The salad days of parenthood?
Sometimes it seems like I get the best advice from perfect strangers. Taxicab drivers and grocery store clerks, the people who pour my cappuccinos and sell me children’s shoes. A few weeks ago, my tribe exploded into our local dry cleaner’s shop, my son flailing in the Ergo (pissed he’d not been allowed to walk) as I juggled two overstuffed L.L.Bean totes and shouted after my daughter to SLOW DOWN. (I’ve had nightmares about her being impaled by a rotating dry cleaner’s hook.) As my husband’s dress shirts tumbled onto the counter, I apologized for the chaos. The woman behind the counter smiled to herself, said she had children, too. Eight and eleven.
I had to ask: “It gets easier then, right?”
She laughed. Laughed out loud in my face. Gesturing towards my children, she exclaimed, “This IS the easy part! No homework, no worrying about their friends or college.” She paused, then added more gently, wistfully: “And they love you so much when they’re little…”
Ohhhhh, this conversation annoyed me. Had the same evolutionarily-necessary brainwashing that helped me forget labor pain made this woman forget how hideously exhausting toddlers are? Because, lord, am I tired. (And I have help! And preschool!) My children are not the sort who sit quietly with a single toy or coloring book; they MOVE. (Something my mother-in-law and husband assure me is genetic.) My threenager is constantly testing the limits of my patience. (And gravity.) Changing my son’s diapers should count as cardio. We are all in constant motion, all of the time.
On the longest days, my husband and I fantasize about a “promised land” of parenthood, where all of our children are potty trained, water-safe, and old enough for ski school. We’ll once again fly without toddlers stomping cheese crackers into our laps, travel sans strollers and diaper bags, take island vacations without spending the entire trip sitting in a piss-filled baby pool. We’ve been talking about this since our first child was barely walking, and it’s only become a louder refrain as we’ve added to our family.
But what that woman at the dry cleaner’s shop said has stayed with me. There is a certain simplicity to the needs of small children. A clean diaper. A nap. A juice box. Though they may communicate these needs urgently (and LOUDLY), they’re in truth quite easy to satisfy.
But helping with Common Core math homework? Soothing a child who’s been teased by mean girls on social media? Shepherding a stressed teenager through the daunting college application process? Oy. These are real problems with real consequences. Toddlers can get themselves into real trouble, too (as we learned recently with our daughter’s roof climbing escapade), but mostly, they’re just waking you up at 2 a.m. for a sippy cup of water. It’s annoying, sure, but it’s not going to alter the trajectory of their lives. Between high effort/low stakes toddlerhood and the very high stakes of adolescence, might I someday long for a time when getting people to poop in potties was my biggest parenting conundrum?
And toddlers really do love you so hard. I’ve been kissing and hugging the heck out of my kids since birth and it’s pretty cool now that they’re returning my affections. Both children have mastered an epic “movie” hug, running towards me and lunging into my arms for a desperate hug like we haven’t seen each other in decades. It is AWESOME and undoubtedly the envy of every parent at preschool pickup.
This isn’t to diminish the very hard work of raising toddlers. (Because, you know I know.) But it is undeniably simpler and sweeter than the years that lie ahead. Perhaps the promised land isn’t three years away; perhaps it’s now.