You Will Survive the Early Years
My three children – ages 9, 7, and 4 – had decided to sit in their own row on our 4-hour flight from Chicago to San Diego over the Winter break. I sipped my gingerale, watched a Bravo marathon of trashy TV while reading a magazine, with a side eye preparing for the fighting/meltdown/mass chaos of mess and noise. I kept waiting for the inevitable, sticky shoe to drop, but it didn’t.
I flashed back to the hours of misery on airplanes with aching arms and eardrums, yearning for even ten minutes to read a book, unencumbered. I saw my past self in the faces of other pregnant moms with toddlers – so tired, but in the zone of resolve to get through the journey. I wanted to reach over and reassure these weary women that it does in fact get better – just look at my kids now! But I think if I would have been them, I may have slapped that well-intentioned stranger.
I remember the year of mothering a newborn/infant and toddler like it was a legendary battle, leaving mental scars (along with all the magic and beauty, yada yada). My angelic second baby didn’t sleep through the night for 13 months, often waking up 9-10 times a night (I started keeping a tally). I would wake up in tears to my alarm, because I had no idea how I would function.
My 2-year-old would scream the entire 45-minute commute as I stared ahead in misery, sometimes ineffectively yelling right back. I was doing emotionally intense and draining work as a pediatric palliative care psychologist, and I literally had NOTHING left at the end of the day, which was always followed by a sleepless night until the alarm went off and it all began again, often in tears.
I have the same nostalgia so many of us recovered newborn and toddler parents have: I loved the awe-inspiring parts of life with a newborn – their smell, soft skin, sweet gassy smiles, funny poop faces, and that sense of peace when holding them close as they quietly sleep folded up on your chest. Toddlers too have their undeniable charm – the drunken walking, diapered butts swaying comically; the squeals of unbridled joy as the world of novelty unfolds around them. When my husband and I look at pictures of our kids when they were babies and toddlers, we ooh and aah about how sweet and cute they were.
That’s because we don’t have pictures of our arguments about who deserves to sleep in on the weekend, the evening routine chaos of bath/dinner/bedtime in under an hour to prevent total disaster, the house in disarray as we can’t move from the couch to clean up during nap time.
There’s no picture of my complete lack of alone time, downtime, or fun that didn’t involve Disney characters. Back in those days, the first flights with newborns and toddlers epitomized what I had lost: anything that was about me. Life was now ALL about them. As much as that’s how it needs to be and should be, it doesn’t mean it’s easy or we’re not allowed to resent it without taking away the fact we love our children. We can simultaneously resent what we don’t have, and love what we do have.
I’m here to report to those of you wandering through this phase of life with glazed eyes and a shadow memory of who you were before being a parent, I have great news I wish I could have believed back then: it gets easier. Fulfilling in deeper ways. Richer. Better.
You get yourself back. It is obviously a different self once the parent part has irretrievably claimed your heart and soul, but you get you again. It might take some effort, lots of partner and village support, and deliberate choices on your part, but it happens.
You are able to get you back because the day-to-day grind DOES get easier. When you’re head down in the all-consuming world of 0-3, you don’t even remember life before, let alone see the sunnier path ahead of you. (This is one gift of having older children — you know it exists!)
There are of course ranges in exact ages that these changes happen, but I mapped out a rough timeline of hope to give you some lightposts to line that dark tunnel of the early years. The one change that I will not guarantee a timeline on because it can have some huge ups and downs depending on the kid, but it does eventually happen for most: YOU WILL SLEEP AGAIN. (That precious, sleepless newborn angel I mentioned? After her first night of good sleep at 13 months old, she has been our rock star sleeper ever since.)
In general, the glimpses of freedom can start as young as 3, but really open up in full view once those preschoolers budding with independence transform into elementary students.
Can play on playground equipment without you hovering next to them – sit your butt on that bench and relax with a few “Oh wow”s and “Look at you”s. You’ve earned it.
NO DIAPER BAG NECESSARY. And depending on the child and distance, no stroller either! (Just be prepared to stuff more random junk in your purse as needed.) The number of must-haves to get out the door decreases exponentially and you feel light as air . . . just don’t forget the kids!
Getting dressed by themselves. Throw matching caution to the wind, and let their fashion sense fly. If they can put on those clothes unassisted while you do something else, they can look however THEY want!
Can get up on Saturday morning without you because they can now independently work the remote (I have even heard of this happening younger).
Car seat independence. They can not only get IN to their car seats, they do their own straps, which means they can get OUT on their own too. You just get out of the car and stand with the door open, verbally coaching them to “keep moving” as they may get waylaid by a variety of distractions.
Dropping off at birthday parties – and play dates. Or even being able to TALK to the other parent to make it a double parent AND child play date.
Wipe their own butts. No more description necessary. (And you might still need to a little double-checking on the degree of clean.)
GET THEIR OWN FOOD. When my girls tell me they want a snack, I say “well go get it” and they do. They can make their own lunches – for school and at home. (They are 7 and 9 and now we are working on cooking dinners and doing dishes.)
Again, depending on the child, READING can open up a whole new world. They can read their books to themselves AND to their younger siblings. I still like to read to my kids, but I don’t miss the days of reading the same three books EVERY NIGHT at bedtime for months in a row.
There can be variation depending on your child’s level of maturity, responsibility, and abilities, but in general these years are known as the “sweet spot of parenting” after the high demands of young children and before the emotional toll of adolescence. Here’s just a sampling of how life changes:
Bathing themselves. Yes, they likely need some knocks on the door to finish up and reminders to actually wash, but you are not breaking your back fighting with them to get IN the tub, and then OUT of the tub, all while they scream for their lives when you rinse their hair.
No more installing car seats. Booster seats are magical – they just pick up and go between seats and cars, and only need a seatbelt to loop through them. LIFE ALTERING.
Swimming in the pool without you. Bring a book (that you read with one eye while the other eye makes sure their heads keep popping up above water).
Leaving them home alone (!). So of course you check your state laws on this, and have a safety plan in place, but there does come a time when you can walk the dog for 10 minutes or run an errand and they can STAY HOME ALONE.
They can entertain themselves – it doesn’t always mean they will, but they CAN. That comes in especially handy on an airplane or on a road trip.
Perhaps the most exciting development in these years is not a single, identifiable event, but their own growing sense of self, which they can now express in a more cohesive, comprehensible way than during those toddler tantrums. Getting to know your child as more than a squalling, squealing, portable bundle that needs around-the-clock care and oversight is simply amazing.
In the trenches of parenting the young child, we can only muster energy for the moment. This is a different “in the moment” from the whole mindfulness craze of how we achieve greater mental calm by staying in the present. In the company of young children, the present is rarely calm. “The moment” can be tedious, crazy-making, and exhausting from the combination of endless physical demands, sleep deprivation, and zero reasoning ability. And the thing about “the moment:” it’s all about them, and none of it is about you.
So as they develop their self and identity, that’s when and how you get to reclaim yours. And now you have a super cool child or children that are part of you, your world, and your legacy. It’s all worth it – promise. It gets easier. And better.