Thursday, February 04, 2010

Toddler standard time

"The days are long and the years are short."

I've been told this many times since I became a parent. I agree -- has it really been over two and a half years? -- although I would add that sleepless nights with a child are the longest unit of time known to man.

It's true that the daily logistics of meals, transportation, and bedtimes often seem to take place in slow motion. Nothing is more time-consuming than preparing a toddler to get out the door, especially in the winter. I scramble to assemble coats, sweaters, hats, two pairs of shoes, the stroller, my purse and the diaper bag as fast as I possibly can, yet before I know it, twenty minutes have passed and I'm still struggling to pull le Petit's arm through the first sleeve of his parka.

At the same time, things can spin out of control at light speed: le Petit zooms from room to room, leaving the aforementioned coats and hats in his wake, gathering up toys and sippy cups and storing them in the stroller in provision for our voyage before I notice what's happened. He can open the refrigerator and transport a bottle of water and a jar of pickles to the dining room table while my back was turned only a second. He can pull a chair across the living room and use it to scale the bookshelf up to the stereo, open the CD drawer and pop in a new CD all in the time it takes me to get a glass of water from the kitchen. Part of it may be stealth, but most of it is speed.

No one told me that toddlers only have two gears, "turbo" and "dawdle."

"Take the time you think it will take to get ready and double it," a good friend of mine advised me recently. I would add, "Take the number of things you think you can accomplish in a day and halve it." I know this. It isn't exactly new. But nothing annoys me more lately than finding myself still in my pajamas at noon on Saturday when I've been up since eight doing nothing more constructive than dressing, feeding and entertaining le Petit.

That's the beauty of Wednesday. When I decided to go back to work part time after a lengthy maternity leave, I gave myself permission to escape the world of adult preoccupations for one day and operate at le Petit's speed. We eat a leisurely breakfast, then read books, play with toys, and get out of the house by roughly 11 o'clock. I make sure to make a healthy lunch that we can both share. Other than that, there are no rules. My mother-in-law comes by in the late afternoon to look after le Petit so that I can get things done if I have to (lately a trip to the driving school), for which I'll always be grateful. But morning, noon, early afternoon are all on toddler standard time.

This Wednesday morning we went to the park. Lately I've been leaving the stroller at home when we go out aimlessly wandering, the better to get exercise and teach le Petit basic street safety. Just outside our apartment building, a bright yellow cherry picker was rolling slowly down the street. We stopped for ten minutes to watch it being loaded onto a big truck and then watch the big truck drive away. Then we walked over to a construction site a few blocks away, where we admired a big crane and a dump truck and listened to someone hammering away high above us.

"Ca c'est le camion des pompiers!" le Petit announced when he heard sirens nearby.

"Yes, the fire truck. The fire fighters are driving off somewhere to help someone," I confirmed. We looked around for the fire truck, but couldn't find it. Then hand in hand, we crossed the street to the park, waiting first for the "little man to turn green." It was the first Wednesday of the month, and the air raid sirens on the roof of a nearby building sounded at noon sharp, sending an almost palpable wave of sound through the neighborhood. When they stopped, le Petit looked up at me, enchanted.

"Do it again?" he asked. I was tickled to be invested with such omnipotence.

"Sorry, little guy, that's one thing Mommy can't do."

At the park, le Petit scampered over to the merry-go-round and climbed aboard. He ignored the horses and other animals that pivot up and down and headed straight for a little green antique car that looked like it was added and bolted down near the center of the platform as an afterthought. It was just his size. His nanny told us today that when she accompanies him, he will only sit there, and if another child has already claimed it, would rather watch from solid ground and wait his turn than choose another means of locomotion. This time we were alone on the merry-go-round, and le Petit climbed into his car waited for the music to start and the menagerie of giant wooden animals to start bobbing above him.

"Do it again? Merry-go-round again?" le Petit asked predictably when the music stopped. No, I said, time go to home, and I glanced at my watch. On foot it takes five minutes to get from the park to our apartment, but with le Petit along I counted twenty. I let him walk down the winding path without holding my hand, intervening when necessary to chase him off the grass. He dragged his feet. I gently pushed his back with my hand. It started to rain. Toddler standard time was all well and good, but I had no interest in getting wet, and was now hungry for lunch besides.

Le Petit suddenly took off running after a pigeon. Aha! I thought when the pigeon flew away. "Mommy's a pigeon now!" I said, bending my elbows like wings and making cooing noises to complete the effect. "Chase Mommy! Mommy's a pigeon!" It worked. I'm willing to ridicule myself in public for the sake of my child, as long as it's effective.

Le Petit stopped, wide-eyed, in front of a woman playing a flute. Her eyes were closed and she wore discreet earphones; she was improvising and swaying absently to the music. I tried not to stare at her dirty blond hair, which was piled into an artfully neglected and gravity-defying structure on the side of her head. On her flute case, which was sitting on a nearby park bench, I made out a Young Communists sticker. Le Petit, swaying back and forth to the music himself, sat down on the muddy grass on the edge of the path to watch. When she briefly stopped playing and pulled a phone out of her pocket to send a text message, I nudged le Petit back to reality.

"I'm going to count to ten and then we'll have to head home. One... two..."

Much to my surprise, le Petit got up without protest and followed me when I got to ten. When we went though the metal gates of the park, I grabbed his hand. We meandered home, stopping once to cross the street, le Petit pointing out cars and garage doors, hopping on top of utility covers in the sidewalk, and running his free hand along walls. As heavy drops of rain started to dot the pavement, the dutiful mother in me tugged at his arm to urge him to hurry up, even as I held his hand tight and secretly cherished, for once, the chance to go too slow.


Mom in France said...

this post is one of your best. You captured so well what it means to be a parent of toddler - the irritating things and the sharing of all his fascination.

Jac said...

That captures life with my 2.5 year old DS an dmy feelings about it perfectly! I may just print it out, stick it in his baby book, and pretend I wrote it. The french would probably give it away though.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Jac and @MIF, thank you! It's nice to know I'm not in the trenches here alone!

The question is, do I try and take le Petit on a outing in the Métro this Wednesday, or am I just asking for trouble? I'd love to take him farther from home than the three blocks to the park, but I'm worried it'll end badly...

Anne said...

Hi Emily
Everything you said, I remember with Chloé...pareil! Je me suis bien amusee a te lire. You have a wonderful way to look at the humour of it all with perspective, from the thick of it.

At 8, Chloé is finally learning to subtract so we can sort of count on her to get herself ready on time. "If you need to be downstairs ready to put your coat on at 8:05 and it's now 7:45, how many minutes do you have left? OK, si tu est prete a l'avance, tu peux rechercher les Dinoées Attrape-Mouches sur YouTube..."
It's been about four years of working up to these skills, the last year intensely, as it goes against her active and impassioned temperament.

It does get slightly easier physically around 3 to give you a little hope!! And then they chew your ear off with the Whys.