Six months ago, while I was innocently opening the fridge to grab a yogurt for my two-year-old son, he snuck up behind me and bit me on my butt.
My scream heard ‘round the world (or at least ‘round my kitchen) ushered in The Terrible Twos, an era that my older son seemed to bypass entirely but my younger son is embracing with relish. For the past six months, I’ve contended with airborne plates, cups, and food, bedrooms covered entirely in baby powder, face-planting meltdowns over dried apricots (or the lack thereof), and gleeful destruction of treasured books. I’ve been bitten, punched, pushed, and slapped.
What’s particularly terrible about these Twos is that they are affecting every member of my family. Constantly chiding our son for his mischievous (on good days)/borderline homicidal (on bad days) behaviors has depleted my and my husband’s energy and patience. Our older son is completely baffled by his brother’s behavior. Why would his brother hug him one minute, then try to push him down the stairs the next? It makes no sense.
None of my younger son’s behaviors make sense. I know that such nonsensical behavior is a hallmark of this age. I know, too, that some parents are able to laugh it off as toddler “a**hole” behavior. But I can’t seem to laugh it off. Instead, I’ve taken to daydreaming about that “sweet spot” older parents have told me about, when kids are through with the tantrums of toddlerhood but not yet possessed by the hormones of adolescence. I’m finding that I’m spending an awful lot of time waiting for things to get easier.
As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I often talk with patients about the need for mindfulness in everyday life. Mindfully focusing on the present moment, rather than dwelling on the future or the past, can better connect us with the people we love and the experiences we’re having. Much has been said about the role of smartphones in taking parents out of the present moment. I’m not distracted by a smartphone, but I am distracted by waiting.
I know I’m not alone in this. Can any parent claim that they are not waiting for something? Perhaps it’s waiting for their kid to sleep through the night, or to start kindergarten, or to be done with middle school drama or the SATs or the college admissions process. Many of us spend inordinate amounts of time waiting for things to get easier. And sure, good things come to those who wait. But incessant waiting can prevent us from savoring the good things that are happening right now.
In true physician-heal-thyself spirit, I’ve started trying to do what I tell my patients to do, mindfully focusing on what my kids are doing in the moment. I’ve been able to do this…at times. For example, yesterday both my boys were gleefully playing together outside in the dirt. I willed myself to focus on their giggles and their joy, rather than on the mounds of dirt they would likely track into the house in the near future. I didn’t interact with them, I just observed them, and in so doing marveled at these curious, silly, beautiful creatures I created. I truly savored the moment.
Later in the day, however, my younger son threw a full cup of milk on the floor and then launched a fork in the air, just because. In that moment, my head skipped ahead a few months, to a time when my son won’t regard his forks and spoons as potential weapons of mass destruction.
I think we parents have to work at balancing the moments of desperate waiting with the moments of genuine savoring. Practically speaking, this means trying to always stay present, and forgiving ourselves when we can’t. I can keep waiting for things to get easier, sure, but I’ve also got to savor the unconditional affection I get from my two year-old. Before I know it, he’ll be a teenager. I have no doubt that he’ll think I’m uncool and ignore me in public. Which I bet will inspire more waiting, for the time when he’s a young adult and (hopefully) no longer finds me uncool.
So for now, I’ll savor, and I’ll wait. I’ll savor the family dinners and wait for the end of the flying forks. I’ll savor the singing and wait for the end of the yelling. I’ll savor the hugs and wait for the end of the bites. I’ll try to remember that not every moment of being a parent is wonderful or magical. And I’ll keep hanging in there, for the moments that are.