On the way to the hospital one year ago, breathtaking labor pains occupied my body while the anticipation of meeting my final family member gripped my mind. I told myself, out loud, to keep breathing. I had to—there was no one else in the car. Hello, third child.
This week marks that baby’s first birthday, and I’m feeling all the feels. Not lowest on that list is pride (neither is relief). First may be a tie between energized exhaustion—kind of like finding a little extra pep when you can see the finish line at the end of a long race—and an all-consuming, grief-like feeling over the end of the baby years. One thing is definite though: I survived a year with three kids under age 5.
I’m still no parenting expert. At the bottom of my current rainbow of emotions though lies a partially-filled pot of gold, containing the sanity-saving, child-rearing nuggets I’ve collected this past year.
Ditch the parenting platitudes. Enjoy every minute? What about the ones we spent sitting in middle-of-the-night-construction-induced traffic somewhere between D.C. and Boston with a wailing baby, a puking toddler, and a potty-trained child whose poor bladder just couldn’t hold it anymore? I certainly wasn’t soaking it in then—more like soaking in it. Right there on Interstate 95, I made a conscious decision to take the unhelpful, overused clichés that well-wishers had lobbed my way, crumple them up, and toss them out the window of our minivan. No one can possibly love every minute of motherhood. The days are long but the years are short? I’ve amended that one: The days are long when the kids are short. Some years have certainly seemed faster than others. There may come a day when I suddenly see a glimmer of wisdom in these homilies, but for now, when someone offers me a supposedly sympathetic statement (“My, you have your hands full! Don’t worry, you’ll sleep someday!”) I smile sweetly and shrug.
It’s okay to make the rules up as you go—even if they seem ridiculous. The day I brought baby #3 home from the hospital, I told my older two (then newly-2- and almost-4-years-old) about a new rule: only one kid in our house was allowed to cry at a time. Whenever a second child chimed in, attempting to turn a solo tantrum into a duet, I calmly reminded them of this regulation—often with an inward chuckle over the absurdity. But then something amazing happened: through the sobs of my inconsolable infant, I heard my oldest tell my verge-of-tears middle child that it wasn’t his turn. Eventually, that evolved into my older two trying to calm each other if one was upset and I was tending to a cranky infant. If only all my far-fetched rules went over this well—but I know now that it’s always worth a try.
Words (like kids) can be small but mighty. I didn’t think I needed a lesson in semantics to be a parent, but taking the time to focus on some powerful, 2-letter words helped restore a reasonable control hierarchy in our home. I used to find myself turning directions into questions by attaching “ok?” to the end. “It’s time to put your shoes on, ok?” Purposefully removing that word didn’t always eliminate an outburst, but it did erase the idea that it was up to my children whether to put said shoes on. Introducing two more letters, “or”, to the equation gave a bit of the authority I reclaimed back to the young ones: “Should we put your shoes on first or your jacket?” Turning questions into statements and offering reasonable choices through the focused use of two little words didn’t solve all of my parenting woes, but those tiny words did become useful tools for (sometimes) mitigating big tantrums and tears. Next on my list is firmly following through when using the word “if.” A word of caution: it is wildly implausible to tell your son that if he doesn’t behave, he’s not going to his own 3rd birthday party.
Don’t try to beat them. Go straight to joining them. Managing the needs and moods of one child is tricky; three creates an exponential effect. Some of the happiest moments of the past year though happened when we sensed things about to go haywire—and joined in. After a Sunday afternoon chock-full of birthday parties, I attempted a grocery store run with 3 children at the exact moment that sugar crashes broke my kids’ ability to regulate their own conduct. Total behavioral chaos: my bewildered baby’s look said it all as the other two raced around like crazed Supermarket Sweep contestants, alternating between maniacal laughter and exhausted tears. As we climbed back into the van, I grabbed the nearest party favor from the floor, a plastic microphone, and did the only thing that made sense in the moment: started to make “announcements” from the cockpit. Within seconds, we were all laughing—even the baby. Foolishly attempting to bathe them that night, the cries and complaints turned to chortles as my husband and I pulled them out of the tub and spontaneously altered the words of “We Will Rock You” to “We Will Dry You.” That’s now one of the greatest hits in our house—as is any time we go with the three-fifths majority around here and get silly.
I’m lucky that the only major parenting task I completed alone so far as a mom of three was getting myself to the hospital. As I brace myself for year 2 with 3 kids (now ages 5, 3, and 1), I’m mourning the end of the baby smell and desperately holding on to every last baby snuggle. But when I think I’m coaching myself audibly these days, I’m pleasantly reminded that I’m not alone—another small person is starting to babble back.