And now for something completely different! Today's blog has gone far afield of my usual topics; we will get right back to that, but I felt compelled to meditate a bit on something that has taken center-stage in my life. All parenting experience is subjective and unique, so please take this for what it's worth. Thanks for reading all the same!
Being a parent is a two-way street. I have certainly learned this as a parent now of one toddler and two rapidly growing twin babies. In one direction, the parent is providing the guidance, support, and needs of the child to continually grow and flourish. The other way, a child, especially in their early years, necessitates radical change in the (especially first-time) parent. This change can be further broken into two categories.
Regarding the first: already, I have seen my wife and I make radical sacrifices to our old lifestyle. The greatest of these adjustments are the curtailing of our most beloved pastimes like watching movies, playing video games, and visiting with our friends at social gatherings. I feel this change is the one most immediately felt in most parents, but represents ultimately "surface level" changes in how mothers and fathers can freely allocate their time. For one, this shift may not necessarily be permanent, though it likely will reshape our entire concept of free time for the remainder of our lives. Acknowledging that this sacrifice of leisure is an important first piece, I am now becoming increasingly aware of the second change. This I can describe as a subtle but profound transformation of character, that a toddler demands of us nothing our best and often will bring this out of us.
While this process begins even with the adorable cuddling and serene sense of dependency that a baby conveys to their mommy or daddy, it kicks into overdrive at the toddler stage. Truly I can say that I now have a higher understanding of the phrase "terrible twos" and it really involves the full connotation of the word terrible. Terrible, yes, in the negative, but also terrible in the sheer "awe" or divine sense. They have hearts of gold, but can also be little stinkers (Bugs Bunny internal voice optional).
To unpack, observe the same toddler who can throw wild, inconsolable fits about not being allowed to do something dangerous or inappropriate because they want to, like letting the sink run indefinitely or handling their own seatbelt when their manual dexterity is simply not there yet. Perhaps worse still, imagine with me the moments of utter rage and wretched dissatisfaction when they were denied extra minutes of watching cartoons or being coerced into a diaper or wardrobe change while they attempt to squirm away and kick you.
Almost wondrously, the 'terrible toddlers' can pivot just as quickly when they simply place their hand on you when they see you are struggling, offering repeated hugs and kisses, resting their head tenderly on your chest or shoulder, or simply allowing themselves to be content and entertain themselves when you are overwhelmed and multitasking with other things. Without a doubt, in the Malone household, our toddler's finest hours have consistently been when we are at our lowest, when one of us or one of the twins, or the entire family has fallen ill- there's crying, overtiredness, stress, all of the things threatening to overwhelm us during a crisis. That is when our toddler, not all the time, but often enough, demonstrates an astounding empathy beyond her years, not adding to the challenges and chaos but just showing us the purest love. These are only glimmers- we don't expect these moments to last long and they certainly do not, but it is difficult to express in words how restorative and rewarding these moments are as a parent.
The thing that can be said of toddlers in all situations is that there is rarely anything duplicitous in their motivations and bearing toward you- they are constantly trying to convey their most sincere, intense desires and emotions. Deceit and ulterior motivations are fast approaching, but have not arrived yet. Life is currently exploration, experience, and reaction for their constantly changing, exciting, and sometimes frightening world, and I have been taught firsthand to respect that by my sweet little girl. Toddlers are, in short, noteworthy for what comprehensive little microcosms they are of the human condition. You can see the whole range of human response and emotion in a single day, all to see it play out tomorrow. How fitting it was then, when Jesus rebukes his disciples in the Gospels, instead saying "let the little children come to me," and "whoever does receive the Kingdom of God as a child does will by no means enter it." The point is well taken- what speaks to greater theological clarity than the abject rejection or gleeful acceptance of a child toward salvation itself?
The lessons of the toddler, therefore, are manifold. They serve as great examples with how easily they are brought to the pinnacle of joy or the most dejected states of despair, that we as adults are called to moderate our own reactions, especially the negative ones. This may sound something like stoicism, and I should note that stoic philosophy is usually misunderstood as a total rejection of emotion and enjoyment, something akin to walking through life with a spartan rejection of any luxury or comfort and suppressing any and all feelings. That indeed was not the point of stoicism (feel free to read Marcus Aurelius' work attributed as Meditations, where I recall that an one point the overworked emperor implores the reader to find any excuse they can to get themselves out of their cozy bed in the morning and face the day and their responsibilities). Something closer to its true purpose is to always keep oneself grounded in the reasonable and rationale self, as the closer one allows themself to extreme emotion, the more unthinking and irrational ones actions or behavior may become. Certainly with negative emotions, this can lead both to the torment of the self and the misery and destruction of one's surroundings and loved ones. This is where the fundamental interaction between the parent and toddler takes place, and is on the shoulders of the parent- the toddler is steeped in their own nature, but they are constantly observing how to do things and get along in this world- and their eyes, most often and most squarely, are fixed on you. They will be largely out of that nature quickly, and more centered on the nurture that they were shown.
There is no singular, greater call for self-improvement, fulfillment, catharsis and embrace of destiny than being the parent of the toddler. Despite what frustration and exhaustion they often inflict, at the end of the day I owe my toddler nothing but my love and gratitude. They transform the appellation of terrible in all the best ways, and show how they are the highest blessing.