I had just begun the nightly ritual of contemplating what on God’s green earth my son might be willing to eat for dinner. A list of 20 or more food items raced through my head, but I mentally dismissed each one as a contender. Blueberries? Maybe yesterday he’d eat them, but tonight he’d surely pitch a fit. Goldfish? He’ll see straight through that blatant attempt to nourish his growing body. Yogurt? Maybe… maybe I could get him to eat a cup of yogurt.
I was nearing the end of an exhausting 13-hour day at home with my children, ages 22 months and 2 months. Eight weeks after giving birth to my youngest, I was recovering from a small surgical procedure, but my children were too young to know that I was in a fragile state. But just as I settled on my dinner game plan and started walking to the fridge for the yogurt cups, my toddler made his move. I looked up just in time to witness his tiny body hurtling through the living room… right before he joyfully bit my rear end, ramming my raw, swollen surgical incision into the wooden rim of the dining room table.
Did I anticipate birthing a child who appears to have a Dahmer-like, persistent need to bite those nearest and dearest to him? Or a kid who, at 2 years of age, still has not uttered the word “Mommy,” although he can name every other relative in his extended family tree and once casually dropped the term “percussive” into a conversation? No. Like most parents, I naively made the decision to procreate without considering that my delightful, chubby, curly-headed baby would one day be stolen in the night and replaced by a skinny toddler with lightning-fast mood shifts that would make a seesaw look well-balanced.
I thought I knew what I was getting into when my biological clock, which had obliged me for so long by remaining blissfully silent, began loudly and insistently ticking the day I hit 30. I had babysat since I was 12 years old, and in my 20s, I had worked a two-year stint as a nanny for a little boy. It was this little boy, his personality, and my memory of our days together that gave me the added confidence to forge ahead with parenthood. It was the kind of deluded thinking that leads retirees to purchase beachfront real estate in Florida. Sure, it’s a bad idea for most people, but in my case, it just might work out.
My young charge turns out to have been an exceptionally chill toddler. Each morning, after his parents left for work, he would quietly play with his toys while I cleaned up the kitchen. And he was perfectly happy to play at my feet while I knitted and listened to NPR. That’s right: I held shiny, sharp knitting needles and used colorful balls of yarn right under his nose, and he didn’t grab them, desperate to ram the needles into an electrical outlet and hog-tie the cat with the yarn. If I wanted, I could leave the room to use the bathroom knowing my Fair Isle socks or tiny hat would be in exactly the same place when I returned to the living room.
Later in the morning, he would lay still enough for me to change his diaper and clothe him, so we could leave the house for an outing. Was there some occasional bribery to get him not to wiggle while I dealt with a particularly bad poopsplosion? Sure, but never did I fear his changing table would end up resembling the walls in a Russian orphanage. Later, he would voluntarily eat food—virtually any kind of food I put in front of him. And then, wonder of wonders, he would take a three-hour nap, leaving me to sit in peace with a novel and cup of tea.
Initially there were some signs that my own son was not going to be the kind of kid that quietly played while I got things done, but I was so enamoured of this happy, outgoing, joyful baby that I looked past his fussy periods and need for constant activity. Almost from the beginning, my son was excited to see new people, and never cried when he was handed off to a relative or friend.He would laugh and scream when the dogs walked by, reaching out pudgy, fat-ringed hands to grab their fur as his heart beat faster than I was certain was healthy. Taking him to restaurants, the biggest hurdle for most new parents, was never a chore because he was so easily occupied watching the people around him. Although he was a handful, he was also a joy to be around.
But as he entered his toddler years, he came to resemble the baby of my imagination less and less. I was more than just surprised by his behavior; I felt guilty. This was the phase of parenting when everyone told me I was supposed to be enjoying all my son’s new skills. Now that he could run and walk, say a few words, and eat without choking, things were supposed to be getting better. Life was supposed to be easier. Instead, everything seemed more difficult, and I would find myself almost resentful that this iteration of my son had replaced the newborn and infant version that had brought me so much joy.
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Surely this made me not only a very bad mother but also a very bad person. What was wrong with me for feeling this way when my Facebook feed was full of friends posting pictures of their perfect apple-picking expeditions and visits to Santa with their toddlers? I found myself wondering if I had created this monster through subpar parenting and some kind of psychic neglect. Eventually, I realized that parents who don’t seem totally exasperated by their toddlers are either saints or the world’s biggest liars.
As I considered those pictures of my friend’s kid smiling out from the pumpkin patch in her adorably coordinated holiday ensemble, I began to have an inkling of what it took to get her there. Parents dragging a reticent toddler into the mall to find the perfect outfit, all while she screamed and kicked because a toy that hadn’t been obligatory yesterday had been left behind; a morning spent bribing her with cookies and her favorite show if she would only allow them to dress her in said outfit; the world’s longest car ride to the little farm, as they struggled with a kid who had woken up six times the night before and refused to eat breakfast, followed by an agonizing 45 minutes posing and reposing, bribing and cajoling, to get that one perfect picture to post on Facebook.
Maybe, like me, these parents had a toddler that was challenging, exhausting, and sometimes downright unpleasant. And perhaps, like me, these parents pushed through and were careful to document the truly joyful moments as a reminder of why they were struggling so hard for a kid that didn’t always seem to appreciate them. And maybe some people were just posting these pristine photos to save face… because living with toddlers is frequently a nightmare.
Looking back at pictures of my son when he was 9 weeks old and 9 months old, I certainly miss the good old days. Now I try to remember that fat, happy baby when the 2-year-old staring me down has used up every last bit of my patience. Sometimes it’s easier to muster some sympathy for his 20th tantrum of the day if I imagine it’s that baby in front of me who needs to be comforted. Someday, I remind myself, he’ll be potty trained and able to tie his own shoes. He’ll be someone who doesn’t need everything from me, and I’ll look back wistfully on the days when he relied on me for every cheese stick and story book. Eventually, he’ll be a full-blown adult with his own toddler driving him crazy, and I’ll be able to tell him stories about all the night wakings, public meltdowns, and emotional blowups he put me through.
The other day, when I went to pick him up from daycare, he actually ran across the room to me and smiled. Sure, his classmate Chester was the only one who yelled “Mommy” when I walked through the door, but at least my son stopped smashing his truck into the wall long enough to let me know he missed me. And that’s enough for now.
Olivia Williams is a full-time attorney turned stay-at-home feminist and mother of two. She enjoys craft beers, yoga, and the rare opportunity to read a Victorian novel in the bathtub. Follow her on Twitter @oawillia.