Aaaah… toddlerhood. The first words, the first steps, the first attempts to run and jump. The hugs and the slobbery kisses. And then the tantrums, the meltdowns, the scratches, the bites. A roller coaster for all involved. Is it possible to enjoy the ride?
I can only speak from my own experience but my own experience showed me that the ride can be not only enjoyable but truly fascinating and captivating.
Our toddler is now 16 months old. She is changing every single day but still maintains some character traits she had from birth. She is independent and fierce and dramatic and stubborn and focused and persistent and loving and teasing and short-tempered and curious. She is wise and silly at the same time. Some of these traits might be pure toddlerhood while others might stay there as she grows older. The truth is that life with her is an adventure. And as is the case with most toddlers, most days we are faced with a challenge or two.
I have read tons of articles trying to figure out how to deal with the challenges that arise every day. Some are well-written and research-based others make me mad but most of them aren’t really helpful, as every child is different. So here is my number one advice to you, when it comes to enjoying your toddler:
Don’t believe all those parenting articles that present you with solutions. Your child is unique and only by tuning in to their personal needs will you start figuring things out.
The articles that infuriate me are the ones that talk about “challenging kids” or “difficult kids” or “spoiled children”. Toddlers are not difficult or challenging. They are not a problem that needs to be solved. Which brings me to my second advice, that has to do with a change of mindset:
Toddlers are not making your life hard in purpose. Their own life is hard because their body and brain change so drastically every single day and that is some hard stuff to go through. Be empathetic, be patient, be helpful.
Once you embrace this idea that your toddler is not actually trying to piss you off, you will be able to start enjoying the great moments with them, instead of worrying about the next meltdown. There will be bad times, but if you come from a place of empathy, it will be much easier to deal with them, without any negative emotions.
Toddlers are great fun to be around. Some times it is even more fun to be around lots of them, in playgroups (well, unless they are hungry or overtired. They are a bit like Gremlins then). These little people with the big emotions poses wisdom that a psychotherapist would charge you a shitload (excuse my French) of money to enlighten you with.
There is no better way to meditate than a walk in nature with a toddler. The concept of time disappears and the tiny miracles around you get magnified as a tiny hand hands you a leaf, an acorn, a prickly chestnut or a stick and asks you to keep those treasures safe in your pocket. The reflections in the puddles, the cries of the birds, the barks of the dogs startle and fascinate them in a way that captivates you as well.
If you get frustrated that a walk with your toddler lasts for ever, don’t rush your toddler. Take a deep breath and thank them for slowing things down for you. Life goes by too freaking fast.
Of course, we don’t always have the time for leisurely walks. But why not? What is more important than admiring the little details of our surroundings, observing our movement and breathing deeply while holding the hand -or, in our case, watching the back- of that tiny human that means the world to us? Grocery shopping? A stupid social obligation? An e-mail from work? I didn’t think so.
Toddlers are extremely creative little human beings. This happens mostly unintentionally, in their attempts to explore and familiarize with their surroundings. They love discovering new textures, new colors, new sounds. You can have tons of fun with your toddler by offering them opportunities to develop their creativity even further. I have to admit we were a bit over-enthusiastic with this and Loulou Maya attended her first music classes when she was four months old. Well, at least now we know we don’t have a musical prodigy in our hands. However, now that she is 16 months old (and already from 14 months) she is showing interest in colors and pencil sketches. She will give me the pen and make animal sounds as a way to ask me to draw the respective animal. She is obsessed with cats at the moment. We draw with washable markers, chalks and fingerpaint.
In order to enjoy the creative side of your toddler it is important not to get frustrated when things get dirty. And technically they are not dirty. They are just, well, more colorful. It is much easier to protect surfaces, than to restrict your toddler.
Watch your toddler create unexpected color combination and gain confidence as they doodle on bigger surfaces every time. Allow them to touch their materials, to get dirty and sticky and make a mess. The bigger the mess, the more their imagination is free to expand.
