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.

So Mother’s Day was last weekend

Within a span of eight weeks in the spring we have four birthdays, one anniversary, and Mother’s day, a day which I’m told that in some places mothers get to do this thing called… re- re-lax? I think that’s it. Anyway, Spring is hectic. But it means I get to buy presents. Lots of presents. Are love languages still a thing? Because I guarantee you gift giving is mine. What does that say about me?

I don’t even need the excuse of a holiday to buy someone a gift. Quinn, however, stalls out when an occasion arises that calls for a gift. There’s a lot of pressure in gift buying. I get it. I kind of like that pressure. Gift giving is a way of acknowledging the ways in which we value relationships. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not buying Quinn thousand dollar watches. It’s a way of saying I care about you, and so I’ve done this thing that I feel is reflective of the person you are. But over the past few years, I’ve started asking for donations

For my mom this year, I made a donation to Every Mother Counts in honor of my own mom (don’t worry, she also got a commemorative plate celebrating the royal wedding). We make modest donations at Christmas to women’s shelters in our area. For my birthday this year Quinn made a donation to Lambert House, an LGBT youth center in my hometown that I’d never heard of before. It was perfect, thoughtful, and a reminder that Quinn not only understands my values, but shares them.

It’s a tradition I hope to keep as Ben grows older, one that teaches him that giving is more than toys or trinkets — it’s consideration and compassion. In my dream future, summer vacation will be dotted with a few volunteer hours. Christmas will involve picking out toys for kids on the giving trees around town.

Time is not something we have in excess of these days, but we are fortunate to be without significant debt; giving money is the next best thing we can do, for now. That, and working towards raising our child to be conscientious of the needs of others. Kindness, and compassion — that’s what I want for him.

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.

 

Friday Five: It’s not your fault if your kid is a butthead.

We have not had an easy week. Those teeth are still coming and sleep is scarce. It makes me tense in a way that drives Quinn up the wall. You try maintaining a cheery attitude when you’ve been awake with a pissed off toddler since 4:30, you haven’t slept, and they won’t stop whining because they’re exhausted but refuse to sleep. Leaving him to cry himself back to sleep doesn’t work. He will go on for hours; I spend so much time worrying that I’m causing him permanent damage by letting him cry for so long that it causes me to lose sleep. But not to worry: today’s round up is all about the weird ways parental efforts are overestimated and how we should all really just relax about the whole effing our kids up thing. You’re (probably) fine.

Motherhood Isn’t Sacrifice, It’s Selfishness

Fathers are rarely, if ever, spoken about in the same way that mothers are. It’s culturally acceptable for men to have children and professional identities without having to choose between the two. These unspoken biases run deep.

It reminds me of a friend whose husband complained about having to “babysit” the children while she went to dinner with friends. Has a woman ever “babysat” her own children? Things are changing, but the insidious inferences persist.

Karen Rinaldi’s main point is that motherhood is still often referred to as a woman’s job — language she argues does women and mothers a disservice. Rinaldi suggests re-framing job instead as privilege but never goes into what makes  her version of motherhood selfish. The suggestion that motherhood is without sacrifice comes from a position of significant, well, privilege.

Why it’s good to have a strong-willed child, and why you should let up on them

They are more impervious to peer pressure and go after what they want with more gusto. They want to “learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over,” and this relates to relationships as well. Such discernment involves not only when they cut their hair, eat vegetables, or choose to wear a coat, but also in whom they decide to trust and in whom they choose to follow or who they allow themselves to be influenced by.

The sentiment here mirrors something I repeat to myself often, just about every time I’m ready to pull my hair out because Ben is being a butthead: “Right now it frigging sucks, but the traits that drive us crazy right now are going to benefit him when he gets older if we encourage him correctly.” Mutual trust, it seems, is key to finding the sweet spot between allowing a stubborn child to flourish and maintaining safe boundaries.

What Millennials Say About Their Parents During Therapy

“We went from a parent-focused society to a child-focused society, and this generation are the products of this flux in our parenting focus… As a result, I hear consistent complaints that their parents are micromanaging their lives to the point of it being suffocating and overbearing.”

I’m a big proponent talking through personal and interpersonal issues, and this is something I think about often. What will Ben think of me when he’s older? Will he see us — or our progressive-for-the-times beliefs — as outdated products of a bygone generation? Will he even like mom, the person when he’s 30? The content here isn’t groundbreaking, but offers an interesting perspective on the shift from 1950s seen-not-heard parenting to the current climate where kids are often at the center of everything.

Most parenting advice is worthless. So here’s some parenting advice.

Like any parent, I would love to believe that my awesome kids are a result of my awesome parenting. Sadly, expert opinion indicates it ain’t so. Genes have an enormous influence. Peers and culture have an enormous influence. But parenting styles inside the home, apart from extreme cases like abuse or neglect, have very little long-term influence on a person’s personality or success in life, at least that social scientists have been able to detect.

