"
And, unfortunately, the opinions are not limited to clothing. It's absolutely goddamn everything. Food. Television shows. Books. Plates. Cups. Heaven help you if you give my daughter the lime green cup when she wanted to aquamarine one.
Yeah. It's not cute.
I feel like you sort of build that into your expectations with infants. Of course they get crazy big crazy fast, but you'd think that pace would slow down once they entered toddlerhood. Nope. I'm seriously at Target at least twice a season picking up more pants or shirts that cover my toddler's belly. And it's not like she's hard on her clothes or they shrink in the wash. Oh no, they're still (mystically) all in excellent condition (you're welcome, friend whose kids get all my hand-me-downs). It's just that her rate of growth has not abated even a little since birth.
Toddlers brains are exploding, but in a good way. Well, mostly a good way. Let's say "in a developmentally normal and necessary" way. They're building millions of connections, learning, and developing cognitive skills. They're processing the world far more actively than adults are really capable of. This can lead to some seemingly bizarre behavior and big, big emotions.
It's normal, to be sure, but it's hard AF when you're trying to parent this burgeoning bundle of neurons.
They're like the damn velociraptors. They're fast! They're strong! They test the gates systematically for weaknesses! They've learned to open doors!
And let us not forget that the toddler years often usher in the demise of some of the truly great baby containment devices. Most babywearing products. Playpens. And, most distressingly of all, the crib I so lovingly refer to as the baby cage. Oh sure, you can try to keep them in that crib as long as possible to delay the inevitable, but let me tell you: there is nothing more unsettling than discovering your child can climb out of their crib by opening your bleary eyes at 3:00 a.m. to find them just staring at you in the dark. (Except for maybe waking up to a loud "thump" followed by sobbing. Don't worry, they'll be fine.)
Toddlers are in that weird stage where they want to do everything on their own because they're big, grown up kids, but they also want you to carry them and to be up in your grill most of the time.
On the one hand it's annoying because, "OMG, kid, you're getting heavy. Just walk." On the other hand, as the mother of a 6-year-old human, I have to do that annoying thing where I tell you to enjoy it while you can. Because one day you'll realize that your child hasn't fallen asleep on you in over a year.
That's just how they work. Really, if you think about it, it's how pretty much everyone works, but toddlers don't have the social graces to manage this in any way that is polite or slick. It gets old fast.
Guys, do you really think those dimples get in trouble even half as often as they probably should? Absolutely f*cking not. It's ridiculous. It takes all my energy not to burst into laughter every time she says something saucy. This cuteness is a toddler's natural defense mechanism against behavior that would be intolerable from anyone else.
Well played, toddlers.
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