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.

Even my doctor doesn’t want to see me

“Pregnancy made me stupid,” I lamented to my friend.

“Oh, no it hasn’t,” she replied. She had that stop feeling sorry for yourself tone in her voice. You know, the one where you’re trying to placate somebody when they’re being dramatic and hard on themselves but you love them and want them to be happy.

“No, it has. It’s a thing. I swear pregnancy, like, permanently changed my brain.”

(It does, you know. This isn’t me saying all moms are mentally inefficient in the same way I am. That’s me calling bullshit on the “Get your pre-baby self back” crowd. If you’ve gone through the physical experience of carrying a pregnancy,  you are literally not the same person you were before. It’s more than that transcendental love at first sight, the center of my universe re-positioned itself thing the mommy blogs talk about. It’s an actually physical and mental change. In other words: fuck evolution*.)

But back to my lamentation: when I say pregnancy made me stupid, what I’m really saying is that I can no longer communicate the way I used to. Speaking and writing — previously a huge part of my identity — now present major obstacles. Speaking out loud has become a challenge. I stumble over my words, lose my train of thought, and forget what I said 60 seconds prior during any conversation with another adult human. Writing is no longer the cathartic practice it once was. Writing is difficult and requires outlines and notes and typically results in embarrassment over the lack of quality.

I used to be so good at these things. What happened? Can I fix it?

Exhaustion is undoubtedly part of the problem but the only solution anybody can seem to offer me is sleep more, as if the idea of sleeping is novel and somehow utterly attainable for parents of young children.

Yes, I’m tired. I’m always tired. I’m 18 months of insufficient sleep tired. You know what else I am? Anxious, and a little bit traumatized. See, my kid will not sleep through the night. It’s my fault, of course, because I handle the overnight things. Any sleep issues he has can be blamed squarely on good ol’ mom. We’ve had a dozen or so nights without wake ups since he was born. That’s roughly 12 full nights out of over 550. It’s gotten to the point that

I’ve tried night weaning (still wakes up). I’ve tried letting him cry it out (he screams for hours). We’ve tried melatonin at bedtime (falls asleep easier, doesn’t stay asleep). Earplugs. Begging. Sobbing. Cuddling. Co-sleeping. He’s not in pain. There’s nothing physically wrong with him. He hasn’t flagged for ASD. He just wakes up and won’t sleep until he has me there, cuddling with him. If Quinn goes in — and this really pisses me off — he cries MORE until Quinn brings him to me.

What. the. fuck.

18 months of this has left me… well, traumatized for lack of a more appropriate word. Every night when I go to bed, I think to myself there’s no point, he’ll be awake again soon. And when that little voice cries out, I wake up anxious, angry, tearful. I recently had Q try to do bedtime (don’t ask why he doesn’t do it. I don’t have the strength to go into it right now) after an hour of Ben fighting me, and the tantrum was so bad I found myself in the middle of the first panic attack I’ve had in ages.

A panic attack. Full-blown. Numb, tingling hands. Heart racing. Shaking. Nauseated. I had to leave. I couldn’t be around it. I felt like I had failed my son.

(Side note: bedtime is now tantrum-free and at a normal hour again, which is a nice hurdle to have jumped.)

So I’m back on the self-care, me-first-just-for-a-while bandwagon. I have calls in to several offices — GPs as well as therapists — but I can’t seem to find a doctor’s office in this entire damn city to return my request for an appointment. I am loosing my god damned mind trying to navigate the Forest of Toddler Parenting. The trees are thick, and the path is dark.

I’m desperate for a sense of normalcy. Ease. I feel a little like Link in the Legend of Zelda game we were playing last week. I need tools, a sword, a map, maybe a little fairy to boost me up when I collapse. A wise old wizard to tell me stories and inspire me along the way.


*I’m putting this on a coffee mug

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

All the ways I’m a bad mom

This post was originally published on Medium when my son was, oh, 9-months old. Dedicated to the woman that had the nerve to comment when she saw my baby happily and quietly chewing on my keychain while at the grocery store.