File under This Week in My Kid Will Definitely Turn Out To Be A Serial Killer. As if the bottomless well anxiety-inducing nonsense weren’t enough to keep my doctor in business, now there’s this revelation to worry about. The days are long, but the years are short.

A new study says it doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your kids

It turns out that the most reliable parenting strategy is simply to be rich. Beyond that, it’s not clear that what parents do — at least among the range of things that more or less normal people do — is actually all that significant. Some people find that conclusion bleak and nihilistic. Hence the somewhat spurious framing around quality time.

Surprise! Your socioeconomic status has more to do with how your kid’s life turns out than how much time you spend with them. Until they’re a teenager, at least. Maybe now I’ll stop feeling guilty for taking a 20 minute nap between work and daycare pick up once a month.

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.

 

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

Who am I doing this for?

“Why are you trying to lose weight?”

“Oh, you know,” I say. “Need to lose a few pounds.”

Don’t tell me, I want to say. I know this one. It’s a joke, asking women why they want to lose weight.

I’m trying to lose weight because I’m fat and no longer comfortable in my body for a multitude of reasons you may or may not empathize with.

Because following the birth of my child, I stopped prioritizing my own health. I regained the 60 pounds I first gained during pregnancy, then lost while breastfeeding, then gained back.

Because my workload suddenly tripled, and I barely have the time to sleep let alone cook healthy meals.

Because my free time is spent playing with my son instead of going to the gym, because I will only have these precious and frustrating early years once.

Because I have developed an emotionally dependent relationship with food.

Because society has conditioned women to believe their value as a person can be measured by their weight far more than their contributions or character.

I don’t say any of this. I rarely do, because historically what I intend to be an honest statement that I hope will inspire or facilitate a deeper conversation is met with admonitions. It’s a bummer, or it’s “too serious.” These responses come almost exclusively from men — which I, for now, assume is at least somewhat related to the bullshit men* are raised with: emotions are a sign of weakness, boys don’t cry, and other assorted, inane nonsense. Women, by and large, nod appreciatively. In the broader sense, it doesn’t seem to matter how empathetic, funny, engaging, or socially minded we are. Ours is a world that makes snap judgments based on our appearances. When was the last time you looked at a stranger and thought “Oh yeah, look at the sense of social obligation on that one?”

My desire for help, for connection, for commiseration and support, is silenced before the things I want to say can surface. There’s a sense of being resigned, of having given up. I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable on my search for connection and understanding, because, don’t you know? Women don’t complain.

Many of the women I have known grew up aware of the same silent rule I’ve been unknowingly adhering to all my life: girls don’t complain. Women are expected to be caring, nurturing, loving, self-sacrificing. Is this unspoken rule an exploitation of the maternal instinct? Does the maternal instinct even exist? I don’t know. I have no idea. I can say, with certainty, that am not an instinctual parent. I parent by learning. I had no idea how to breastfeed or help a newborn latch on to a breast. I learned how to do so through many, many hours with a squirmy little leech attached to me. I didn’t suddenly know what his different cries meant, or even that he had different cries at first; I learned through paying attention.

Whether it’s nature or nurture, the end result is the same. On my list of priorities my mental and physical health hovers towards the bottom, because I have ended up in a place, mentally, that no longer sees the pursuit of better mental or physical health as something of value. I find myself spending a majority of my time at home cleaning. That’s it. Cleaning. Picking up, wiping down, rinsing off, changing over. Time I could be spending writing, or reading, or doing yoga or just… staring at the wall.

That’s pretty bleak, right?

It would be easy to let myself carry on like this, never growing, never moving out of this very uncomfortable comfort zone. But here’s an opinion you hear so often that you probably don’t believe it when you hear it anymore: being a parent makes me want to be a better person. I love my son, but my desire to be a better and healthier person stems from acknowledging how influential his father and I are in how he views and interacts with the world.

What kind of person will he grow up to be, if his first and biggest influence is depressed, unhappy, unhealthy? How will this influence his view of women? Of marriages? How can I hope to raise a well-rounded, empathetic, conscientious human if I can’t be those things myself? What will I do with myself and my life when he’s grown and left home? Do I want to be like this forever?

I always end up with more questions than answers. That’s okay, though. I like questions.

When it’s time for a I’m uncomfortable in the body I currently exist in, due the the limitations an excess 50 or so pounds puts on me. I’m unhappy with my energy levels and eating habits. I’m not okay with no longer being able to see myself for the breadth of who I am: engaged, attentive, passionate, and maybe more than a little difficult.

So, yeah, I’m doing it partly for my kid. Mostly, though, I’m doing it for me.

Related Reading Around The Web

An interesting take on maternal instinct as a social invention

Kids learn to undervalue women from their parents

*(or, more specifically: people assigned male at birth and raised with male gender roles and expectations)