The other day I was on the phone with my husband, exhausted in a lawn chair, while my children dug holes in the yard, and I heard myself say, "I just want to have fun with the kids, but they make it so hard." You see, now that I work, I have such high hopes for our time together. I imagine weekends of lounging around in ragged clothing, snuggling, and strolling behind them as they push trucks and ride scooters down the sidewalk. I can't wait to pick them up from school. I look forward to sitting under a tree, watching them investigate the dirt, and its insects. I picture bath times filled with laughter and bubbles, bed times spent together around a book, and conversations about the best part of our day. And these moments happen. They really do. That's how I even know to think of them, but often my fantasies are shattered by the whole picture of parenthood, and the reality of having a two-year-old.
Mornings of pancake dreams and syrup smiles are typically crushed by complaints like, "No, not that plate!" or "I want a baby fork!" He says this with his face scrunched, his brows furrowed, and his leg wound up to a 90 degree angle, ready to stomp down hard. I get down to his level, and tell him how to talk appropriately. I refuse to unnecessarily dirty another plate, and allow him to continue with such demands, but while I stick to my guns and stand my ground I truly wonder, why can't we just have a good time?
My youngest, who is two and a half is constantly testing the boundaries, and begging for limits. It's what he needs from me, and it's what I'll give him. It's just that I hope he knows I'd much prefer to sit him on my lap and sing twinkle, twinkle little star. I rather hold his hands and stare into his eyes while caroling the ABC's. I don't want to tell him no, but when he flails around like an angry cave man, insistent on taking out the Power Wheels Jeep that he only know how to drive into trees, I will. His fit continues with his foot on the pedal even though the wheels are spinning in circles, and the garage wall prevents him from getting anywhere. He's mad I won't take it out, and I say, "I can't let you drive that thing yet." The neighbors are used to the ruckus that comes from our house, but out of respect for weekend peace, I end up picking him up under my arm, and carrying him inside.
I don't do anything, but set him down, because what can I do? He's completely losing his noodle because the answer is no, and it still is. I walk to the hallway to find solace in the bathroom, and I notice myself sighing. I feel bad that all I want is quality time with my children, but all he wants to do is everything he's not allowed to. If I give him the perfect balance of space and support, in no time he'll be back in my lap asking me which Hot Wheels car I want. I'll pick my choice and make it go VROOM VROOM over his leg, and that's when he'll yell, "No! That what a truck say!" I'll change my sound, and he'll say, "No! That a fire truck!" Seriously kid, I just want to have a good time with you. That's why I open the door and say, "Let's go for a walk."
He'll jump on his tricycle, eager to soar down the driveway, but when he can't make it reverse, forget about it. He'll be pushing that thing over then clenching his fists and stiffening his body while his feet lift to their tip-toes. His face turns red and his shrieks pierce all the serenity in existence. I get beside him on one knee and say plainly, "Do you need help with something?" But he'll just flap his hands in my face. I step back and let him have his fit, not because I'm cold or punishing, but because he's clearly building his frustration tolerance. Who am I to interfere with a process so crucial?And this to me, is the tricky thing about parenting and love. Sometimes it looks and feels so counter-intuitive, like taking three steps back from a child in a tantrum because you don't only care about who they are today, but who they're going to become. You care less about making them happy in the moment, and more about them learning skills to be able to cope with life and be in control of their own happiness. Of course I want to help him, but even more I want him to help himself, and learn how to ask for what he needs. As my husband reminds me in these situations, there are some things two-year-olds just need to work through. But of course there's the possibility he might just need something to eat.
I take him in and let him watch a show while I whip up some spaghetti. As the water starts to reach a rapid boil, he tugs at my shirt, telling me he's "hungy." I let him know dinner will be ready in five minutes, and when I finally do serve up his favorite dish, he crumples up his face and demands, "No want that! I want uppies!" I tell him I'm not serving chips for dinner, and he continues to beg, until he erupts. And you know what I do? I sit at the kid table in the little blue chair, and shovel noodles in my mouth as if hot lava isn't spewing all around me. I act like it's completely normal to maintain an appetite while someone has a meltdown beside me, and, well, it kind of is. I had practice with my first-born. I remember this age, and how I had to train myself to disconnect from the crying, not because I'm cold-hearted, but because it's my job to shut down my toddler's insane ideas, like wanting to ride a real motorcycle, and cut bamboo with a real knife, and it's his nature to respond to my parenting like it's some cruel kind of oppression. But I know it's really just me doing my job, so I add more Parmesan cheese, then go run the bath.
The bath I imagine of bubbles and giggles, is really full of screams because he still hasn't eaten one bite of dinner, but now he wants ice cream. I use the fact that he's already miserable as an opportunity to wash and condition his hair quickly. I scrub him in all the important places, and when I get him out I tell him to go pick out some books. I bring him up a plate full of broccoli while we read That's Not My Penguin and Oh Say, Can You Say, Dinosaur? When we are finished, I brush his teeth and try to cuddle, but he decides it's time to look for the one stuffed animal that's not around. We eventually settle back down, and as he drifts off to sleep, he wakes to say, "I need to go poopy." Next he'll need another sip of water, which I'll go back downstairs for. As he tries to settle again, he'll do everything he can to push me away, even barking, "Go away!" And when I try, he puts his arm around my neck and pulls me close, making my nose touch his. And in this moment it's so clear that he's wired to push and pull, but needs my steadfast love and guidance. And although I typically imagine love a different way, in parenting it sometimes comes in the form of boundaries, limits, and no's. As he pulls me close after trying to push me away, I feel assured that truly, he takes no offense to my parenting, but somewhere inside, knows I'm giving what he craves and needs.
You see, it's easy to love when it's all hugs and snuggles. But parents have to show up for the not-so cuddly parts too. We love when it's easy and when it's hard. We love in kisses, and we love in boundaries. We love in whispers and in giving space to work through emotions. I used to expect our time together to be full of lighthearted fun and love, but now I know that even when it's not lighthearted fun, it's still full of love.