I expected Jamie’s second year – the start of his official toddlerhood – to be tough, and it has been, but not really for the reasons I’d expected.
What I was expecting was tantrums. I was braced for tantrums. Lots of them. The parenting books all assured me that toddlerhood and tantrumming are practically synonymous. I’ve never seen the film ‘Kevin’, but apparently it starts out with a sweet co-operative child bidding his parents goodnight on the night before his thirteenth birthday, then coming downstairs the next day having mutated into a full-blown Teenager. I sort of expected toddlerhood to be like that – my sweet baby would go to bed after a lovely day partying for his first birthday, and when he woke up in the morning his first act would be to throw himself down kicking and hitting the floor and screaming "Nooooo! Noooooo!", and thus life would continue for the next year, with brief intermissions every so often while he picked up new words. While I vaguely supposed it probably wouldn’t literally be like this, that’s still a fair summary of what I expected.
It has, in actual fact, been almost nothing like this (as far as either the tantrumming or, alas, the learning to talk is concerned). Oh, we did have a brief spell after he met up with the granddaughter of a friend of my mother’s, who is about ten months older than him and who did have classic spells of screaming and arching her back when she was frustrated about anything, when he apparently thought "Aha! That looks like fun. Must try that". Which, despite what I’d expected, turned out not to be a problem. Although all the books go on about how infuriating tantrums are and what a pain they are to deal with, what none of them say is that they can actually be a highly welcome break. Slumping to the floor screaming is one of the few activities a toddler can undertake that’s harmless to both himself and the world at large. Whenever he started, I thought "Thank goodness for that! I can get a couple of minutes of computer time in." Unfortunately, he got bored within a few weeks and stopped, but, believe me, I made the most of those breaks while they lasted.
The hardest part of having a toddler is, you see – at least for me – the fact that their ability to get into everything is, at this point, running so far ahead of their ability to understand why it might be a good idea to show some caution and restraint in doing so. Oh, we have the house safety-proofed, but safety-proofing isn’t annoyance-proofing. Unless your decorating arrangements happen to include large numbers of high cupboards in every room into which you can simply shovel everything from the remote control to the salt-cellar to your entire pen collection, there are going to be plenty of things that are still within a toddler’s reach that they shouldn’t have, and that number is going to increase as time goes by. (For example, Jamie has recently figured out how to climb onto the shredder next to my desk and thence onto my computer table, therefore gaining access not only to the stereo – which is what he’s really after – but also my expensive and pokable LCD monitor and the stuff such as pens and floppy disks that I put out of reach at the back of my desk or on the control tower. And there just isn’t really anywhere else I can put the shredder.)
With a young toddler, the simplest of daily activities becomes an exercise in logistics. A while back Shannon, from Peter’s Cross Station, wrote about how she spent a typical day caring for her then-eighteen-month-old toddler, and she was saying that after Nat’s breakfast Nat toddles round the kitchen while Shannon sorts out the stuff from the dishwasher and gets a load of laundry on… Believe me, that sort of simple description does not begin to cover it. The reality is more like "Open dishwasher, put away one item, open dishwasher again because toddler has closed it as soon as you had your back turned, put away a couple more items, switch dishwasher off because toddler has closed it and pressed that interesting-looking button on the front, open dishwasher again and realise the knives on the top layer are within his reach, grab them and try to dry them while fending off a toddler with, um, the third hand, tell toddler how good he is for trying to help but could he give Mummy that plate, please, as it isn’t really a toy, and, yes, that fork as well, try to inspect items removed from toddler’s fingers for stickiness/do any needed rewiping/put them away before toddler has a chance to switch dishwasher off again, fail, remove toddler firmly from vicinity of dishwasher, switch off dishwasher, switch off washing machine that toddler has just switched on due to having been moved away from dishwasher, manage to put another glass away, agree with toddler that, yes, the bright lights on the front of the water filter are indeed most fascinating but DON’T PUT YOUR HAND IN THAT SALT, pull toddler’s questing hand out of salt container on water filter and put lid straight while trying not to drop glass or tea-towel that you haven’t had a chance to put down, remove toddler from vicinity of water filter and washing machine and dishwasher, maintain running commentary aimed at Enhancing Language Abilities on how Jamie’s opening the cupboard door, adding request that although that’s all well and good could he now please shut it again instead of playing with Mummy and Daddy’s wedding present crockery, remove toddler from vicinity of cupboard, realise he is now back in vicinity of dishwasher, switch off dishwasher that he’s just switched on, give up, take toddler out of kitchen, leave stuff in dishwasher until husband is awake to watch him."
