I am a mom to a really adorable, funny, empathetic, bright two-year-old. He is generally delightful.
But yesterday I was “That Mom” at the post office.
Jacob is so smart and charming that he tends to impress when we are out. People want to know why he talks so well at two years and three months old, and he is prone to saying something absolutely adorable like “I’m too old” or “I am a friend!” But yesterday. Oh yesterday. It was the kind of scene that I have rolled my eyes at and exhaled heavily toward my entire adult life. The moment in which you know everyone is thinking “what is she doing here with that MONSTER?!” As though I should never leave the house. Because I have been guilty of thinking, as many of us have before we have children, that some are just unruly (probably) and that those people should never leave the house. So let me explain: Jacob didn’t nap yesterday. He fell asleep in the car, which was my plan. I drove around for twenty minutes to really cement that, and then carefully carried him inside. But he woke up, and although I tried every trick in my book for an hour and forty minutes (AN HOUR AND FORTY MINUTES), he never went to sleep. It was an afternoon when I really needed him to sleep. I had a list of quiet things I needed to do. Things I can’t do when he is awake. I was exhausted. It had already been a long day. No such luck. So, because life must go on, I packed him up and trudged off to the post office and grocery store so I could make dinner. I had to go to the post office. I had to mail my cousin’s daughter’s Flat Stanley project and something I sold on eBay. It had to be done.
I know what you’re thinking: why not wait until your husband is home and leave the toddler while you do such an important task? Because, my friends, if I waited until I had someone to watch Jacob every time I had to do a serious/important/time-consuming activity, I would NEVER DO ANYTHING AND CEASE TO EXIST. I am a stay-at-home-mom. He is with me ALL.THE.TIME. The post office closes at 5:00. I had some weighing and box-making to do. It wouldn’t have worked. So, like so many other days, I took him with me, knowing it wasn’t the best environment for him, but knowing that life must go on and things must be done.
So, I stood there, flustered and horrified as my usually sweet and mild-mannered toddler, in a sleep-deprived frenzy ran screaming in the echoey chamber of metal P.O. boxes. I tried to keep my cool as I maneuvered a roll of tape and tried to make a box on a tiny table surface while using one hand to steady the poles that hold the rope for the queue. As Jacob swung from said rope, I wiped the sweat from my brow and took him aside several times to firmly tell him to LOOK WITH HIS EYES and not touch with his hands, trying to be the calm, patient, developmental-phase-understanding mother that I strive to be. When he started throwing the padded envelopes on the ground, I thought I might lose it. I picked them up and started over on the label I had now ruined by missing three letters in the city name I was writing. Then he was on all fours, crawling on the floor, and the man in line behind me was kindly asking me how old he was. “He is two” I answered sheepishly, waiting for the usual vitriol and faux-sympathy for just how difficult that age can be (which is simply a nicer way of asking me to take control of him) or, even worse, the knowing smile and exclamation of “the terrible twos, eh?”
No. NO! I do not believe in terrible twos. Typically I am ready for this remark. I smile, I say, “oh no, we don’t believe in the terrible twos in my house; only the terrific twos!” Generally Jacob lives up to this terrific title by saying something smart and funny and making the person question why anyone ever coined “terrible twos” in the first place. But on this particular day, I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Thankfully, he just wanted to tell me about his first grandchild, just born in Florida, and the conversation moved on without further incident. I apologized to every person in that small office several times, and bit my tongue back from defending his behavior by explaining that he hadn’t slept. Because I shouldn’t have to make excuses for him, right? Kids are kids, and they aren’t always patient. He was tired, hysterical, the post office was small and boring, we had been there a long time and he had run out of diversions.
I wouldn’t let myself do it. Because why should I have to? He is a person, and a small one at that. His brain is developing and a lot is happening in there. We all have off days, days when we are tired, grumpy, impolite or worse because we are just at the end of our ropes. I was having one of those days yesterday myself, so how can I blame him? I wanted so badly to let everyone know that this behavior was not the norm, and he is usually really great! But how does that help anything? I know how it would sound to anyone who heard it (cue the eye roll). So I had to accept that there were about half -a-dozen people who would go home that day and tell a story of the wild and crazy toddler let loose in the post office where kids shouldn’t be anyway and how his mother wasn’t doing very much about it! It’s horrifying, but it’s okay. This is life with a toddler, and a lesson in patience for me.
Just do me one favor, okay?
The next time you’re in the grocery store and you hear a child yelling “mommy” over and over again while he mother seems to have tuned him out or you witness a tearful meltdown at the park, or see a little girl in a department store scream that she just wants a pink dress right NOW and the mother, red-faced and wide-eyed, responds quietly and continues on with what she is doing, instead of asking yourself why she doesn’t leave, or get a sitter, or even worse (and you shouldn’t be doing this anyway) ask yourself what is wrong with that child, stop and think of me. Think of my adorable, intelligent, and communicative son who is usually a dream but has bad days as well. Think of how epically bad those days can be (like yesterday at the post office), and know that she knows. She knows what it looks like. She knows what you are thinking. She has been you.
And maybe one day you’ll be her, or maybe you already were, but it was so long ago that you’ve forgotten how truly wild toddlers can be. How uncontrollable. It’s not a matter of discipline. It’s a matter of loving them right where they are that day, that awful moment. Understanding them and loving them and meeting them where they are.
Especially when said child is two years old, and hasn’t napped that day.
Because it’s all about love, and how you respond to your child will form how he feels about himself throughout his life. Unconditional love means loving the crazy, wild animal-esque toddler in the post office as much as the sleepy, sweet, loving toddler you snuggled this morning. So as you struggle to find a way to express to this small person that you love him, but do not like the way he is acting, remember that love is a choice as much as it is an emotion. You could choose to say something damaging, like “everyone is looking at you” or “I am DONE with you!” or “what is WRONG with you?!” — and I have heard and seen these things done — which help no one, and leave your little one’s mind swirling with those negative thoughts. Or you could take a deep breath, gently stop said child from placing a stack of certified mail forms into an outgoing mail slot, and know that tomorrow will be better. And that unconditional love can be so hard, but it’s so right. And that every trying moment that you survive makes you and your child stronger, better, kinder, and more understanding. And that you are loved.