Samantha Rodman is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the Washington area and blogs at Dr. Psych Mom.
I’m not a toddler person. Which is unfortunate, because I have three kids under 5.
Of course, I love my children. I write down the adorable things they say. I upload pictures religiously onto Snapfish, pausing to reminisce about the cutest shots. My 1-year-old is in my favorite almost-talking stage. My 3-year-old is hilarious, and not just for a 3-year-old, but for a person. And my 4-year-old is the most devoted big sister around.
But to be honest, for all the time I spend with my children, I enjoy only about a quarter of it — and even that estimate may be high.
My issues aren’t just the ones Jennifer Senior focused on in her best-selling “All Joy and No Fun.” Sure, I miss the autonomy of my pre-kid life, struggle with self-doubt and worry about prioritizing my marriage. But I also really enjoyed spending time with each of my kids when they were babies. I loved the closeness of nursing, and planning out the day around feedings, naps, baby music classes and swinging in the park. I was okay with not always knowing what my crying baby wanted; I’ve read a lot of child-development research, am trained in behavioral interventions (which made me confident about sleep training), and have a knack for developing a routine and sticking to it. I had a lot of help from my husband, too, so I rarely got to the zombie stage of exhaustion that plagues so many new mothers.
The problem, for me, is specifically the toddler stage. I know a lot of people complain about the terrible twos, but ages 2 and 3 and (most of) 4 are especially hard on me. I don’t have the patience. The noise and bickering — which I never knew as an only child — put me constantly on edge.
My oldest talks a great deal, exactly as I did as a child (and still do as an adult), but realizing we are wired similarly does nothing to make me less irritated by the constant stream of chatter. When she asks why I am using the blue bowl for her cereal, and says she would prefer the pink bowl, and did I save the pink bowl for her sister, who doesn’t even like pink, I find myself fantasizing about throwing the bowl in the trash and end up setting it in front of her with an audible clack.
Although I’ve been trained in how to validate emotions, I react just as badly to the shrieks when both girls want the same baby doll and there are five other dolls sitting right there. I usually just grab the contested doll and hand it to whichever child looks more aggrieved, hoping she’s the one who was wronged.
After hours, days, weeks and months of these episodes, I find myself wanting to bump up my work hours or hole up in my room with my Kindle. Which makes me feel even more guilty.
As a therapist, I’ve watched clients struggle to accept that they are not “baby people” or “toddler people” or “kid people” or “teenager people.” Sometimes they don’t have the personality to deal well with a particular stage. Sometimes it’s about expectations. A client who was 14 when his father left had looked forward to being a better dad to a teenage boy of his own. But now that this stage is upon him, he’s frustrated that all he and his son do is argue. He had pictured an industrious, responsible son — traits that he himself had to develop under duress — and now he finds himself disliking his laid-back teenager, whose pastime of choice is playing Xbox.
It’s not easy to admit these things in an era when good parenting is defined by being highly involved in every stage of your child’s growth, from “Mommy and Me” classes for babies to cross-country college tours with high schoolers. And while people are increasingly comfortable talking about the negative feelings and mood swings associated with baby blues and with more severe postpartum depression, there isn’t the same support for parents hit by equivalent episodes when their child is 18 months or 3 years old, or 12. When I mentioned my toddler blues to a friend at a playdate, the response was: “Oh, but the time goes so fast.” This made me feel like I was a bad mom for not seeing the bigger picture, and I felt embarrassed for having confided at all.
When you’re in it, time doesn’t go so fast — it goes hour by painful hour. And squelching your feelings doesn’t help. In my practice, I’ve watched parents who try to pretend they love every moment with their toddlers (or whatever other stage) end up more depressed, anxious and guilt-ridden, while acting more impatient and harsher with their kids.
I’m guilty of this, too. My second baby would nurse only in the dark, with a white-noise machine on and with no other people around. I’d leave my toddler downstairs with the iPad for 15 minutes at a time, hoping she would stay entertained long enough for me to finish a feeding. Once, when I was particularly exhausted, she came upstairs and loudly interrupted the nursing session yet again, repeating, “Mama, Mama, Mama!” As the baby unlatched and started crying, I did too, and my toddler looked terrified.
Moms seem especially inclined to pretend they are enthralled by every developmental stage. From what I’ve seen, dads feel much less social pressure to be excited by all kids and all kid activities. My male clients often find it easy, or even amusing, to admit that they are just not that into babies and that they think their role during this stage is primarily to support Mom, financially and emotionally. Meanwhile, Mom derives a great deal of her self-worth from her identity as a great mother, entirely attuned to the needs of her child, from the minute she gives birth through every stage that follows.
But being a great mom doesn’t have to mean being equally great at every phase of your kids’ development. It makes sense that a mom who is wonderful with an older teenager may be pretty bored and dissatisfied as the mom of a baby. Nobody asks a terrific high school teacher why she doesn’t moonlight in day care. To expect one mom to be everything to every age of child strikes me as an unfair and unreasonable burden.
Consider that the concepts of a stay-at-home mom and even of a nuclear family are very recent in our history. An extended family comprising multiple adults used to be the norm and remains so for many of our fellow mammals. With that in mind, I encourage frustrated parents to muddle through the stages they don’t enjoy by asking for help — from a grandmother adept with babies, an aunt who is great with toddlers, a neighbor good with preteens.
In a two-parent home, if Dad is more laid back with toddlers, maybe Mom could take more of a back-seat role for a few years, potentially increasing her work hours while Dad cuts his. Mothers lacking partners — or partners with flexible work schedules — may decide that it’s a good time to increase their kids’ hours at day care or preschool, or to find a sitter to spell them for a few hours a week. Yes, child care can be extremely expensive, but there may be relatively cheap, sometimes free, options through malls, churches and neighborhood co-ops.
The key is openly admitting that your strengths may not lie in toddler parenting, or baby parenting, or whatever stage of parenting is hardest for you. And during that stage, it’s okay to reduce the quantity of time you spend with your kids, especially if you try to increase the quality of the remaining time with them.
After recognizing my toddler blues, I upped my kids’ hours at preschool while making a point to spend more one-on-one time with each of them. I’m trying to be the best parent possible, even if this stage is never going to feel easy or natural.
And I expect that I will come into my own again. The last time my 41 / 2-year-old and I went to get coffee (for me) and a cookie (for her), we had a funny conversation about how she met her preschool boyfriend. I find myself better able to appreciate her warmth and intelligence as she grows more verbal, less impulsive — basically, as she grows older. The more abstract of a thinker she becomes, the more engaged I am. And I’m happier and less stressed when interacting with her than I was just six months ago.
So I’m confident that another parenting sweet spot is almost upon me.