His socks never match

His feet are huge so I’m buying new socks every few weeks (which is about how often his clothes get washed anyway because for some reason babies need huge wardrobes), but I can still never seem to find a matching pair. Ever. So he goes to daycare in mismatched socks every. Single. Day.

He will wear the same clothes two days in a row if he doesn’t get dirty

Look. He doesn’t care if he’s wearing the same outfit as yesterday. If there are no food or bodily fluid stains, and it’s not covered in dog hair? I’m probably too tired to change him

out of

the shirt he slept in. I promise he doesn’t care.

He only sleeps, like, 8 hours a night most nights

Our pediatrician assured us that as long as he’s his normal, happy self on only eight hours of sleep, there’s nothing to worry about. Except, you know, everybody else we know that has a baby or has ever had a baby — their little ones always get an average of 30 hours a night. I am a little bitter about that.

I get really annoyed when he whines and I can’t figure out why

He could care less about baby sign language. He loves to talk. It’s fun. What’s not fun? This also means he’s proficient in whining. There are only so many songs, games, toys, bottles, naps, and cuddles we can do before I run out of ideas. They say that you learn to “speak” your baby’s language and develop an understanding as to what they mean with certain cries. This is, in my experience, largely bullshit.

He sleeps in our bed half of the night, almost every night

He goes down in his bed, easily, without struggle but — invariably, due to my inability to night wean him, by the time he wakes up at 3:00 AM, I am too exhausted to wake up enough to go through a whole bedtime routine again. And, shame on me, I refuse to let him sob hysterically all night. So he comes and cuddles with us. He’s not always going to like having us around, and it doesn’t really bother us too much, so it’s hard for me to care re: the weirdly divisive nature of the bed-sharing opinion world.

I don’t like giving him baths

They take too long and require so much prep and ugh, is the water too hot? Now it’s too cold. Is he shivering? Come on, you like baths. No, you can’t crawl around naked you’ll probably poop on the rug or something. Let me just put this towel in the — yep, you pooped.

Sometimes I rock him to sleep

Like the cuddling in bed thing: he’s not always going to need us or want us around. He’s so small and undeveloped. His systems aren’t as sophisticated as an adult’s are. He still needs help sometimes, and that’s okay. I’m not going to begrudge a helpless child their need for comfort. I’m pretty sure we aren’t ruining him forever by showing him he’s loved and safe.

We let him use a pacifier even though he’s 9 months old.

He doesn’t need it to sleep, but he does like having one around. Eh. This is a pretty minor transgression.

(Note from 18 months: Ben gave up his pacifier completely, cold turkey, not long before his first birthday.)

I let him feed himself

Have you ever watched a baby try to master their fine motor skills? He will grab two fists full of baby cereal and shove both of them in the general direction of his mouth in an effort to consume any of it. It’s messy and takes a long time to clean up but it’s funny so I give myself that little thing.

I had wine (and sushi) during my pregnancy

Once a week, I had a glass of wine that I measured on a food scale, added iced to, and sipped over the course of an hour (or two, if I was really dragging it out). I also ate sub sandwiches and sushi a few times. How old does a kid have to be to try sushi?

I need time away from the noise sometimes in order to be a better parent

This is one of those things about parenting that doesn’t seem to be talked about: you cannot possibly be fully prepare for the depths of exhaustion that come with never getting a break. That’s not something everybody is equipped to handle.

The first time I heard about the baby blues was the morning I was discharged. The nurse on rotation took me aside and told me, in the most gentle voice, “Don’t worry too much when it hits. It happens to everybody. Just take care of yourself and call your doctor if it becomes unbearable.”

My baby can’t live his best life if his mom isn’t living hers. If I’m going to be able to give him the best care and support I can, I have to be able to give myself those things first. So maybe I’m a bad mom for not giving up my personhood in favor of orbiting around my child like a sun and it’s planet.

My baby doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he likes to follow along.

Hey, Stop Being An A-hole

Hi Baby,

I love you. I love you so much I can’t handle it.

