Q: I have a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old who are a lot for me to handle right now. My husband is deployed, so it's just me with them. Basically, both of them are constantly on me. Literally on me. I walk around the house with one kid on my leg and the other one shouting, "Mom! Mom! Watch this!" "Mom! Mom! Can I watch TV? Can you tell me a story? Can we play animals?" They refuse to play together without me involved. As flattered as I am by this, I can't do that and clean the house and do the laundry and cook and keep my sanity. I tell them to go play together, and they are still glued to me. I have tried to emulate you and "fill up their attachment cups" before they are begging for my attention, and each kid gets at least an hour of one-on-one time with me each day, during which we snuggle and play and talk and read. So I feel like their needs are met. When we all play together, they get along great, but it seems that they have no interest in each other, only in me. How can I change this? When I was younger, I never wanted to play with my mom; I only wanted my brother. Is this normal? Did I make my kids too attached to me?
A: First, thank you for your sacrifice, because when one spouse is deployed, the whole family is sacrificing.
You have two hard things: 1. You are doing some really heavy parenting alone. I am sure you have friends and rely on them (I hope), but not having the support of your partner is exhausting. One of the hardest parts of solo parenting, beyond the physical work, is not having someone to hug you at the end of the day and say, “You are doing a good job, let me make you a cup of tea.” Of course, you are doing fine without this, but it is still hard.
2. The ages of your children are uniquely challenging. Not quite twins but so close in age, and their ages make them developmental minefields. Exhausting! A 4-year-old is known for being bossy and negotiating, opinionated and not easily fooled. A 3-year-old is known for saying “no” for the sake of it, seeks and loves freedom but then quickly becomes needy at the drop of a hat. And both ages? Prone to outsize emotions, outbursts, tantrums and violence. Can they be sweet, funny and extraordinary loving? You bet, you just sometimes don’t know what you are going to get.
I love that you have sought to fill their attachment cups and connect with them; you will never regret doing that, and I encourage you to continue. Connecting with your children, smiling, having fun and playing will always yield good results, but you need something else. Here are some ideas — take what works for your family and leave the rest. Your children are rapidly changing (in six months, you will have another set of challenges and wins), so see every strategy as temporary.
1. With children so close in age, routine must rule. Your children are simply too young to play together for any amount of meaningful time. As soon as they seem happy doing something, they will circle back to you. While it is as boring as it gets, every day needs to look the same. Wake up, eat breakfast, go to park, eat lunch, take a nap or rest, go outside again or maybe see a friend, eat an early dinner, bed, bath, books, kiss, and sleep. Wake up and repeat. Like every other parent home with young children, finding time to clean and do laundry and cook can feel nearly impossible, so set your routine. Monday is laundry (the kids can help in their young and clunky way). Tuesday is vacuuming. Wednesday is bathroom, etc. Likewise, Monday is rotisserie chicken, rice and veggies; Tuesday is quesadillas (with leftover chicken) and cherry tomatoes; Wednesday is burgers, and so on.
Children this young thrive on knowing exactly what is coming, and they panic without direction, so changing your expectations will help you immensely.
2. Although it will be a hot mess, children these ages can tear lettuce, set tables, wash tomatoes and more. It will be annoying, but it’s less annoying than listening to them fight and trying to break it up. Purchase small brooms (real brooms, not toys) and dustpans, and put some dust rags in a bucket just for them. Children this age love to see the results of real work and will revel in your appreciation and joy. Again, we are not looking to praise the results (which will probably be middling to fair); we are praising the effort so your kids are excited and continue to help.
3. Is there any child care near you that’s a possibility? Daily school, part-time day care, a babysitter for one to seven days a week, a babysitting co-op, family, friends, a mother’s helper, anything. Although you can shoulder the emotional and physical labor of raising these children, there is (as my mother says) no reward for suffering. And I will remind you that humans, as a species, are not meant to carry this parenting load in solitude and isolation. Just because you can physically do this work alone doesn’t mean you should. Be brave and write down your ideal situation, your dream help and support. Now, work backward from there. You may not get Mary Poppins, but there is someone out there who can help you.
4. If you cannot swing child care, find someone to help you with housework. Even having someone come once a month to clean will feel like sweet relief to you. The studies are clear: When comparing buying more stuff at Target and having someone clean your toilet, the time opened up not cleaning makes people happier. Just remember: This isn’t forever. Your children will get older, and life will get easier.
5. While you figure out child care and household help, be sure to find your people. Your people are other parents who are in the same boat as you. Your parenting woes, while universal, are also unique, and you deserve to have friends who get it. Although it takes some bravery, strike out and bring these people together. Don’t worry about a perfect house or snacks; have people over. The connection to others is what the heart yearns for, and though some of these people will be temporary friends, some could become lifelong.
6. Don’t assume there isn’t help out there. There are coaches (ahem), classes (ahem) and parenting books galore. I will warn you to not read too many (that’s just not fun), but stay just slightly ahead of your children’s ages so you know what’s coming. I love books by Louise Bates Ames, Dan Siegel and Laura Markham, but when in doubt, look at your own experience. You know your children cannot be left to their own devices; you don’t need a parenting book to tell you that. Trust your experience and judgment, and when you don’t, phone a friend.
7. Finally, don’t emulate anyone. You are the expert of your life and your children. You are learning every day how to parent your children. Look at others for inspiration, but always believe in yourself as the answer to your children’s needs. Whatever you take from this column, just please get support.
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