I have a funny habit of calling my twins, August and Avery, “the babies”: “Jackson, don’t hit the babies,” “I have to change the babies’ diapers,” “It’s time for the babies to go to bed.”
But make no mistake — these little beings are far from being babies. They’re talking, walking (well, one of them!) little terrors who are just days away from joining the Terrible Twos club but who have already earned quite a bit of toddler cred.
The other day, for instance, I spent a solid 45 minutes raking wet leaves from our backyard, with Jackson and August tussling over soccer balls in the background. I turned around to close the giant lawn bag and there was August, lifting it from the bottom to spill out all my work. Gleefully, he smiled and toddled away, as I cursed him behind his back and went back to raking. Back inside, Avery had a spectacular meltdown — tears, snot, flailing arms and all — because she was evidently afraid of the guts inside of our Halloween pumpkin we were carving.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I far prefer the insanity of toddlerhood to the insanity of babyhood. The sleepless nights, perpetual crying and complete dependency when the twins were infants felt like enough to drive anyone over the edge; now, at least they can somewhat communicate, (mostly) sleep through the night and aren’t toppling head-first off the couch anymore (usually).
But toddlerhood brings a new set of challenges: boundary-testing, a yearn for independence, massive explosions of learning that can prompt setbacks in everything from eating to sleeping. I remember Jackson’s early toddlerhood, which nicely coincided with the start of the pandemic — and it was not for the faint of heart. And now with two at the same time? We’re gearing up for quite a ride — and leaning on our Terrible Two learnings from round one.
Prepare for battle
Some mornings, when getting dressed, I feel like I should be donning camo and putting war paint on my face. As the “Mommy!” calls start going off in respective monitors, I usually take a deep breath, knowing it’ll be my last good one for a while. And go.
Like with any military operation, these toddlers and I spend most of our time and energy every day going head to head — our wildly differing goals inherently pitted against one another. I want a clean house, and they want nothing more than to experience the texture of a sofa smeared with that morning’s jelly-coated waffle. They want to feel the freedom and wind behind them as they take off down the street on a walk, and I want them to not land in the ER. I want all three kids to play nicely, and they — particularly the toddlers — live for the sting of a good slap to their sibling.
Such conflicts put us on opposite sides of the battlefield throughout most days. Instead of weapons, they come armed with the highest-decibel screeching known to man, a willpower to cry for hours on end, complete indecision toward breaking any object in the line of a tantrum — and the knowledge that all they have to do is giggle to really gain the upper hand. All I have to bring is a feeble declaration of “time out,” which the 2-year-olds find to be a fun game at the moment.
Most days, I just wave my white flag.
Nothing makes sense
When Jackson was a young toddler, I used to try to reason with him: “If you don’t finish your dinner, you won’t get dessert. If you don’t put on your shoes, we can’t stop at the toy store on our errands. If you don’t stop throwing toys, we can’t play with them anymore.” Sounds good on paper. In reality? Reasoning only goes so far with toddlers. Case in point, when Jackson was about 2, I recall him crafting a “trash hammer” from a plastic bag and summarily sticking it into a bodily orifice — from which I had to surgically remove it to avoid a hospital trip.
Toddlers aren’t yet guided by reason; rather, they’re primarily driven by their emotions, and a magnetism to exploration. So, this go-round, I’m trying to embrace the reality that I can’t make sense of their world by using adult reason — because it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense through that lens.
August, for instance, is in a stage where he’s hiding food in his ears during meals. I don’t know why. And no matter how many times we say “Yucky” or demonstrate that food belongs on plates or in mouths, we turn around and he’s climbing down from the dinner table with a meatball shoved in each ear for later, corn kernels, baked beans — you name it. It’s not something I would be inclined to do at the dinner table but that’s because I work by reason; he must think it feels funny, or maybe he’s just saving up for a midnight snack.
Avery has her own nonsensical quirks. She sleeps with a binky in her mouth at night — along with one in her right hand and one in her left hand. We’ve tried to substitute fluffy bears, a little Minnie Mouse, a comfy blanket; no, she has to stick her pointer finger on each hand inside the binky before she will close her eyes.
Toddler motivations are a mystery that I don’t have the energy to solve.
