Bringing up a toddler and a baby is extremely hard work. Identifying those daily stress points can help to lessen frustration and bring about a level of much needed emotional predictability to your day.
Let’s face it, it is MEANT to be difficult bringing up babies and toddlers. If it weren’t, we would forget about them, misplace them, and maybe perhaps even lose them. There would probably be little piles of forgotten (but happily content) babies in shopping malls, in restaurants and in cupboards-under-the-stairs all around the country. They are on your case 24/7 precisely so that this DOESN’T happen.
Recently, at the end of one particularly difficult day, I decided to go through a process of catharsis and list out exactly what the factors were that were contributing to my emotional frazzle. I figured that by identifying them, I might be able to rationalise them, deal with them and better prepare for them. Here’s my top eight, in no particular order. Let me know yours.
1/. Bed time
Or “The Last Push” as I call it. By bed time, everyone is cranky. There is often safety in the routine – warm milk, ten minutes of The Lion King DVD, read books, brush teeth, read more books, bed time, recap of the day, lights out – and then you close the door carefully and quietly and then make a break for downstairs and hold your breath and keep your fingers crossed and listen out, and the only thing you can hear is your beating heart and you breathe a sigh of relief and start to relax, even think about pouring a beer. But then IT happens. THE WHINGEING starts – anything from two minutes to two hours – “I need a wee” or “I feel sick” or “it’s too bright/dark” or the more simple, but effective “Dad! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! DADDY! DAAADDDYY!….” on repeat to fade, ad nauseaum.
And there are only so many times I can tell my eldest to stop sticking her toothbrush in her ear; there are only so many times I can stop my youngest from emptying the laundry basket; there are only so many times I can read Mr Messy without going insane; and there are only so many times I can watch Kung Fu Panda without wanting to shout at the dumb panda “It’s YOU Panda! Yes YOU! You are the bloody Dragon Warrior! Now go and fight the Tiger and get it OVER with!”
Bed times are tough, and my wife and I have a pact that we are ALWAYS around to support each other at bed time. To do otherwise is considered BETRAYAL.
2/. Cries per hour
I have a happiness index and one of the indicators is Cries Per Hour (CPH). Ideally for a high happiness index on any given day, I would want the children’s CPH to be around one or less (i.e. one cry per hour). Some days this is possible, and those days are bliss. Everyone gets to the end of the day, exhausted as usual, but glowing with a kind of pride and happiness that can only come from imagining that this is the way of things to come; you and your perfectly content family, riding off into the sunset of a new era, leaving all the tantrums, tears and tyranny behind.
But at the moment, those days are incredibly rare. More usual is a CPH of around 3 – 5. On bad days, or days of illness, CPH can be up around the 6 mark which means that one of the children is crying at least once every ten minutes in the hour. Double illness, double teething or JUST REALLY BAD DAYS can push CPH way up into double figures. And for those of you who don’t know what this feels like, try setting a really loud alarm clock, that’s really hard to turn off, to go off every three minutes. Now tape it securely to your ear, go about your business, and see how you feel at the end of the day.
3/. Car seat belts and nappy changing time
These are both part of the same issue which is effectively the moment when your baby realises that it is no longer just a blob, but in fact an all-singing, all-dancing, action machine! When babies are younger nappy change time is a breeze and the only inconvenience is the risk of being covered in some form of bodily fluid (which admittedly is not much fun).
Once they get to around 12 months old however, the fighting begins. I have never tried putting a nappy on a live, giant octopus, but I would imagine it is very similar to trying to put one on a 12 month old baby. Suddenly they appear to grow more limbs. Churning, writhing, wriggling limbs. Everything on the change table is grabbed and thrown around. Hands and fingers go everywhere (not good if you are cleaning up poo) and everything crashes onto the floor, including sometimes, the baby itself.
And trying to insert a toddler into a car seat is equally stressful. They generally have two strategies to avoid this activity – one is to plank as rigidly as possible. The other is to adopt the writhing octopus approach, as mentioned above. Both strategies also generally involve screaming blue murder. Sometimes the situation cannot be resolved through negotiation, bribery or flattery, and it’s at these moments that you notice the car park has long since emptied and you see the moon coming up, and the glitter of frost appear on the car roof, and you are hungry and tired, but still the child protests, and you realise that you have been there for hours, and in a moment of panic, you realise that you might end up DYING in the car park, a tragic monument to the incredible will-power of a two year old child.
Be prepared for car seat belt and nappy change time. Have snacks, toys and water available. As much for you, as for them.
4/. No hiding place
This is a feeling, rather than a specific event or issue. With one child you can take a break, entrust the care onto your other half, while you go and recharge your batteries, take a shower, eat some food, talk to your buddies, whatever it takes for you to come back and feel refreshed ready to relinquish your partner to allow her to go off and do her thing. With one toddler and one baby however, there really is no hiding place.
My wife recently went away for the weekend, and left the kids with me. I survived it. But only just. At one point I felt like I was in a scene in “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. I was trying to cook dinner but my son was standing next to the laundry basket, cackling and manically emptying it of its contents, whilst repeatedly head butting the wall (presumably to relieve teething pain), and at the same time my daughter was running around the house banging a pan with a large stick, shrieking like a harridan and swan diving into the piles of clothes.
