If you’re a parent, you’ll know the excitement and challenge of raising little humans is a constant struggle. One thing tends to follow the other in quick succession just when you think you have hit a groove. When I was a new mom, I thought, “things will get better when my breasts adjust to the suckling.” When that happened I thought, “things will get easier when my baby’s colic goes away.” But right after that, I started back at work full-time and I thought, “things will surely smoothen out when I adjust to the workload of full-time corporate and full-time mom.” But after 6 months, I still hadn’t adjusted and started wondering, “maybe it’s the breastfeeding and pumping. Maybe things will feel simpler when I’m done with that.” Then my son turned 1, and I finished my last pump, and I thought, “yes, now we’re adjusting nicely.” But not even 2 months later, I found myself pregnant with #2, while my toddler began an early onset version of the terrible twos.
Now, our son is 21 months old and has officially hit the “tantrum” stage, and we are literally 2-4 weeks away from popping out our second. So, I thought it might be helpful to list what I consider to be my personal, official Toddler Mama Survival Guide.
ONE: Get ready to dive right in.
As fair warning, I will be using key scuba diving principles to illustrate my point. As a first piece of advice, basically my philosophy is: dive.right.in. I know sometimes the water looks deep and a little bit scary (toddler’s first tantrum in public complete with flailing arms and planking on the floor in protest?), or the shore entry seems impossibly rocky with all that equipment on your back (first day to leave the little one all alone at playgroup?)…but really the best way is to just dive in. You will (almost always) find that once you’re finally in the water, things will be fine if you just breathe steady, and keep swimming.
TWO: Conserve air!
In diving, you’re supposed to breathe slow and steady. Not too many unnecessary movements. Be efficient with your air supply. Having a toddler is kind of like that. You’re going to need to both conserve your resources, as well as know the limits of them. How does that look for us? Well, we try not to sweat the small stuff, because you’re going to need that sweat for later.
Recently, my husband and I both read Grace Based Parenting, and one of the key things he wanted to remind parents of is that oftentimes we get so worked up over things that have no eternal significance. The example he included was of a 4 year old on vacation with his parents. He wanted to try the buffet at the hotel, but his mother was worried he wouldn’t finish the food. Instead of kindly explaining her position, she was cranky, flippant, and dismissive about it (after all, vacations with kids are always just taking care of your kid in another city and you tend to feel very tired before even the halfway mark). After some coercion from her husband (“it’s only $1 more for the buffet vs the mac n cheese, and we’re on vacation”), she finally relented, only to turn on her little one 20 minutes later when she saw just how much food he’d taken and was sure he couldn’t finish it. Long story short, she made a bit of scene, made her son return the food, and the family left the table in a huff with mom stressed, dad dejected, and 4 year old in tears. Was Mom wrong in this instance? Well, no. Her position was valid. Food wastage is a problem, and teaching kids to respect mealtimes and know their own limits is important. But was it worth all that stress? Was there an element of killing her son’s spirit or ruining an aspect of what otherwise could have been a fond, fun memory that went into her inability to bend a little bit and make an exception on vacation? Was there an element of too seriously sweating the small stuff? Yes there was.
A good example of this in my own life, is how worked up I too get over food (what is it with moms and their kids’ eating habits???). Sometimes to the point of losing it at my son for not making it through a meal. Does my 1.5 year old even understand what I’m saying? Am I wasting my breath? Oftentimes after those moments, when I’ve lost my cool and used up my reserves to lecture my 20 month old, I find I don’t actually have a lot of energy left to spend quality time with him. I’m so tired from having worked myself up into a frenzy that I’m like a deflated balloon keeping a side eye on him while I stew in my own mommy guilt for not being able to get him to finish his food, and for making such a big deal about it.
Now, I know. It isn’t easy keeping cool, but for me I try the slow and steady approach. I literally take deep breaths, whilst trying to maintain an aura of calm and control. With my son, you can’t get anything across by losing your temper (he is never fazed by a raised voice), and I think a lot of kids benefit from the good example of their parents exhibiting emotional control. So instead of getting all excited and then working myself up, I try to just remind myself to stay calm and employ whatever means to do so (whether that’s counting to ten with my kid or in my head, or just taking deep breaths and closing my eyes whenever I feel I might be running low).