(Imagine I am reading this to you in that exaggerated voice that you think is so funny.)

I love the way you giggle when the dogs walk into the room. I love the way you start flailing when you see daddy walk in the door. I love the special smile you reserve just for your inner circle. You make people feel special when you smile at them. I love you so much it aches almost much as it feels lovely to know that loving somebody can make you feel so lovey.

And it’s because I love you so much that I’m writing this letter. Also because you wouldn’t understand any of this no matter how I communicated it to you so there’s also that. You are only eight months old.

In eight months’ time, you’ve gone from scrunched-faced cone head to chubby, big bootied baby. Every major development you’ve made has been on your own time. It’s been the most thrilling experience of our lives to watch you grow and learn and become more and more of a person every day.

These words are hard to say out loud. I need to tell you this:

You’re being kind of an a-hole lately.

You are. And it’s cool: you’re a baby. It happens. You will be able to use the “I’m a kid” excuse many, many times over the next several years.

Enjoy it. There is so, so much I am willing to let slide because you’re a kid.

Like, I still expect you to be polite and kind and compassionate. But “He’s a kid, kids are messy” is pretty reasonable to me and I don’t really care how sloppy you get when you’re playing outside as long as you clean up when you get inside.

You know what I do care about though?

The blood-drawing on my boobs thing you’ve got going on lately. I know teeth are exciting. I KNOW. They are very cool and can do so many things. Steamed carrots! Sweet potatoes fries! But biting boobs is not good manners. Please never bite another person unless you are afraid for your personal safety or they have asked you to bite them.

And hey, about the fake out scream at bedtime — what’s the deal with that? You fall asleep within 60 seconds of being kissed goodnight. I know you would rather be held while you sleep. I get it. I would also like somebody to hold me while I sleep, existing solely for my own personal comfort, ignoring their own bodily needs. But (most) grownups don’t wear diapers and don’t have that luxury.

Also, you’re crawling now! That is so exciting for us to watch. Could you please stop only crawling when there are electrical cords in sight, though? That is a kind of anxiety I never knew I was capable of feeling. I now live in constant fear of a television falling on your head. I thought about asking your dad how he felt about just getting rid of the TVs, but then I remembered Twin Peaks just started.

Please take this criticism as constructive, Bubbers. I just want you to be the best, happiest, most well-adjusted baby ever.

No pressure.

I’m going to go call Grandma and apologize for all the times I was probably a jerk as a baby now.

Love you, baby.

Mama

“This mom thing is bullshit.”

Ben, my almost-17-month old, is face down on the floor, wailing. He’s been teething for three days, sleeping six of the twelve hours he needs at night, refusing to eat, and being generally non-responsive to children’s over-the-counter pain medication. The frustration is compounded by my temporary helplessness: his needs are met to the very best of my ability, and yet in this moment I have, on some level, failed him.

It was part exhaustion, part par-for-the-course toddler tantrum. The trigger (this time) had something to do with me trying to cook myself a quick breakfast. I stood over him, cooing gentle and supportive words while he shrieked so loudly I couldn’t actually hear myself speak. He would occasionally look back up at me to make sure I was still audience to his display.

This is bullshit, I thought. I dropped the cooing. Sometimes silence is the only way to handle a tantrum.

I bear the brunt of his moods because as many a toddler will tell you: only mama will do. Only mama is fit to be the target of their literal infantile rage. My husband looked at me and shrugged — not just shrugged, but gave me that “I’m doing what I can, but I don’t know what else to do” look that looks like defeat mixed with confusion and maybe a small hint of failure.

“I’m going to write a book about all the bullshit they don’t tell you about parenting.”

(Hi: this is that thing. This clearly isn’t a book, but it’s… close enough.)

