Toddler Birthday Parties are Pointless

Not long after I talked about the pressure to have more kids, we were invited to a two-year old’s birthday party. All of their extended family (both sides), pizza, cake, lots of kids, and us, the only guests not directly related to the birthday boy. Ben ran around and ate junk food. I held a teeny little baby. Quinn drank beer and talked about fantasy football. The birthday boy ate cake when instructed, cried when people sang, and didn’t pay much attention to the gifts his mother helped him open. He was more interested in playing push car outside with his cousins.

It was fun, noisy, and — as pre-k birthday parties go — more for the benefit of photo-ops and grandparents than for the birthday boy himself, who was perfectly content to play with his push car the entire time. Nobody has been able to explain to me why birthday parties for non-verbal age children are a thing. The only birthday party I clearly remember from my childhood was the one where I had a huge sleepover in third grade and I ended up in my bedroom crying. My poor mother put so much work into my first big party and I played drama queen over hopscotch.

Maybe it’s guilt rearing its head, but my thing — the thing I wish was everybody’s thing — is that birthday parties for toddlers too young to speak in clear sentences should be for the parents. Congratulations! You survived another year of toddlerhood! We bought you scotch to celebrate-slash-commiserate.

This is a thing I think everybody should do: bring a small gift for the parents when attending a toddler’s birthday. We’ve done this for the last handful of kids parties we’ve been invited to. In exchange we receive gratitude, and often and a laugh. No, a bottle of wine or homemade cookies doesn’t lessen the intensity of parenthood. But the gesture — I see you, fellow parent. You’re doing great. — might relieve just a bit of the constant and overwhelming pressure that looms over the head of every parent.

It’s not everything, but it’s something. The villages that raise our child are only as strong as the support they are given.

The sleep thing, part 2: no more bottles

*Old lady from Titanic meme*
“It’s been 84 years…”

We were down to one bottle in the house. I thought Ben might be able to taper off bottles and night feedings. “It’s for emergencies,” I told myself. I told everybody and, bless them, nobody had the heart to tell me it was a terrible idea. I thought having an emergency “tantrum-stopping” bottle on hand was a good idea.

It was not a good idea.

A bottle was my trick to get through the end of a restaurant meal if Ben was getting squirmy. Restaurant time goes like this: sit down, order food, one of us takes Ben outside to walk around until the food arrives. It’s not ideal, but Ben gets excitable in new places. He wants to explore. So we compromise. He can explore until the food comes, then he has to sit down with the adults while we eat. As he’s not even two, I consider this a win-win compromise. Only a couple of times have I had to break out a bottle to finish off a meal.

We had to break out a bottle last month while finishing up dinner with friends from out of town. It was closing in on bedtime, which only added to Ben’s frustration. Long story short: Ben’s very last bottle was set on top of the car and lost forever when we drove off.

“We wanted to get rid of the bottles. Guess we’re going cold turkey. On a Tuesday.”

It took a few days of “BA-BA! BA-BA!” and 30-minute tantrums, but Ben conceded and took to sippy cups and straws and (get this) even open cups with enthusiasm. The tantrums I’d previously had no patience for suddenly became fewer and shorter. They last barely a minute now.

The problem:

  • Ben still isn’t sleeping through the night

What I have tried:

  • Everything Google can throw at me

What I haven’t tried:

  • Black magic, bribes, begging

What’s working for now:

  • Nothing

What bottle weaning didn’t do, however, is stop the night wakings. It reduced them, coinciding with his newfound appetite, but didn’t eliminate them. There’s no schedule to his wakings, which makes me feel like his need isn’t physical (hungry, wet, cold/hot) but emotional (nightmares, separation anxiety). But… we’ve bed-shared a lot in Ben’s life. If I tell him “It’s time for bed,” he — get this — goes to our bedroom, climbs onto a pillow, and pulls up the blanket. So, you know, he gets it. He gets bedtime. He even knows how to stay in bed. He stayed in our bed after tucking himself in for over an hour while Quinn and I watched TV in the living room. He gets it, the little butt head.

What we’re trying next:

  • Skipping straight to a twin bed, because one of us will inevitably end up spending the occasional night in there

Fast-forward one IKEA trip on a random Wednesday night, two days waiting for the mattress to arrive, and one toddler with a drill and — voila! No more crib. Ben loves new things. He almost burst with joy when we let him loose in (a very empty) mattress display at IKEA to see what works for his little legs. And… he slept through the night. Twice.

Last night was night three. And guess what? He can open doors.

Fuck.

 

I forget things. A lot.

When I was pregnant, we set up an email address for Ben. Only Quinn and I have it. I had the intention of writing Ben letters from time to time, with the hope that he would someday read them when he’s older and be able to understand his mother for the person she was, both before he was born and when he was too young to form lasting memories. As we approach Ben’s second birthday, I have written three of these letters. I keep forgetting he has an email address.

