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.

 

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.