Multiply that by every single darned activity, no matter how trivial, you do during the entire day (and then the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after…), and you can see how it gets pretty exhausting. I’m glad I go out to work four days a week, because I desperately need the break.
And the not talking! Watching Jamie learn to talk was the thing I’d been looking forward to most about the second year, so, believe me, it’s been pretty bloody annoying that he hasn’t. While every other blogging parent of a toddler seems to be writing
about how quickly their child is picking up new words, combining them into sentences, and all that good stuff, Jamie has a vocabulary of four words total. (To his original ‘Muh’ for ‘milk’ and ‘Dada’ for ‘daddy’ he eventually added ‘Hiya’, after Barry finally managed to convince him that this was a more appropriate form of telephonic conversation than blowing raspberries, and ‘Ooo-wow’n-wow’n’, which means ‘Round and round’, and is used as a catch-all term for the washing machine, the dryer, the home movies that Daddy’s been recording from Nana and Grandad’s old-fashioned projector onto computer, and anything else with a rotatory motion.) I’m sure that in a few years I’ll be looking back on this time longingly – but, when I’m being driven mad by a child who won’t shut up, can someone please remind me just how darned frustrating I found the alternative?
But what I also hadn’t expected… was just how much things would improve over the course of the year. I’d thought of the Toddler Years as a sort of vast desert of parenthood that stretched on until at least the age of three, and I somehow vaguely visualised them as all of a piece, so that the best I’d hoped for by the age of two was that there would be some sort of faint glimmer of light at the end of the, um, desert. (I really must stop mixing those metaphors.) I hadn’t realised what an amazing thing it would be to see the little two-year-old person who’s spent the year emerging from the one-year-old baby.
It’s been such a gradual change that I didn’t quite realise just how much things had improved until I started writing this – it’s one of the posts I’ve been meaning to write for months, and it was only when I finally sat down and did so that I realised that most of what I was writing came from the pre-written post that had been living in my head all this time. It is not, any longer, an accurate description of current events. These days – and I cannot tell you how dim and distant this halcyon state of affairs seemed just a few months ago – I can leave Jamie alone for a few minutes while I sort the dishwasher out or do something else that needs doing, and he will play contentedly by himself. Of course, he’s quite likely to be playing contentedly with a biro or the remote controls or this computer or something else that he isn’t supposed to have, but, by checking in at frequent intervals, I can usually keep things under control. And when we go out, he actually spends more time sitting in his pushchair than he does trying to climb out. Amazingly enough, life is feeling almost restful. Relatively speaking, anyway.
Another thing that’s improved drastically is his language comprehension. He may not say many words, but, my goodness, he’s got them in his head all right. For this particular change, I actually can pinpoint a turning point; the moment when, aged around eighteen months, he pointed emphatically at the picture of the ball in his Winnie-the-Pooh counting book and then at his own ball. I agreed enthusiastically that it was indeed a ball – how clever of him to spot it. The next day, he did the same thing, only this time pointing through to the next room where the ball was. I know it doesn’t sound like much, as turning points go, but… it was like a light going on in his head. Pictures aren’t just there for decoration – they represent concepts. And words aren’t just sounds – they’re ways of expressing those concepts. His understanding – not just of language, but of how the world works generally – has spiralled upwards in the second half of his second year. I can see him putting it all together in his mind, making the connections.
When I told him that we needed to put his clothes in the dryer, he responded "Ooowow’nwow’n", making the accompanying round-and-round gesture that I taught him by mistake when trying to illustrate the washing machine’s motion for him (understandably enough, he thought it was a new sign). When I got the newly-dried clothes upstairs and started sorting them out, he grabbed an armful of trousers and stuffed them into the drawer before I’d even started to put things away. Admittedly it wasn’t much help, since they hadn’t been folded yet and, besides, he was trying to put them in the T-shirt and sock drawer… but how impressive is it that he remembered, from the times he’d seen me putting away laundry before, that this was meant to be the next step? When Barry told him we were going to the park, he signed "Ball". He understands not just what words mean, but how the concept behind them fits together with other concepts and memories in his little universe.
How much more of that understanding is he going to show by the end of his next year? I don’t know – but I know I’m looking forward to finding out.