I keep forgetting a lot of things.

Eight months ago: an expectant first-time parent asks me about my postpartum experience. I can’t recall any details beyond exhaustion and a deep sadness.

Two months ago: a friend points out that Ben’s large birthmark has faded entirely. I forgot he ever had a birthmark.

Last night: I catch myself being surprised that Ben’s eyes are brown now. How long have they been brown? They used to be blue.

The idea of having another child at this stage in my life, when my first is approaching two and I am nearing approaching 34, seems like the worst idea in the history of everything. Quinn and I will be in our 50s by the time he’s graduating high school. So as someone with both feet firmly in the one and done camp, I feel a lot of pressure to get everything right this first (and only) time around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes when other women have cooed at complaints of nights spent cluster feeding or comforting a sick toddler. “Cherish it!” they chirp. “It goes by so fast!”

Right, I think. I’m definitely going to cherish memories of being pissed on and kept awake for days on end.

Like so many other days, today I can only seem to focus on the exhaustion I feel after a weekend of clingy, congested tantrums. When I talk about my frustrations, I can only recall how many nights he hasn’t slept well, how many nights he refused to sleep in his crib, how many times I have had to leave the room during an inconsolable tantrum. I manage to forget — like always — the many, many ways Ben has improved. I forget that bedtime is a breeze 90% of the time, that he can drink from an open cup without spilling, that he will try a bite of any food at least once. I forget all the nights he sleeps 10 hours straight.

I worry about all the things I will forget. Big things. Important things.

But mostly I worry about forgetting the little things, like the sound of his belly laugh. The weight of his big little head on my shoulder, or the warmth of his body when he climbs into my lap to watch cartoons. The way he says “beep!” when I unlock the car. The way he pats everybody on the back when he gives them a  hug.The knowledge that there are so many things that will be forgotten lingers at the back of my mind. I worry so much about forgetting that I don’t doubt that there’s at least some bit of self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

An Analog Childhood in the Digital Age

My 20s were spent moving around, for one reason or another, and refusing to put down roots. Before always-on GPS, before the social media boom. If my parents hadn’t heard from me in a day or two they had to send my sister and her friends to hunt me down. Case in point: my phone died and I just didn’t charge it one weekend. It was nice to not deal with text messages or phone calls. So my sister — four friends in tow — showed up at my apartment at 11:00 PM one night saying “Hey, call Dad.”

Fast forward to today: Facebook is either greedy enough to sell your information or mismanaged enough to allow your information to be “inappropriately obtained” by political firms working to install a fascist government in the White House. Google pays so much attention to where you go and when you go there that it changes your home and work locations when you go on vacation (our AirBnB in New Orleans a few years ago). Your Alexa/Cortana/Google Home/Whatever are always on and have probably recorded every argument and case of bad indigestion ever since they were connected to your WiFi.

I deleted my Facebook account some time ago, primarily because it felt pervasive. It was everywhere. Covered everything. Everyone. The idea of needing to utilize this one service in order to maintain social connections felt… uncomfortable. I didn’t like the ads that were following me. I didn’t like the idea of strangers being able to look me up. Facebook is more than a phone book. They don’t just see your phone number, but your photo, friends, and whatever else you shared when you were drunk at 2am. Even if you lock down your profile and friends list, Facebook still retains the details.

But collecting user data better allows companies to serve the user!

They want to sell you things. To make money. When was the last time you saw an ad on Facebook for something that truly changed your life in a meaningful, positive way? Now, when was the last time you saw an ad for that thing you were looking for on Amazon? Yeah. I struggle to put down my phone. Just like I struggled with getting off social media. I’m not about to trot out some holier-than-thou argument to get you off Twitter. I love Twitter. If that’s your thing, get on it. But my connection to and use of social media — of the internet — needed re-balancing. I think everybody would benefit from an honest evaluation of their technology usage.

What kind of always monitored world is my kid growing up in? And how do I instill healthy, balanced technology use in my child?

I love technology. Quinn and I use Alexa, Siri, and Google daily. We use location services. GPS. We have a Nest thermostat (that Quinn snagged for free when we switched power companies, score) and smart light bulbs so we don’t have to get out of bed when we forget to turn the lights off. We drive an electric car that comes with an app that lets us see where it is, what the battery charge looks like, and even set the heater before we leave for work from our phones. We have our eyes on those solar roof tiles when we buy a house.

Well-designed technology, in a perfect world, is seamlessly integrated, highly intuitive, and minimally invasive. Thermostats that learn your schedule and mind the weather. Solar and renewable energy. Robotic surgical assistants. Serving the user. Building connections. Not selling users a lifestyle or trading personal information for dopamine hits. There’s no precedent for how the technology we currently favor will impact social or emotional development in young children. I guess I’m going to have to make it up as I go.

