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.

 

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.

IMG_2647-EFFECTS.jpg

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.

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.