When Artie was around 18 months, Tom and I felt like we’d gotten into a good rhythm. I’d written this post a few months before and was still enjoying this early phase of toddlerhood. Artie was happy at home, happy at his daycare, happy at our friends’ homes and various playgrounds where he proved to be surprisingly independent. He was always down to explore or up for a jump.
At our playground one afternoon (and nearly all afternoons), I was pushing him in the swing when a woman approached with her son, who appeared to be only slightly older than Artie. He saw Artie in the swing and began to whine. I figured we’d been in there long enough, and began to pick Artie up.
“Oh please take your time,” the woman said, though this only made her boy whine louder.
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ve been here for a while.”
The woman looked grateful. I said to Artie that we were going to give the other boy a turn now and moved to lift him out. He protested a bit (“Ehhh!”), but once he was out and on the ground, ran happily towards the gate, ready for the slides.
“Well that was easy for you.” The woman lifted her son into the swing and watched Artie go, almost wistful. “I really miss that age.”
I guessed that her boy was at most a few months older than Artie. Sure he seemed whinier and had more words than “bubble,” but I couldn’t imagine Artie changing that much by two.
I don’t know why I was so stupid.
“How old is yours?” I asked.
“He turned two a month ago.” She nodded towards Artie who was now playing with the latch on the gate. “Yours is what, around eighteen months?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “From like one year to twenty months, that was like the best age. A golden time. He was easy. Then just before he turned two, it was like a switch flipped – everything is either a whine, an order, or ‘No.’ Or a tantrum.” Her son was now kicking and shouting ‘higher mommy, higher! Higher!’
I nodded, and in my ignorance guessed she was probably too permissive a parent.
“Honey, mommy’s talking,” she said. “I didn’t think the terrible twos would be such a thing for us, because he was so easy before. But oh man it’s a thing.”
I watched Artie open the gate and close it, and then run to the low brick wall around the swings and begin to climb. I moved toward him, ready to go home where Artie would have some lunch and go down for a nap with minimal fuss.
“He’s adorable,” the woman said. “Just enjoy this age.”
And I did. Until the switch flipped.
Age two is not so great. I thought I was tired before but Artie requires even more physical exertion from us. There’s still the running, jumping and climbing but now there’s also the dragging and carrying when he doesn’t want to do something and the constant bending over to help him with his pants and underwear because we’re potty training.
There’s the coming out of bed ten times before falling asleep, asking us to “hold the hand” or “cover the foot” or “no, no, hold the left hand”, and then coming into our room anywhere between 5-6AM, howling that “the baby shark water is empty,” or “I need to peee” before deciding that since he’s up, we might as well get up and read some books with him.
There’s the defiant attitude, the pretend deafness, the running away and hiding when he is buck naked and we need to be somewhere in fifteen minutes, including travel time. And then there’s the whining. Oh god the whining. Possibly even more grating than his exaggerated crying, the whining often overshadows his ever-expanding vocabulary.
There’s plenty I do that makes it all worse. I yell. A lot. I’ve swatted him on the bum wondering if I should follow in my mom’s footsteps and use a belt (it worked on me). I’ve threatened, bribed, done all the things “experts” say not to do. And irritatingly, they’re right because that shit doesn’t work. Artie is, unfortunately, very much
a goblin his own person with his own agenda.
There were many hours spent reading Reddit’s toddler thread, both delighting in and commiserating with questions like “Toddler or asshole?” just to make sure my feelings of frustration weren’t unfounded and Artie was doing totally normal things. Sometimes, on the hardest days, I can relate, I really can, to Leda’s character in The Lost Daughter, who leaves her young daughters behind. And I don’t even have a job.
But even when we’re not engaging in power struggles at home or at playgrounds, it’s hard to look up and out of these groundhog days. The wisdom to do so comes from other women and men, often older and with grown, sometimes faraway children. They remind me from the distant other side of age two to enjoy this age as well.
A few days ago we had dinner at a pub by the Rocks. Once the food arrived Artie knocked over his chair no less than five times trying to stand and grab Tom’s fries, and proceeded to eat the fries he spilled on the ground before deciding he needed to pee, even though he had just gone right before we sat down.
“I need to peeeee!” he shouted and made a beeline into the pub by himself, nearly running into a server with a full tray of sloshing beers.
Tom and I looked at each other, mentally drawing straws. Tom, who was ordering drinks the first time I took Artie to the bathroom, ran after him. I leaned back, reaching for my very large wine and caught the eye of a silver-haired woman sitting two tables away. She and her husband were chuckling.
“We’re just enjoying our dinner and a show,” she said. “He’s two?”
“We’re exhausted.” I held up my wine.
“We know how it is. Our grandkids are teenagers now and we love them but we sure do miss that age. We’ve been watching your son the whole time and he’s just a hoot.”
Tom came back with Artie and reached for his beer.
The woman gave Artie a little wave, but he was too busy scavenging for more fallen fries. She smiled at Tom.
“I was just saying that your son is delightful.”
“Oh yeah? You guys want to take him?”
The couple laughed. “I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times from older folks like us, but it’s true. It’ll go by in a flash and one day they’ll just be up and gone, living their own lives with kids of their own somewhere far far away. Like Australia.”
They were from Connecticut. They were visiting their daughter and two grandkids who were more likely to play video games at a pub dinner rather than each french fries off the ground. The couple were spending a few days at the Rocks to give their daughter and son-in-law space.
“You know how it is,” she said, winking at me.
This was parenthood in a nutshell, a tangle of incompatible feelings like wanting space from him now, yet knowing that one day, sooner than I think, I’ll need to be conscious of giving him space. Like wanting Artie to get to an age where he gets “easier” (to when he can wipe his own ass, for instance), but also knowing that despite his grand ambitions to tear down our house, he will never ever again be this little, with his rotund belly, already diminishing, and big cheeks.
I am tired all the time, and yet I know my future self will look back with rose-tinted bifocals and remember the puckish energy he brings to our days. I see kids aged four to nine on the playground, entirely different creatures from Artie, and know those years are closer than we think. I see my nieces and nephews who seemed to be babies just last year and who are now in their sixes and sevens, tens and elevens. I think about myself, turning thirty-six in a few months and how clearly I still remember many things from my childhood, and also, how the hell am I turning thirty-six in a few months.
And I think about this couple from Connecticut who remind me of my own parents, and Tom’s parents and how if things go well and right, we’ll blink and be where they are. We’ll chuckle at the things that our grandchildren do that make Artie want to pull his hair out. It’s the circle of life. It’s only fair.
They got up to leave, but not before thanking Artie for providing their evening entertainment.
“Artie say bye-bye,” I prompted him, suddenly wistful for the moment I was still living in. But he kept quiet and watched them go. They crossed the street and it wasn’t until they turned the corner that Artie put his hand up to wave. “Bye byeeee” he shouted, and went about his merry, two-year old ways.