Thankfully I was able to get the children and house into some form of order before my wife returned, as if she had walked in on us during that moment, she would have probably never let me near them again. But the point is this, with two children I now have to significantly downsize my own expectations about what I can achieve for myself on a daily basis, and accept that 99.99% of MY day is going to be about THEM. This transition to ultimate selflessness has been a particularly hard journey for me. Giving, giving, giving again and then giving until there is nothing left for myself is a particularly new and challenging state of being for me. Things are improving now though. I am at the point now where I feel I can take one hour a week away from the home (when I am not otherwise at work). One hour of total “me time”. I use it to play football with my friends. My wife does yoga. And it is only 60 minutes, but we both agree it is a beautiful, precious, fleeting moment, the benefits of which last for hours, even days, after.
5/. Social alienation
Given “Bed Time” above, attendance of adult social events can now only happen after both children are in bed and unconscious. This means anytime between 8pm and never. And normally by this point in the day, my brain is melting out of my ears and my soul is usually whimpering uncontrollably in a corner somewhere in The Ether. The idea of leaving my home to go and converse sensibly with adults (particularly ones who don’t have children) fills me with The Fear. The problem with this is that it usually rules out that hugely important social event – the post work drink. I have got to the point now where people have stopped asking me to come for a pint after work. It’s not that I don’t want to anymore – quite the contrary I would LOVE to – but the thought of leaving my wife at home on her own to deal with EMT (Evening Meal Time) on her own with the crazies is just not worth thinking about. Now I am at a point in my life where going down the pub and getting flabbergasted no longer holds the same attraction as it did in my twenties and early thirties, but I do find that by missing out on a few post work pints, I am always the last to find out about the big issues, the scandal and the gossip that are so rife in office environments. This does lead to a sense of alienation. And while I am not yet eating lunch on my own, I find that I no longer have such a large circle of friends as I used to.
Babies and children are little mobile contamination points. I hadn’t been sick in years until I had children. Now I can watch the epidemiology of a virus real time; from the moment it first gets reported at nursery, to the moment it crashes into the family and lays waste to each member in turn. Having a sick child is hard work. Having two sick children is really hard work. Having two sick children, when you are also sick is enough to make you sicker. And having two sick children, when you are sick and your wife is sick is….well you get the picture. The other thing about illness is that it always puts an added tension on the relationship with my wife. If both children are sick and have to be off nursery, one of us has to take time off to care for them. This negotiation can often be really tense and difficult, and, if negotiation is not successful, can sometimes result in those incredibly destructive “my job is more important than yours” kind of conversations which go nowhere and are not helpful. As a result I am certainly more regimented about hand washing, and if I spot anyone with anything that resembles anything like a virus, I make a very wide and very immediate berth.
7/. Loss of perspective
Theirs, and therefore mine. For example recently we spent the whole day spoiling my daughter. A trip to the swimming pool (which she loves) followed by a friend’s birthday party, followed by a trip to soft play (which she loves), followed by her favourite dinner, her favourite books, films, bed time story….you get the picture. After this almost perfect day (for my child at least), my daughter then proceeded to have an almighty meltdown just before bed, because I gave her a PINK toothbrush instead of her usual GREEN one. It ended up with her screaming and rolling around, punching and kicking on the floor, eyes literally bulging out of their sockets and face turning, according to the Dulux paint chart, Beyond-Rage Red. To put this into perspective it would be the equivalent of me winning the lottery, and at the presentation party screaming at everyone at Camelot because they gave me my millions in cheque form instead of £20 notes.
For me at least, my tolerance levels relate directly to the empathy I have for the situation. If my child is crying because he is cold or hungry, I cannot feel frustrated at that because I empathise with his situation. I too have felt cold and hungry and it is not very nice. However the subtleties of the importance of the difference between a green and pink toothbrush, in the privacy of my own bathroom, after what has generally been the best day ever, are generally lost on me. This kind of meltdown is apparently common amongst babies and young children, as they begin to state opinions, preferences and their own little wills. And of course I should be encouraging the development of their little voices, but in this kind of scenario it is hard to, particularly when as an adult, at the end of a hard day, all you can see is a total loss of perspective.
8/. The in-built altimeter
All babies are born with an altimeter. I can prove this. When both of my children were young, I could be walking around, or standing still, holding them and they would be happy as anything. The moment I sat down, to take the weight off my feet, or put the baby on the floor / in the cot / somewhere else, they would start crying. Stand up and the crying stops. Sit down and it starts again. Initially this was a source of amusement, but some days, standing and holding the baby would inexplicably be the ONLY way to stop him crying. And believe me, holding a 7kg baby all day, while the other does their best to hang off your trousers and pull them down round your ankles, is a) not good for the back and b) stops you doing anything at all c) really bad for the soul and d) just not a very good look. On days like this it is good to be around other adults who can share the load when your back / patience gives up.