I often find myself fascinated; observing what I feel are perhaps my natural habitat’s most incredible creatures: toddlers—and their parents.
Seriously. I stand there in the coffee aisle at Target, head tilted, watching as a mother explains—for at least the fifteenth time—that, “the shopping cart is not, in fact, a racecar…Honey."
Mouth agape, I marvel at the perseverance of the child and patience of the parent. I admire Mom’s chirpy toned response and her dazzling, super-hero-fairytale-princess-picture-perfect smile. This mom is amazing, I think.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I see the other side too. I have seen grown men and women brought to their actual (not proverbial) knees at the check-out line, the two of them together weighing in at 300-some pounds and unable to outrun, let alone outsmart, a bubble gum wielding two-year-old.
Those parents? I admire them even more.
I’m amazed because every day these parents get up and produce answers to the ever pressing “why.” Why is the sun gone today? Why do you love me? Why don’t I have any hair THERE? No, the dog is not a racecar either. Why? Because he’s a dog. Why?
Mundane, resilient, off-the-charts amazing.
I’m amazed because I was not once but twice the parent of a toddler myself, not too long ago. I, like the aforementioned Target parents, had my good days and my bad. There were times in which I actually looked up(thank you, Google): “Why is a whale called a whale?” and times when I simply pressed my forehead to the table, whimpering, “I. Don’t. Know. Why.”
And I lived to tell.
So now, here I am, taking on the task of looking into a different sort of toddler ‘why’: Why is potty training a toddler so difficult? Why is this particular age group prone to tantrums? What can a parent do to travel through the toddler years with more joy and a greater sense of confidence? How do parents of toddlers negotiate bedtime routines and behavioral issues, screen time, the evil plastic portable potty, and time outs?
In my own personal experiences, in my work with families in the Twin Cities, and in my casual conversations, I have developed a particular, two-part perspective on parenting young children.
First, there are many ways to parent. There is a spectrum that we all fumble along, sometimes unknowingly slipping into a very slick and definitive parenting style and sometimes nervously improvising. With our choices come mistakes. With our mistakes come triumphs. There will be peaceful trips to Target and those that give into that bubble gum in some sort of negotiation that smells suspiciously like blackmail. In that moment, we might not even know who has the upper hand. And why on earth would we give bubble gum to a toddler, of all people, right before A CAR RIDE? I digress, but the point is this: we have many choices—and all of them as monumental as the last. No pressure.
Secondly, though we have many choices as parents, there are universal truths—especially during the toddler years. At some point, they will begin to move. Then, they will begin to move faster. They will ask, “Why?” They will shout, “No!” There will be accidents and tantrums and giggle fits; bumps, bruises, and bedtime stories.
When I observe the mom or dad in the coffee aisle, I realize that they may handle things differently than I did, just a few years ago. And yet I nod and smile, maybe even wink, offering a sort of unity in recognition. Ha ha, racecar. Yep, been there. Even if our thing was alligators, then space ships, then invisible kangaroos. Been there. Still there. Still find you amazing.
The time between infancy and preschool is incredible. The child goes through unparalleled development—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Just minutes ago a little baby, they are now stepping—clumsily and sometimes recklessly—out into the world. They are running down the cereal aisle, knocking down boxes, howling at the moon, and talking to—be still your worried heart—strangers. Then, they are pulling so close to your chest, you think they might burrow beneath your skin.
Why? Why? Why a column devoted to the crazy little creatures known as toddlers? Because, for better or worse, there is nothing like them. Because there is freedom in exploring your many, many parenting choices. Because there is peace, and a sigh of relief, in that nod of recognition and those universal truths. Racecar—ha ha—been there. That’s why.
Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is the mother of two. She's helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula.
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