Parenting, I’m learning (I’m new at this, please be cool and fuck back off to your perfect Instagram life before you pass judgment), is a lot of bullshit. Yes, my child has become the thing I hold most dear in the world. Yes, my world would be shattered and it would take years to regain some sense of rightness with the world if anything ever happened to him. If I could trade But there’s a lot they don’t tell you about, like the endless screaming fits or seemingly inborn death with or how some people will tsk-tsk you for getting frustrated, like, ever, or for not matching their socks or whatever. They don’t adequately warn you how much pressure you will truly feel: is he happy enough? Is she hitting her milestones too slowly? Why can’t I get him to sleep through the night? Why did they allow me to reproduce without passing a basic competency check*?

They also don’t tell you how gross and adorable it will be when they start giving big, sloppy, open mouth kisses fifteen times a day because they feel like it, or how you will become the center of their world and that this small human will, at least for a few years, become the world that the sun rises and sets on. They don’t tell you that naps will become your second or third favorite thing ever, or how much your view of the world and the people in it will shift. How your taste for media will rule out anything that shows small children in any kind of peril (maybe that’s just me). How you will suddenly feel compelled to be a better person, even just slightly, because you realize that how you face the world is also how your child will learn to face the world.

This mom thing is bullshit. Or maybe, more clearly, the facade of motherhood in the internet age is bullshit. Perfectly curated lives and pristine white-and-gray iPhone photos and kids that never, ever get sick or messy. Twenty ways to clean your house completely while your kids are napping (because one thing you aren’t is a human that just wants to sit down for a fucking minute. Ten (completely unhelpful) tips for parents that don’t get enough sleep. Three ways to do the years of emotional work you neglected before the kids get home from school. Keep up, they tell you. Be super mom. You aren’t human, are you?

There’s a lot of bullshit. The internet — a central component of many of our lives — is full of it. But those big, sloppy kisses and giggle-filled screams of hello at the end of the day? Man, they almost make it worth it.

*Eugenics is bad.

Lies people told me while pregnant.

Since you’re in your 30s expect it to take at least a few months to get pregnant.

Sushi will hurt your baby. And wine. And cold lunch meat. So will brie, and all the other delicious soft cheeses. Actually, anything that isn’t gluten-free, non-gmo, certified organic and veggie-based will hurt your baby. But you should absolutely be having cravings.

No, you don’t look fat. No, you don’t look like the dwarf women from The Hobbit movies.

You shouldn’t lift that.

There is no safe way to exercise when you’re pregnant.

It’s cute how huge your belly is. Your pregnant waddle is also cute.

You definitely have the hips to naturally birth that almost 10 pound baby.

You should go into labor in the next 24 hours just as soon as I do this very uncomfortable, painful thing to your cervix.

Okay, now you should go into labor in the next 24 hours just as soon as I do this very uncomfortable, painful thing to your cervix again.

A regular dose of narcotic pain medication will numb the c-section pain enough for you to be walking by the end of the day.

No, nursing doesn’t hurt. Nursing will help you lose the baby weight more quickly. Nursing is a magical experience.

You will definitely have time to write during your maternity leave.

You’ll learn how to live with a permanent sleep deficiency.


Maybe it’s just me, but pregnant women are treated in a way that feels very… old-fashioned.

Regressive. I mean regressive.

Here’s what people seem to forget: people with uteruses have been having babies for quite literally hundreds of thousands of years. The uterus, and the body attached to it, was designed by nature to be a formidable, durable life-sustaining machine. The body is capable of carrying on with a majority of normal daily activities while nurturing the life inside it.

It probably doesn’t help that I live in the South. While I did end up in a liberal pocket in north Texas, there’s still an undercurrent to social mores that show that the outdated men are men and women are women ideal is still ingrained in the social consciousness.

Like being called honey when your male partner is referred to as boss. Like asking for the check at dinner, and repeatedly seeing it handed to said male partner.

It’s wonderful that so many men get to feel even more like men when they refuse to let a pregnant woman carry something that weighs more than a checkbook. Blessed is the womb of the mother or whatever.

I mean, blessed only during pregnancy, obviously. The expectation that American women return to work, on average, within 10 weeks (which is generous— one quarter of American women return to work within two weeks) is a whole other can of worms for another time.