This guest post was written by Ashley Van Otterloo. She's a good friend of mine and is the mom of three children. I hope her words speak to you as much as they spoke to me!
So. Let's talk toddlers.
It's really common, as the parent of a budding toddler, to feel a little "duped" by any easy-parenting fantasies you held previously, or completely steamrolled by the realization that gentle parenting (and ANY parenting) is really long, really hard, often thankless work.
While creating a loving bond with our tiny babies, it's easy to imagine that our little one and ourselves will enjoy the euphoria of "togetherness" forever, and that baby will seamlessly become an equally agreeable child, in sync with our every idea. Even if a baby has been high needs or cried a lot, we might look forward to easier time of it once they get older and less colicky/clingy.
For many mothers, including myself, 12mo-2.5 years is a HUGE reality check about what it means to be a parent. I discovered very fast that my daughter is and forever will be her own person, with her own ideas, her own hopes, her own God-given bent and personality...that is often in contrast/conflict with mine! What a RUDE awakening!
It was a time that I spent much time in prayer, realizing the weight of the task I was about to undertake: leading an individual gently and thoughtfully through childhood, and realizing that *I* was now the adult in her life that she looked to for protection, instruction and nurture. Despite any cranky moods, unfairness, and challenge that the commitment brought me, I was committed to being her mom! What a HUGE paradigm shift this was for me!
In light of what I've gleaned from my limited experience (this is our 3rd time around), and from observations of emotional trends that tend to happen at this age, I thought I'd compile a little list that might be helpful for a mama navigating this for the first (or second, third, fourth...) time!
Things that make this time unique:
Differentiation (Mama and me are different!): From 12 months, babies begin a fantastic journey of finding their own place in the world, as they no longer view themselves an extension of mommy! This means exploration; fuzzy, emotional opinions of their own; unique ideas; lots of experimenting with behaviors and words. This age can be charming, funny, busy and exhausting for parents!
New experimental expressions like the infamous "NO!!!" are healthy, but can take some adjusting to emotionally, especially if your background (like mine) was a punitive paradigm. It can take a while to find a balance between allowing for individual expression and enforcing healthy boundaries.
Need for reassurance: The flip side of differentiation is need for nurture! Babies this age often get overwhelmed by their own ability to stray from mama, and from the sheer new volume of stimulation and information at their fingertips! While they're struggling to get down and explore their world, they also need plenty of cuddling, loving, direction and reassurance!
Increased Mobility : If you have a child this age, this point is obvious. Childproofing, wise choices in playdate location, lots of redirecting and on-feet time for parents is a hallmark of this busy phase!
Changing lifestyle: Up until this point, it's easy enough to tote along little Rex or Regina in a stroller or sling, and friends are generally happy to see your little bundle of cuteness. Once toddling is reached, however, things like eating and the bowling alley become more challenging. (Sometimes challenging is a laughable understatement! ) You're now responsible for making sure the boundaries of others are honored, AND setting your little one up for successful behavior by providing appropriate place to explore. If your social life is mostly composed of single or childless friends, this experience will likely be even more obvious.
For extroverted or social couples, this can be especially challenging, and it may take time and patience to reinvent your social support system in a way that nurtures you and provides a safe, successful environment for your child. The work put into it is always satisfying! Don't give up, and be patient with yourself and your spouse as you navigate these new waters.
Changing sibling relationships: For toddlers with older siblings, this is often an age of discovering rivalry (and relationship!). Different children with different needs and opinions about things require lots of involvement and navigation of physical boundaries from parents (especially in the very early years! ) The baby is all of a sudden more interesting and, sometimes, more scary. The Mama Bear that is awoken when on child hurts another can leave you feeling wild and breathless sometimes.
If your toddler is the older child, this is often a very rattling emotional time for mama! Feelings of betraying your toddler with another pregnancy, worry that you won't have enough resources to go around, feelings of annoyance that they won't mature more quickly, feelings of being overwhelmed by the needs of TWO small people can be daunting. It's a great time to take a deep breath and ask yourself what your child is actually capable of (and not what you WISH he/she were capable of), and trouble-shoot from there.
Body changes for mama: Most women notice changes in their bodies or, at very least, the amount of time/energy that can be devoted to self-image or self care after the infant year! This can contribute to rattling of the way we view ourselves, and tends to lend an emotional intensity to our reactions to increasing demands on our energy and patience.
Remembering that people who feel good behave better will help. Pick a hobby or pursuit you love. Call a girlfriend. Hand your toddler off to your spouse or a trusted loved one for a couple of hours. Taking care of ourselves (even if it's just half an hour in the tub every week to unwind and soak out the stress) isn't selfish. It's prudent.
Need for increased body boundaries, but continued need for nurture: While being an attached parent, it's often healthy and useful to recognize that there are age-appropriate times to gradually set limits on our children's access to our bodies (nursing boundaries, need for personal space sometimes). This can look different for every parent/child, according to individual needs. It's also important to recognize that while setting boundaries and limits, we can honor the fact that our toddlers are still very small and very much babies who continue to need some level of physical reassurance. As in all things, a healthy balance for everyone can be struck.
Discipline choices take a central role: This is a sorting out time for most parents in the area of discipline philosophy. Toddlerhood is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. The realization that parenting and reinforcing the same boundary over and over can be HARD sets in, and many mothers previously delighted with Gentle Discipline can feel disillusioned. (It is, after all, a lot easier to imagine being gentle with a cooing baby than with a mobile baby who has their own set of needs and opinions! )
Parenting isn't easy. It takes committment, time, patience, repetition, and a commitment to strive for teaching and instilling of love for the long haul. It takes *time* and energy, and there are no easy solutions when cultivating compassion, kindness and character.
It's also an age where the decision has to be reached to become educated and confident in your OWN parenting choices, and to grow rather thick skin from the flurry of advice that's bound to come your way. Others often have strong opinions about how we should parent our own children. I've found that with family, it's good to take a no-nonsense approach, and simply "out" myself as a proactive, gentle mother, and make it clear that my parenting choices aren't up for discussion. I do the same with close friends. This isn't forceful or rude; it's taking on the appropriate role of authority and protector in your precious child's life, and making the boundary of your place as Parent clear.
Much of parenting is donning a flame-proof attitude about the decisions you prayerfully and thoughtfully make, and then standing your ground, and surrounding yourself with those who will at least be respectful of your choices. It's a time when you step out of a follower role yourself, and become a leader for your children.
One last point: It helps to remember that a lot of the annoying behaviors that come with certain ages and phases are just that: phases. Children generally mature out of them, just by maturing and consistent, gentle reinforcement of boundaries. (Really, they do. It's like magic.) To be sure, each new phase brings with it it's own set of unique and what often appear to be bizarre behaviors. Read up on ages and stages...Ames and Ilg's "Your Two Year Old" is a great place to start.
I challenge each mom to pray and ask God to help her to fall in love with THIS child that you've been given. Not the child you imagined you had, not the child you expected, not the child you wish you had. Ask the Holy Spirit to wind your heart around what it is that makes this specific child's personality fantastic and capable, and then commit to pouring your effort into nurturing that. It's a beautiful journey, if hectic and crazy sometimes, and one that's worth the walking!