‘Mess’ is an understatement
I remember a video I took of Jackson when he was going on 2 and we had been trapped in the house at the start of COVID for weeks. He was delicately placing chicken nuggets atop his head, and I laughingly lamented the mess.
Fast-forward three years and two toddlers later and what I wouldn’t give for just a few nugget crumbs in the hair. The end of mealtime in our dining room resembles the Benjamin Franklin Parkway after the Eagles Super Bowl parade (minus the beer cans): food, condiments, plates, utensils, cups, napkins — all strewn hither and yonder on the floor. It’s largely because the twins have entered the “throwing sh*t” phase of eating: Bite of nugget, nugget on the floor … bite of spaghetti, handful of sauce on the face, entire spaghetti bowl on the floor … sip of milk, open milk on dog’s head … I’ve taken to planning certain meals (baked beans, Spaghetti-Os and anything with a sauce-like consistency) on bath nights because I know what’s coming.
Food is just one of their weapons for mess creation —– toys are where the real fun is at. Our living room is home to eight large storage bins, each of which is brimming with loosely categorized toys. It never fails that the second I get one bin filled back up after a day of playing, I turn around and a toddler has completely upended another.
This level of chaotic mess has meant I’m getting used to the fact that the regular cleaning maintenance I used to do, even with a toddler — dusting, vacuuming, wiping counters — has to get triaged. And it’s often going to be at the bottom of the cleaning list, underneath scrubbing barbecue sauce off the dog’s tail.
They’re full of surprises
Toddlers are expected to do crazy things — they’re full of emotions they don’t understand, their brains are developing at break-neck speed, they can’t fully communicate yet. So, parents often head into the Terrible Twos expecting a wild time — but toddlers have a gift for exceeding expectations.
When Jackson was about 2, I remember my panic when he threw a toy into the toilet; it was a cow, I remember, because I even took a picture. So, I knew that toilet mishaps were going to happen this time around and felt like I’d be prepared with a closed seat at all times. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that August is a toddler ninja who can lift, climb and maneuver anything he wants — and who lives to play in toilet water. Last week, when it was too quiet in the house, I knew he was probably causing trouble in the bathroom. Lo’ and behold, he had thrown a collection of Ninja Turtles into the not-flushed toilet and was drenched, splashing like he was in a pool. “Hi!” he yelled as I gasped in horror.
August is quickly emerging as the problem toddler of the trio. Recently, while we were waiting in the car outside of one of Avery’s doctor’s appointments, he spilled a drink on his pants, so I took them off and let him go the five-minute ride home in his diaper. To my horror, as I slid open the minivan door, I was greeted by August smeared from head to toe in his own feces — under his fingernails, on his eyelids, up and down his legs, in his hair. “Hi!” he again yelled, smiling, as I contemplated the jail time I’d face for abandoning my kids in the driveway and running away to catch a plane to a remote island.
The highs through the lows
Toddlers are uniquely built so that everything that drives you to nearly punt them out the window is also what makes you want to scoop them up and keep them this maddeningly hard age.
The innate drive for excitement and exploration may have your toilet clogged with toys but that is also what makes their face light up when you show them a magic trick or a new toy, or even when a gust of wind flutters their hair. Toddlerhood is a time when language is exploding — and with August, in particular, that often drives me mad: Every night before bed (and after, for about an hour), he insists we sit next to his crib while he asks in his own little language repeatedly what every single person in our family, along with the neighbor kid, are doing at that very moment. But when you walk into a room and he busts out “Mommy!” or, in Avery’s case “Mimmi!” it’s anything but annoying. Likewise, they are perpetually attached to my body — my legs when I’m trying to walk, my lap when I sit for a second, my shoulders, head; we must always be touching. When I’m overstimulated, it sets me incredibly on edge; however, when something silly scares them (our vacuum, for August, or Avery’s wrestling brothers), and you see them immediately seek out where you are in the room and how quickly they can get to you, the irritation vanishes.
The Terrible Twos are aptly named; there’s no getting around it: It’s hard — and with two, I know it’s going to be doubly hard. But there will also be moments that will be doubly adorable, doubly endearing, doubly eye-opening and doubly memorable. So, through the lows to come, I’m going to be waiting for those highs. And in the meantime, fantasizing about running away to that island.