I want Ben to be comfortable with technology — but there’s not really any doubt he will be. What kid born in America after 2000 isn’t? But how to I keep him from becoming obsessed with it? I see so often. Small children using tablets while at dinner or at the grocery store. Phones being used as a pacifier or a substitute for interaction and conversation. I get it. Sometimes you want an easy way out. I’m here for that. It’s about survival, about getting through the day. I bribed Ben with my phone for the first time a couple of weeks ago during a too-long wait at his doctor’s office. I let him watch Moana, his current number one. And I was granted a grim glimpse of the future when I put it away: a full blown gimme-gimme tantrum. Oh hell no. I guess playing with phones is going to be off the table for the foreseeable future.

That’s okay. We have a huge yard.

The only comfort he finds is in the bottle

My kid has a problem. He can’t give it up for anything. The only comfort he finds these days is at the bottom of a bottle. He won’t take the damn Elmo doll, blanket, t-shirt, or pacifier. He can (and does) use straws and open cups with surprising ease. But oh, the bottle! His dear. His beloved. I, most embarrassingly, am his enabler. Poor Quinn, who only occasionally reminds me how much I’m not helping when I give in to a bottle tantrum, has more discipline in this area — which admittedly kind of irks me.

I would give ANYTHING to trade the bottle fixation for a pacifier. I would even start nursing again if it meant he would stop whining for a bottle. Those eight teeth would be WELCOME at my breast if it meant no more whining. The bottle has, for now, become the only way I can get him to give me enough space to do dishes (which, reminder: he can undo the “kid-proof” safety latch now) and pick up the socks he somehow leaves in every corner of the house. He DOESN’T EVEN WEAR SOCKS. Unless he’s been at daycare. What the hell?

The guilt I feel over acquiescing comes and goes because, as always, whatever hangups or issues Ben has with attachments can be traced directly back to me a solid 70% of the time. On one hand, I am a survivor and will do what it takes to get us through the day. On the other hand, I recognize the need to think long term and demonstrate good habits and healthy coping mechanisms for Ben. Show me a parent who has never lost their temper and I’ll show you a child that probably spends their life locked in a soundproof dog kennel. How awful is that, even though he’s barely 18 months, I already worry that I’ve somehow ruined my kid for life?

I don’t know how to tackle the bottle habit. What I do know, though, is that Ben has been regularly pushing the bottle aside more quickly than he used to; he doesn’t carry it around like he did up until a month ago. He appears to be either outgrowing it or weaning himself — something he also did with nursing and regular bed-sharing. Which gives me hope, but also a bit of worry. Why are parents put under so much pressure to sleep train and night wean and lose the pacifier and potty train so quickly? Have humans evolved so much that an 18-month old is capable of emotional regulation?

I’m not going to answer that question, because the answer should be resoundingly obvious. What’s not obvious is why some of us struggle so much to shake this pressure when our logical side knows it’s bullshit. Quinn and I have never been the super competitive, baby must be sung the alphabet seven times a day type of parents. We have tried (sometimes impatiently) to allow Ben to hit the usual milestones in his own time. He stood up a bit later than his age-mates. He only has a handful of words and signs at 18 months. But he’s happy. He’s larger-than-life happy, full of shrieking laughter and hugs and giggles and cuddles. I hope that counts for something. It does in my book.

 

The sleep thing, part 1: bedtime

[Note: I still think sleep regressions are largely bull dookie, but for those of you curious how I tackled Ben’s recent refusal to sleep, here’s a quick update to this recent post.]

Here’s the thing about sleep.

There’s no universal standard for sleep requirements. Science says, generally, that 8 hours (give or take, of course) is what you should shoot for. Science also says that we should sleep in split shifts, like our ancestors may or may not have. Science also also says that sleep is a construct and we’re all of us always asleep because we’re actually all plugged into simulations, kind of like in The Matrix.

Well.

Anecdotally, my father sleeps less than five hours a night. I am a split (read: terrible) sleeper, usually awake for an hour or more in the middle of the night. Quinn sleeps as many hours as his schedule will allow, but has trouble falling asleep when he first goes to bed. It seems perfectly logical to me that our kid would have this same struggle.

What I have tried:

  • Cry it out
  • Pat and settle
  • Ferber method
  • Gerber method
  • Method acting
  • Graduated extinction
  • Matriculated extinction
  • Whatever, none of it works

What I haven’t tried:

  • Rum, per my mother-in-law’s insistence “That’s what we always did!”

Ben will scream for HOURS if left alone. Going in to check on him just pisses him off even more. It never occurred to me that some kids have to be taught how to go to sleep. As a concept, I will tell you I am seriously struggling with that. Who needs to be taught how to sleep? Human children, apparently.

