Spring is a cruel time. Glimmers of light and warmth, then snow. Signs of life and organic desires for new plans, yet the persistence of a wintry somnolence.
I’m ready for a stay-at-home rant.
These days I awake with dread. Unless I manage to slip out of bed before he does, the first sound I hear is whining or crying. I think to myself, “Is it just you? Or are all kids like this? Why does it have be such misery?” As always with parenting, I never seem to be able to accept things the way they are and go with the flow.
I want to crawl back into bed to avoid the onslaught of demands and screams. Some days I can stave it off because my partner and I switch days of being “on.”
On the mornings I’m more “on,” I must brace myself before placing my feet on the floor. Miles whines or moans off and on for about five minutes, sometimes longer. Almost immediately, he says, “Let’s play!” or “I’m hungry.”
“Let’s play” means sitting next to him and doing whatever he commands. For six months, his favorite is “car crash”–making cars crash over and over again, ever since he witnessed a fender bender that apparently radically changed his world. He occasionally accepts the offering of a new crash scenario (oh no!, watch out for that deer!) but usually insists on reverting to the old ones (running a stop sign).
He also dictates strange medleys of making cars crash, making trains crash, playing with marbles, picking clams (difficult to explain), pretending he’s one of his classmates from preschool, or pretending that we must hide because Pippi Longstocking is coming to find us. Except for cars, none of the above activities lasts longer than a few seconds before morphing into the next thing. Almost always any intervention from me to shape the direction of play or try something new is met with howling protests, “No Papa No!” I must be a rag-doll plaything to be manipulated whichever way he pleases.
In the morning “I’m hungry” doesn’t necessary mean that he’s hungry. I’m still trying to crack the code on this one. It could be that he simply wants to be in charge of the toaster or that he wants to kick off the morning progression of getting-ready activities. Typically, once we’re settled at the table with food, he eats three bites and announces he’s done. When I offer multiple choices, he often doesn’t want any of it. (This is when I curse the conventional parenting-advice wisdom that offering choices is a good idea. Hasn’t it created a bunch of mini-monsters who get just as paralyzed by consumer choice as us adults?) So when met by refusals all around, I take a different tack: here’s what’s for breakfast, kid. Love it or leave it.
Leaving it means he will ask for a snack on the way to school. We started giving him one occasionally—hello, not-so-healthy-seeming breakfast bar!—because was coming home from school like a starving lunatic. We keep setting our own traps. Here’s a new solution, my partner says, hand him a banana (which he sometimes likes) or another piece of fruit on the way home from school. I stopped trying that after he hurled fruit onto the wet, grainy-muddy floor mat below his car seat for the third time.
So on days like this, days when I can’t be the rag doll, I take one of two paths.
Withdrawal is the first. It involves redundantly visiting political news on the Internet. This does absolutely nothing to improve my life; in fact, it makes everything worse because the coverage is purely entertainment, the games are all cynical, the leaders revolting, and the actual news grim. Yet I keep going back. I really should open a novel instead.
A more positive and productive approach to withdrawing from Miles involves fleeing into domestic activities—another load of laundry, vacuuming, cooking, or occasionally tackling something more ambitious like planting seeds. Typically, but not always, Miles settles into his own world when he sees me being busy. Sometimes I can incorporate him into the work, which is when parenting suddenly seems beautiful again (like I’m with my little buddy, not an unpredictable tyrant).
The second path is engagement. It opens to me on the days when the sun is shining again or when I’ve managed to rev myself up with a new bout of ambition. I have an idea, Miles! Let’s get all the magnets out, just like on Caillou, and find out where they will stick in the house. Or I’ll try dress up one more time by letting him at boxes of winter hats, gloves, and scarves. Or I tape big pieces of paper all over the walls and let him at it with paint, stickers, and markers. Or I build a tent so we can go camping.
Once in awhile, these efforts bear fruit and we can play together for a half an hour or so. And occasionally, the new concept sticks and become a new part of his play repertoire. But lately, as with the magnets yesterday or really anytime I try to get him to put on any sort of play clothing, he will not budge from his position.
His mind has become more and more set on repeating the same exact familiar situations and games (I understand this is textbook toddler development). If he indulges something besides cars or trains or roughhousing, it’s fleeting and frustrating. We try memory game, yet half way through it devolves into throwing the cards onto the floor.
Then I withdraw again. Or, when I figure resistance is futile, I follow his commands.
“Sit here, Papa! No not there, here! No, closer! Don’t bump the marbles!”
“I want miiiilllk! No, this milk has cream on the top! No!!!!!! I don’t WANT it.”
“Play car crash. No, that car is my car. You use this car! No, not that one. This one!”
I don’t know if this is what people meant when they told us, “Terrible two’s were nothing, wait ’til he’s three!” But I want it to be over soon. It’s wrecking my head.