Surrounded by toddlers and pre-schoolers at my nephew’s fourth birthday party, I looked on with empathetic amusement as the parents of these bundles of energy did their best to mitigate destruction and injury, and realised I have a lot to reflect on about parenting in the toddler years.
I miss the sweetness of my kids, how much they made me laugh, their keen observations and their delight in new things. I don’t miss the lack of sleep, how long it took to get anywhere and having to carry a bag the size of a suitcase.
I remember the buttons they knew just how to push and losing my cool on many occasions.
I remember watching them with an overwhelming ache of love in my heart (mostly when they were sleeping).
I remember the feelings of conflict that come with having a litany of things to get done running through my head whilst not being able to take my eyes off the small person with a gleam in their eye and a sharpie in their hand.
I remember the energy sapping, brain fog inducing exhaustion of it all.
It’s a strange hilarity-tinged-with-hysteria period of parenting, and it’s only now that I’m through it that I’m able to look back and appreciate that.
I have so many happy memories, but I also have a lot of guilt.
Did I play with them enough? Did I laugh with them enough? And what about the sleep training, will they be damaged for life?
But as a parent who has come out the other end with her zen mostly regained, I’m here to tell you that it does end, and when it does, as counterintuitive as it sounds, you’ll miss those busy, creative little souls who know how to make you laugh almost as often as they make you cry.
Spending time with my niece and nephews reminds me how much unnecessary pressure I put myself under when my kids were really young. Instead of accepting all the messy, noisy, sticky, yawn inducing chaos of toddlerdom I was very resistant to it all; trying to keep the house clean and tidy, wondering where I’d gone wrong as a parent when one of them went feral, wondering what I could do to stop the whining and pondering whether a seven-foot bed would be a worthwhile investment.
If only I’d been able to fast forward eight years and see that the child I was hoping would just sit down and chill out for five minutes seems at times to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the sofa. And those endless questions? Who would’ve thought that in the years to come I’d be hoping to be asked anything other than, ‘what’s for dinner?’
I didn’t always appreciate the experience of being a Mum to toddlers. Some moments I felt like the luckiest person alive, on others I wondered what I was thinking. It almost makes me tempted to go again, because maybe I’d do better third time round. I’m so much calmer, more balanced, less likely to blow my top like mount Vesuvius when I’m hit in the eye by an errant shoe, and yet…I say all this with the benefit of hindsight.
I have a strong suspicion that even knowing everything I know now, being plunged back into that phase of life where there was never enough sleep, never enough time to eat, and a meltdown was only ever a missed nap away, I have to admit I’d probably be pretty much the same. Gratitude in the moment for the amazing quirkiness of our kids can often struggle to permeate the dense brain fog and chaotic neurochemicals induced by sleep deprivation, sporadic meals and precious little down-time.
Raising toddlers is emotional, messy work and no one really has a clue what they’re doing. By the time I found an inkling of a clue, my kids weren’t toddlers anymore and I was back to square one. I’ve had to find a certain level of self-compassion and acceptance for some of my parenting, which didn’t always align with my best self, but then my best self gets eight hours sleep a night, regular meals and can pee in private, so I’m also learning to have a bit more acceptance and self-compassion. The goalposts of good parenting also move along at a rate of knots and I’m learning not to beat myself up for past decisions that seemed the best thing at the time. All we can do is our best as often as we can, and repair and apologise for the rest. That’s parenting in a nutshell.
If I could give one piece of advice to the me from back then it would be to focus on the moments of fun and joy; write them down, take more pictures, feel the love of those moments when I was in them, then I could look back and remember all the good stuff with more clarity. I didn’t do it as much then, but I’m sure as hell doing it now. When my kids are surly teenagers and I’m wondering if it’s all my fault, I can look back at my joyful scribblings and find evidence of all the amazing things that went right in the pre-teen years. I’ll be doing the same in their teenage years too (they can’t be all bad, can they?)
There’s a lot of talk about addressing our own trigger points to be better parents to our young children, and whilst I agree it’s beneficial to become aware of our triggers and work to address them, there are times in the early years of parenting when all the trigger unravelling in the world won’t prevent you from flipping your lid when all you really need is a full night’s sleep, an uninterrupted meal and a long hot shower.
If you’re in it, I can’t offer you a way out of it, time and nature will take care of that, but I hope this post helps you realise it’s all part of the journey. Toddlers don’t come with manuals, and being a parent to one is very much a learn on the job kind of deal. With the benefit of hindsight, I hope you’ll see that you did a pretty amazing job.
Whatever stage of parenting you’re in, I find Julie Bogart’s Brave Writer podcast a great source of inspiration, and her most recent episode ‘Exploring the Meaning of Regret’ helped spark some lightbulb moments for this post.