Photo courtesy of Jackie Ernst

Actually, This "Baby-Friendly" World Kind Of Hates Toddlers

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When you have a newborn, the world applauds. Everyone wants to come visit, to whisper in your baby’s tiny, curled ear, to smell your baby’s head. No one is bothered by your newborn’s tiny cries. No one judges you for them either. We are a baby-friendly world, so we like to think.

Fast forward 16 months. Your mewling newborn is now a holy-hell-raising toddler who wants to touch everything, and to throw everything she touches. You can no longer go out to restaurants, or bookstores, or the homes of people who don’t have locks on their cabinets and their breakables stored safely on unreachable shelves.

Immediate family is the exception. They’re the people you can count on to love your toddler even when she’s thrashing on the floor, caked in dried banana and snot. At least, that’s always been the case for us. My daughter’s grandmothers and aunts shower her with love and M&Ms. They treat her like their own, scold her with love, but mostly love her with abandon. So when my father-in-law and his wife invited us for a week-long visit, we accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

Kittens. Yes, kittens. My in-laws are proud parents of two skittish rescue cats who my daughter loved to chase, finger pointed, crying, “dat dat.” When I watched my child, I saw exuberance and love; my in-laws saw a guerrilla. They didn’t judge my daughter for her lack of restraint, of course. They judged me. “Keep her away from the cats,” I was told on the third day.

She refused to sit still during dinner at a tapas restaurant they insisted was 'great for kids.'

Their patience had been worn thin by that point. My daughter woke up screaming at four in the morning two nights in a row. She pulled all the Tupperware out of a cabinet. She refused to sit still during dinner at a tapas restaurant they insisted was “great for kids.” After 20 minutes of writhing in my lap, I let her stand on her chair. I wanted to shrivel up with shame when my step-mother-in-law removed her plate, looked right at me, and informed me that children who don’t sit down don’t get their dinners. She was right. I lay awake for ages that night, cataloging everything I could have done to instill better table manners in my child. Because most 16-month-olds are docile as dolls during hours-long degustations, right?

Right.

Photo courtesy of Jackie Ernst

But it’s easy to forget that your child’s “bad” behavior is probably completely normal when you’re standing in judgment’s glare. Often, the most damning comments come from people who don’t have children themselves, and can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to have a relentless hurricane of brute, reasonless will tear into your life, upturning everything. Knowing this doesn’t make you feel any better though. When someone tells you that you don’t say “no” enough, the already-dilapidated pillar of confidence that was holding you upright crumbles completely.

By the time you snap out of your reverie of doubts, your child has torn up a magazine, put your shoe in the toilet, and is sitting happily on the floor, eating cat food.

How often should you say “no,” you’d like to ask. Do you forbid only the worst behaviors — hitting, biting, eating broken glass — so the word bears serious consequence? Or do you wield your power more freely, and remind your toddler who’s boss every time they try to pull all the socks out of your drawer? Is there a right way and a wrong way to discipline your child? These thoughts speed through your mind, and by the time you snap out of your reverie of doubts, your child has torn up a magazine, put your shoe in the toilet, and is sitting happily on the floor, eating cat food. And you are staring into a pair of stern eyes.

“I’m sorry,” my husband whispered on night five of the in-laws’ homestay, his breath boozy because at this point, the tension was so taut, the only way to survive dinner was to drink. Heavily.

I rubbed his arm and assured him no one could have predicted this disaster. How could someone who had delighted in blowing raspberries on our baby’s belly six months ago find her so intolerable now? “Next time, we’ll stay home.”

It’s a thought I find myself having often, usually when I attempt to go anywhere besides the park, or to the home of another toddler. I keep a list of kid-friendly places, but my list of kid un-friendly zones is much longer. Even though I know I’m not alone, sometimes I feel like I am.

What does society expect from young children, and from us, as parents? Should we cancel all our appointments on the difficult days when our children refuse to nap? Stay home for the next decade?

Maybe that isn’t the right question. Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we expect from the people around us. Just like musicals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, not everyone is charmed by the sight of a chubby hand overturning a glass of wine. And that’s OK. I can’t expect everyone around me to like, or even understand, the lifestyle I was forced into the second my daughter was born. That’s what it is, whether we want to admit it or not: a lifestyle change.

I feel like I’m hauling ass through one gate of hell after another with an overstuffed diaper bag and wailing demon on my back.

I’ll be honest; I have a hard time accepting this fact. I’ve spent the past year struggling to figure out how I can continue living my life exactly the way I want to live it, replete with happy hours, yoga classes, sleeping past 6 a.m. But maybe there’s not. My days are no longer dictated by my own needs, but unfold according to the needs of my child. Sometimes the profound giving that motherhood demands is a beautiful experience. Other times, I feel like I’m hauling ass through one gate of hell after another with an overstuffed diaper bag and wailing demon on my back. Both of these experiences are part of being a parent. Yes, people are going to judge me, even sneer at me, but people are going to smile and extend a helping hand, too. It’s not the world’s job to keep my confidence up, or to teach me how to rear my child. And it’s certainly not anyone’s job but mine to love my child unconditionally.

Photo courtesy of Jackie Ernst

Perhaps I can use these moments of unsolicited criticism to question myself in a healthy way. Making a bad choice doesn’t make me a bad mother. In fact, bad choices are inevitable, and are often the best teachers. Does that mean that I need to smile and swallow every “should” I’m offered? No way. Sometimes, I need to return the stern glare, hold my baby close, and tell whoever I’ve offended by allowing my daughter to drop peas into a water glass that it’s their problem, not ours.

Summoning that kind of confidence is not easy, especially when you don’t feel sure that you’re actually doing what’s “best.” I almost never feel sure. But there’s one person I can trust, and that’s my daughter. She’s happy, curious, full of spirit and sass—qualities that will serve her well as she learns to navigate through a world that is as likely to judge her as it is to welcome her. It’s up to me to teach my daughter how to learn from criticism, but also how to stand up for herself and for what she believes in. Even when what she believes in is wearing a bowl on her head and dancing in the aisles of the supermarket.

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