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.

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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.

 

Don’t Make Me Do This Again: The Pressure to Reproduce

“When are you going to give him a sibling?” a complete stranger asks. It’s maybe the dozenth time I’ve been asked this question. When someone offers to be my pro-bono, full-time nanny, I think.

There’s a kind of unspoken expectation in America to have multiple children. Only children, or kids who don’t grow up with a sibling in the home, are seen as self-absorbed, maladjusted, unhappy loners lacking in social skills. I have an issue with  the way these assumed behaviors are referred to — only child syndrome — and how it suggests that being without siblings is a disorder of some kind: all children that grow up without a brother or sister are subject to this same set of negative stereotypes, with little or no regard for the environmental factors that influence characteristics like adaptability, agreeableness, empathy, and resiliency.

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The unspoken assumption is that parents of only children do little or nothing to encourage or facilitate socialization with age-mates, or that only children are treated as little adults, isolated from situations that allow them to develop critical social skills that will allow them to flourish as they become old enough to interact with the world independent of parental guidance.

To tell parents that only children are in some way worse off places an excessive amount of pressure on parents to reproduce — even if they lack the financial stability or mental energy to do so. The decision to expand (or not expand) the family is a deeply personal one. More worrying, this pressure entirely disregards the possibility that many couples are unable to expand their family, whether due to fertility reasons, a lack of resources to pursue adoption, or other equally personal reasons. How does a parent compensate for the multitude of ways they are told their child will suffer for their solitude? Can they compensate?

Of course they can. I’ll be damned if I let strangers and ill-proven theories about stunted development persuade me to put my body through the difficult, painful, year-long process of conception, pregnancy, and newborn period. I’ll be double damned if my son isn’t going to be the happiest, most well-adjusted kid ever. The common factors that are most often pointed to as being causes of only child syndrome are things that can be significantly influenced through the active and ongoing evaluation of the child’s environment, relationship with caretakers, and various social outlets.

Ben is in daycare three days a week. We get a little report card telling us how he’s doing on his interpersonal skills, like listening to directions, table manners, and waiting patiently during hallway time. We also get a note on what we need to work on at home. Right now (surprise) it’s listening ears. Ben has a mind of his own, but I’m pretty sure kids his age have maybe a 50% return rate on listening the first time anyway.

From the time Ben was old enough to be aware of the world around him, I made an effort to get him out of the house and into the world on a daily basis. While I’m sure this started as a way to relieve myself of the monotony of caring for an infant, it eventually grew into a much-needed reprieve for Ben, who becomes restless if he’s been cooped up inside all day. We have a large yard and two active dogs, but this isn’t enough stimulation for a vibrant, giggle-happy toddler. Our daily outings to the park or grocery store or a friend’s house for play time allow Ben ample time to interact with the world and other children outside of the structured routine of daycare.

So here, friends, is my deepest (and newest) fear. What if I do everything in my power, but my everything turns out to not be enough? What if my family history of depression ensnares him as it did me? How much of his adult self is determined by  nature vs. nurture? The truth at the heart of it — the same truth at the heart of everything we do — is that only one outcome is ever guaranteed to us. So I’ll do my due diligence and hold onto the hope that our efforts won’t be for nothing or in vain. The rest is a combination of chance, effort, timing, and love.

 

He won’t call me mama, and the weight of loving

After a few nights of teething fueled, leg flailing non-sleep, Ben woke up in a surprisingly stellar mood. Most nights (get off my back already) he ends up in our bed between 3 and 4 in the morning. This doesn’t really bother us if he can HOLD STILL, WHICH HE NEVER DOES BECAUSE HE’S A TODDLER. We’re suckers for the snuggles, but we’re also freaking exhausted and aren’t capable of anything more involved than bringing him to our bed in the middle of the night. Sleeping with a flopping fish isn’t exactly easy, but it is possible. That’s what I tell myself. Fake it ’til you make it. Or something. I don’t actually believe that. But I like to pretend I do.

Instead of waking up under his usual cloud of fog, he was immediately ready to go. He flopped around for a minute, smothered me in a few very wet kisses, and crawled over to pat the dog. The he stood up, threw his arms up and cooed “Da-da!” at Quinn. Side note: Ben has yet to call me mama after doing it exactly twice several months ago. As far as his baby brain is concerned I am still merely an extension of him, not an autonomous being unto myself. Everybody else is a separate entity, but I exist to be an anchor point in the sea of childhood. Ever-present, stable, sturdy, covered in strange growths.

Wait. No.

It’s kind of a heavy burden to bear, isn’t it? Being the center of someone’s world. There’s a constant pressure of never wanting to let them down, never wanting to see them hurt or sad or in need. It’s like universe is telling us, No pressure, but the emotional well-being of this small human depends entirely on you and whatever small village you can cobble together to help you.

There’s a well-meaning saying about having to love yourself before you can love other people. This is an unfair statement. It tells us (unintentionally, but nonetheless) that we don’t deserve to love unless we first can find ourselves worth loving. This is a cruel thing to tell people. I speak from personal experience that this way of thinking is, by and large, misguided bullshit.

Here’s the thing: in allowing myself to love others, I am better able to find reasons to love myself. In allowing myself to take on the weight of caring for another human life, I have opened myself to a range of emotions I hadn’t experienced before becoming a parent. There’s a sense of being secure in my abilities that wasn’t there before. The people I love — my kid, my husband, my friends, and even my dogs — inspire me to be better, to take better care of myself. I am absolutely, 100% capable of loving others even when I don’t love myself. There’s a quote I like much better, that doesn’t tell you that you have to have reached a certain level of acceptable mental status before you’re deserving of love:

By compassion we make others’ misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also.

– Thomas Browne

Something to think about.