I've thought long and hard about what advice I could provide to new parents, what hard-earned pieces of wisdom I could share from my two-years-and-nine-months in the trenches of motherhood. I realize I'm absolutely sure of at least one thing. One thing for which my insouciant life pre-motherhood had ill prepared me. One thing which agonized me for months in the beginning of le Petit's life until I figured it out. Yes, folks, in this age of breast vs. bottle, washable vs. disposable, cry-it-out vs. cosleeping, on one subject, at least, I have found The One True Way. So listen carefully.
You know those #@&! folding cribs with the mesh sides and the fabric-covered metal bars? Unfolding them is actually simple! Just block the sides one by one, and then push out the middle. When you want to fold it back up again, pull up the middle, then unblock the sides. Voilà.
(Easy enough, you'd think, but you have no idea how many frustrated hours -- ok, minutes -- I passed trying to get the hang of this. And I once fielded an SOS call from my in-laws, who were on babysitting duty and couldn't unfold the playpen, so I can't just blame it all on my clumsiness and sleep-deprivation.)
That's it. That's all the advice I can give. Pretty pathetic, no? On the other hand, I've discovered many things that work for us and for le Petit, although I doubt they'd necessarily work for any other given parent and child. They're not terribly concrete, and often not something you'll find written down in some Sacred Baby Advice Book, which is why I'm so hesitant to give advice at all. At the moment, my strategy is something like this:
1) Distract. Le Petit has a long attention span for a toddler, or so, proud mother that I am, I like to believe. This is good: he can keep himself occupied with a book or a game for long enough for me to read an article in the latest issue of Economist (sometimes, at least). This is bad: when I've thwarted some toddler impulse, he remembers and tantrums, hollers and howls beyond all reason for a startlingly long time. He doesn't just make one more run for the slide and then grudgingly accept when I start pulling him toward the playground gate. No, he goes limp, sprawls out on the ground and screams, and I have to pick him up and carry him out while he flails his arms and tries to do a back flip onto the pavement. It isn't pretty.
If I can distract him, on the other hand -- let's go see the crane! The boats on the river! The fire trucks! -- it goes much more smoothly. Unfortunately, the distraction has to be of equal interest as the forbidden activity. This is tough. Few things rival the playground, or scaling the dining room table to load a new CD into the CD player.
2) Compromise. I'd heard a lot of good things from a lot of different people about nonviolent communication between parents and children. The idea is to objectively understand where the conflict of needs lies between parties ("You want to go to the park by the river to see the boats. Mommy doesn't want to go because she is afraid you'll fall in the water.") and then come up with solutions that satisfy everyone ("I'll go with you to the park by the river, if you stay in your stroller. That way you can see the boats and I can be sure you're safe.") The problem is, although le Petit is old enough to fluently express his demands -- urrr, needs -- brainstorming mutually acceptable solutions is still pretty one-sided and mommy-driven. And although le Petit is fluent with WHAT he wants (in two languages! Yippee!), the WHY is still a little blurry. Often this approach boils down to distraction: see technique number 1.
3) Be firm. And flexible. As I stood in my bathroom three years ago staring in gleeful and terrified disbelief at the results of a home pregnancy test, among the myriad worries that flooded my brain was that I would be a mommy pushover. I assumed I would be flexible to a fault, and would have to rely on my husband to lay down the law. Surprisingly, often I find myself holding the line with le Petit often just out of principle and for no other obvious reason. I dig in my heels and proclaim (inwardly, at least) Just Because I Said So. On issues where I know adherence to the rules is important -- first and foremost safety, of course, and respect for others, including myself -- I'm firm, and I'm sure of myself, and it usually works. On other issues, where some abstract parenting principle is the only thing backing me up in my own head, I routinely lose. "I am not taking you out of your crib for a second time for a fourth bedtime story!" comes to mind. Five minutes later, I was back in his room, reading the story. It was easier than listening to the sobbing and screaming -- and after all, what's one more story?
4) Delegate. When I'm at the end of my rope, after, say, carrying an angrily protesting and rather heavy le Petit all the way back from the park in my arms, I don't hesitate to call in the reserves. Except the reserves at our house aren't really the reserves, since my husband is as hands-on a father as can be. And, bless him, he knows instinctively when I've had enough. When the pre-bath toddler round-up is underway and I just can't handle chasing a half-dressed le Petit around the living room one more time, he steps in and does it. On Wednesday afternoons, I can count on my mother-in-law. It may not take a village, but it at least takes a lieu-dit.
5) What worked today may not work tomorrow. But it's worth a try. The one truth of parenting I've discovered (aside from the crib folding trick, which I am honestly quite proud of) is that just when you've got it all figured out, the kid changes. They grow. They learn. They reason, sometimes in scary and unreasonable ways. They learn to open doors and climb, and suddenly instead of falling asleep at night you're lying awake wondering how on earth you're going to secure the medicine cabinet or block shut the sliding glass door. They evolve, they regress, they sleep or don't sleep, they eat or don't eat, they tantrum, they express themselves, they explain things to you when you thought they hadn't been paying attention. Sometimes it doesn't seem fair, for just when you've figured out the fail-proof nap schedule they're no longer napping on the weekend, or just when you bought a freezerful of a favorite vegetable they're no longer eating it. The hard-earned knowledge isn't even transferable to younger siblings, I've been told. But somehow, despite the constant change, I'm getting to know le Petit better all the time.
I have an entire shelf of parenting books that, aside from a few helpful exceptions, I'm honestly considering destroying before another baby arrives. I'm keeping the baby equipment instruction manuals, however. You never know.
By the way, I have no idea how to lead into this, so here goes nothing: a week ago last Monday, le Petit and I were in the kitchen together. I was preparing dinner and he was intently examining the washing machine. I pointed out the digital display with the number of minutes left in the cycle. "Zero, three, nine!" I told him. "Thirty-nine minutes left!" I went back to cooking and he kept looking at the display. Then two minutes later he said "Seven!" and pointed at the seven in thirty-seven. I was floored. We looked at the clock on the stove, and he could identify a handful of other numbers. Not with perfect assurance or accuracy, but still. I was -- I am -- quite proud.
I'm not quite so thrilled that tonight he figured out how to unlatch the lock on the sliding glass door to the balcony. We live on the sixth floor (that's the seventh floor for us Americans, not that that makes much of a difference) and I live in terror of a fall. Although le Petit doesn't seem to have the strength to actually push the door open, we immediately blocked it with duct tape and will be watching him veeeeery carefully near it until I can put together a more secure solution this week. To those of you with children, what potential accident scares you the most? When does the worry subside? When they're five? Fifteen? Thirty? Or, I suspect, never?