What’s working for now:

  • A solid bedtime routine
  • Melatonin at bedtime, per pediatrician’s instructions
  • Cutting out tv time before bed

But the bedtime battles. Those are, for now, almost entirely under control. A solid bedtime routine and melatonin supplements, per Ben’s pediatrician. Gummies that taste like blackberries that he is very into, and liquid for nights he’s being a butt about it. A bedtime routine isn’t something that I had given much thought to, because bedtime was always the easy part — until a couple of months ago. At that point we decided to just… let him stay up. His mood wasn’t affected by late bedtimes, so we didn’t see the harm in it.

Except to, you know, our sex life and general non-parenting hours in the evening.

Anyway, bedtime is simple: TV off at 7:15. Melatonin. Bath. Jammies. Snack. Play or read. Cuddle. Bed. By night five, he was falling asleep mid-story. I plan on weaning him off the melatonin gradually starting in the next week or two, as the idea of long-term use if not strictly necessary makes me uneasy. So bedtime is a breeze now, but he’s waking up in the middle of the night again. Mornings are groggy, angry messes. Daycare drop off is one big meltdown.

I feel like I’m running hurdles but the hurdles are too closely together. When I’ve just barely cleared the first one, my feet are already bumping up against the second. The first hurdle gets knocked over when I attempt to clear the second hurdle too quickly. This is an uneven metaphor, but it’s close. I can only overcome one hurdle successfully at a time. This is a pain in the ass for me; I like to get everything done all at once, or I’m afraid it will never get done.

Ben’s bedtime was the first hurdle. Mornings are next, then daycare drop offs. The biggest hurdle, night wakings, is the final hurdle — for now. Wish me luck. Send coffee.

 

Go the F to sleep

Ben has discovered that he can not only play peekaboo, but that he can magically vanish from adult sight when he covers his eyes. The shrieks that roll out of him — along with the way he throws his arms wide to announce his sudden reappearance in the world — are by FAR the most incredible, “It’s worth it” thing I’ve experienced in his short life. Not just that these little laughs are his, but that he has learned how to make himself laugh in such a way. It’s a gift, being able to find such humor in the world. Sure it’s pretty easy when your life is eat nap poop play repeat, but still. It is glorious and adorable and ALMOST makes up for the new 10:00 bedtime he’s been given to the last week or so.

[Note: I know, I KNOW, I can hear you admonishing me now: children that age NEED 27 HOURS OF SLEEP A NIGHT and if they don’t you MUST absolutely TRAIN them to sleep. I have my own opinions of sleep training (specifically that my kid is too stubborn and dramatic for it to work), but if it works for you and nobody has gone blind from the stress, well la dee dah.]

Oh, wait, did you think this was going to be a #humblebrag #mykidisawesome post? Oh, you.

Ben is 18 months old. He has never been a terrific sleeper, but hey, neither am I. For the past week or two, bedtime has turned into an absolute meltdown of hell raising proportions. I’m of a mind that, if Ben staying up is going to happen: fine, I can roll with it. The worst part is that on the nights he stays up late he’s not even in a crabby mood. No tantrums (unless, you know, I lay him down in his crib), no whining, no utter and complete destruction of my already poorly kept home. He just wants to hang out on the couch and maybe read and play a bit.

AND GET THIS.

He’s not even pissy the next day. I swear. He wakes up at 7:00 sharp, ready for a few minutes of cuddling before he wants to go straight to the back yard with our two dogs. (We have a long, straight, open yard with just enough trees and sticks to make it interesting.) Eats well. Naps well. Our pediatrician doesn’t seem overly concerned. Considering the sleep strike has (so far, thankfully) had virtually no negative impact on his development, attitude, or appetite, “some people just need less sleep,” she told me.

We’ve tried sleep training in the past, but it’s always failed for one reason or another. Turning bedtime into a nightly battle sounds to me like a surefire way to ensure even more nightly battles. At least when you’ve got a kid as headstrong as Ben. As me. As his daddy. It was the same way with transitioning to table foods. We didn’t push, didn’t fight. We kept it conflict free. Now he eats like dream and is open to trying just about anything we hand him.

It’s funny how the things we find most annoying in kids become traits we admire or aspire to as adults. Stubbornness. Persistence. Independence. The drive to explore, to scream with joy, to love and hug and cuddle freely. The need to take things apart and figure out how they work. Sure, he’s a pain in the ass NOW and I sometimes can’t handle the kicking, flailing tantrums because No, you can’t play with scissors, but in five years? Ten? Twenty? If I play my cards juuuust right, those things annoy the shit out of me now are going to make for a pretty awesome adult.

Cross your fingers for me.

P.S. Sleep regressions are bullshit code for “most kids take years to learn how to consistently sleep through the night because of all the the growth and development they are undergoing. Stock up on coffee and xanax.”

P.P.S. Shit. Sorry. #mykidisawesome