Lastly, if I feel I’ve really used up every reserve even employing patience, I simply remove us both from the situation. This could be applied for anything really – a kid not wanting to eat, a kid not wanting to sleep. You’ll need to discern based on your own values and family dynamic how best to move forward, but for me it goes like this: since food is our biggest stressor (my son is a good eater 50% of the time, and the other 50% is like a black box, you never know what you’re going to get), I give it 60 minutes tops. If he hasn’t finished it in 60 minutes, is still whining, etc, I just pack up, and move on. There’s no reason to torture each other further. The worst that will happen is he goes hungry between lunch and dinner. But I always feel better if I make it to that mark without losing my cool. It’s important to know both how to conserve your air, but also be able to identify when it’s about to run out. The principle is: when you know you’ve only got a few bars of air left, get out of there before you drown!
THREE: Employ the buddy system.
I know this particular point seems obvious, but I can’t stress the importance of having a buddy to parent with. Regardless of your family situation, having someone around who can look out for you, keep you accountable, take over in times of crisis, and pull you out of a tough spot is invaluable. Whether you need to find that in your husband, wife, parent, friend, doctor, sister, brother, cousin, neighbor, etc. My advice to you is: find it and find it fast. My husband has been an incredible buddy this entire parenting journey, and despite the fact that we don’t have family close by to help us like many of our friends do, we make it through the rough patches because we are able to tag team through them.
FOUR: Don’t forget to take your decompression stops seriously.
I know earlier I mentioned the job of parenting is a never-ending cycle of it’s going to get easier tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. So maybe it might sound impossible to decompress. But that’s not true. It’s always possible to decompress. In diving, decompression stops are crucial – especially during deep dives, because they literally release air pressure that’s built up in our body over time spent under water that can (if not given time to dissipate) expand as we get out of the water and cause irreversible health damage, pain, and death. Whilst this parenting decompression stop I’m referring to may not be a matter of life or death or anything, they are still an integral part of maintaining mental wellbeing.
Every night (when it’s on), right after the little one goes to bed, my husband and I watch Masterchef Australia, and/or spend some time reading in bed. Sometimes, on weekends, I throw in an hour of painting while my husband takes over. And often, during the week, both my husband and I will take 30-60 minutes here or there to do something physical (for him, that’s Krav Maga, and for me lately that’s yoga). These precious moments are our “decompression stops.” They help us find occasional alone time to refresh and recalibrate, and they keep us from burnout. And burnout is serious business. It can cripple any parent from being able to properly watch/care for/enjoy their child, and can make us unpleasant across the board (to friends, family, spouse, and children). So kick that mommy guilt in the butt, and take those few minutes to yourself every so often to shake off the incredible pressure that builds up when you’ve got so much riding on your shoulders. It’s good for you, and good for your family too.
FIVE: Take it all in like it’s the best macro dive of your life!
Lastly, I know this is cliche and many moms hate being told to see the bright side, but hear me out: babies and toddlers and children and really humans in general are amazing. If you take just a moment to really appreciate all the teeny tiny intricacies of watching your little one turn into a fully-functioning human, you would realize what a blessing it is.
I liken this to a macro dive: which is a type of dive where you are swimming very close to the ocean floor in what can sometimes feel like an abyss, and you are seeking out and admiring all the tiny oceanic creatures that live there. These creatures are often so small you have to look really hard, but once you see them you realize they are some of the ocean’s most beautiful gifts: bright colors, crazy textures, funky bodily movements. These creatures are like octopi, nudibranches, frog fish, and can reveal so much of the magic of the ocean to you if you have the patience to seek them out.
That can often be what raising your baby/toddler is like. Sometimes, you feel like you’re floating in this barren abyss, not much around you, under water, under pressure, conserving air. But if you keep a close eye on what’s happening around you, you start to notice all sorts of little, amazing things that make parenthood incredible. Like the connections your toddler is starting to join between words and phrases. Or the way he is beginning to identify letters and words, or tunes and songs, or body parts. Or the small habits he’s building up, like how he is learning to wash his hands, or put his things away. These are the small things that happen everyday when we’re looking the other way, but they’re so special we should celebrate them.