Play along. Dip your fingers in finger paint and make primitive collages. Laugh out loud and don’t worry about the clean-up. A bubble bath is fun for everyone. And it helps you both relax as well. And if you can’t handle the mess at all, just stick to media that aren’t so messy, like crayons, pencils and stickers.
Another great way to enjoy your toddler is to share meals with them. And by that I don’t only mean the eating part, but also the cooking one. Loulou Maya gets really fascinated when I am in the kitchen. She loves to open the cupboards and take out pans and bots and she begs to try every single ingredient I put in the food. Her persistence has led to some rather unpleasant discoveries as well (like that pepper incident and the continuous sneezing or that other chili pepper incident), but she still loves to taste, smell and smash new things.
When keeping basic safety rules, like not allowing toddlers close to hot pans and pots, the kitchen can be a place of wonders. All the senses are stimulated at once and being part of this creative process helps kids develop their imagination and cooking also helps them develop various skills.
Yes, your toddler might be a bit clumsy (or a lot) but they can learn how to stir, dip and sprinkle things. Once Loulou Maya is a bit older, she will also get her own (toddler-safe) knife and learn how to chop things. And once the food is ready, sitting down to enjoy it with them is a whole new activity that can entertain both of you and help your little one grow.
Sitting together to share a meal is a great ritual. It teaches the toddler from a young age that the dinning table is a safe space, a place where we can satisfy our hunger, both on a physical and an emotional level. Sharing a good laugh and stories over dinner is a great start. Even if you have to do most of the talking at first.
The first months that Loulou Maya started eating solid food it was hard for us to sit together as a family, as N. was working till late and had a long commute. We adapted our life so that now all three of us can sit around the dinner table. I am well-aware that this is not possible for everyone and feel grateful that we can do this, as it is a special bonding time for the two of them as well. If you can’t do this on a daily basis, weekends or early breakfast are also ways to introduce the ritual. On the other hand, even if your kid eats on their own, they will probably grow up fine, but I am a Mediterranean woman and a Greek mother and FOOD MATTERS YOU GUYS! Plus toddlers make the funniest faces and the weirdest sounds when munching, so why miss that?!
Last but not least, some times no matter how hard you try to enjoy spending time with your little one, it just becomes too much. Too much sleep deprivation, too many repetitions of “mamamamamama” or “papapapapapapa” on your ear, too many tugs on your sleeves. Everything irritates you and even hugs can feel suffocating. When you are all touched-out, don’t push yourself to the limits. You will end up snapping at everyone and that’s not exactly a good example for the copy machine you call your child.
When you feel worn out, take some distance. Claim back some personal space. Ask for help. There is always someone who can help. Your partner, a friend, a baby-sitter. Even if there is no one to spend time with your child and give you time for yourself, use their nap time as “me time” to recharge, instead of doing chores. A burnt out parent is an unhappy parent who hasn’t much to offer both physically and emotionally. Take care of yourself.
I have been lucky enough and whenever this whole motherhood gig became overwhelming, I had a support network came to the rescue. However, as a breastfeeding expat mom with an expat partner, the support I could get from friends and family was mostly in the form of sympathy and little could be done on a practical level, even when we were back in Greece for our holidays. Loulou was content but only as long as I were in the room. The lovely attachment just became too much at some point. Now I have found an excellent gym with a daycare facility that allows me to have an hour to myself, while Loulou has the chance to socialize and learn some Dutch as well. When there is will there is a way, and you will find yours 🙂
P.S.1: Full disclosure. I started writing this post 24 hours ago. Never finished it ’cause my lovely toddler woke up at 00:30 and decided it was a great time to practice animal sounds along with her tickling skills. She went back to bed an hour later. Party all night. NOT fun.
P.S.2: I HATED gym with all my heart and soul. Especially the devil’s machines there. I now love it so much. It might be the fact that it’s a nice gym where elderly people also go for physiotherapy, so I don’t feel like the least fit person in there. Or it might be the fact that it gave me that one hour of freedom. In any case, I recommend joining one. Who knows? You might end up liking it!