It’s one of the things you probably hear most before you have a baby. “You don’t realise how much they’ll change your life,” usually said with a dreamy faraway look. At this time, you probably assume that the speaker is thinking fondly of their little darling, and how life is so much better now. With hindsight, the odds are just as good that they are remembering the last time they were able to eat a meal in peace or get a full night’s sleep.
Well, having been caught out by this ourselves, I’ve decided to be selfless and tell people the Truth About Toddlers. (sounds good doesn’t it? It could be a book…) You may have heard some of these before, or some may be a total shock, but if you haven’t got children, take heed and learn. If you have got children, feel free to heave a sympathetic sigh and add on any vital points I may have missed. We need to work together, people.
1. They are in training for adolescence as soon as they hit eighteen months. The Terrible Twos doesn’t start at their second birthday and end at their third- as soon as they can walk and talk the Terribleness is in place right up till their teenage years. They have strops, they have mood swings, they tell you to go away. My two year old even stamps into his bedroom and slams the door on me. All that’s missing is “You don’t understand,” and I’m sure that’s just a matter of vocabulary.
2. They are experts at manipulation. They could write a book on it (if they could write). Machiavelli could learn a thing or two from any toddler. Tactics vary, from going straight from one parent to another hoping for a different answer (everyone knows about this one though), to using emotional blackmail that they learn from Grandma when you’re not looking. They keep you on your toes – just when you’re all fired up, in strictest, no-nonsense mode, they switch to utterly adorable and you cave instantly. And you fall for it every time.
3. The mess. Seriously, even if people tried they couldn’t warn you about the mess. I was never a great housewife (I can hear my husband choking as he reads that understatement of the century) but even I get depressed by the sheer scale of mess one tiny little body produces. And they do it without you noticing. It’s one thing to tip the toy box upside down – at least then you just pile it all back in. But I’m talking about the house exploding. It’s relatively tidy one minute, so you go congratulate yourself on keeping on top of it and go to make yourself a cup of tea. Five minutes later you can’t find the floor.
4. The amount of ‘stuff’ you need with you. When they’re newborn, that’s fairly self-evident, what with bottles and muslins. And I imagine once Daniel’s toilet training it’ll be the same, pants, spare trousers etc. Now, I thought I had it easy. After all, all he needs is a few wipes and a couple of nappies and a drink? Yes, but he also insists on bringing a train, or Buzz Lightyear, or a cow. Soon you’ve got half of Toys R Us in your handbag, and get a funny look at the checkout because instead of your purse you’ve pulled out a toy shark. And you wonder on the way back to the car why your neck and shoulders ache all the time.
5. Speaking of shops, the old ‘tantrum in the aisles’ chestnut is a classic. This is a tricky one, because everyone’s seen the cliche on tv and is prepared for it. But the true horror of it actually builds up over time. It starts when your child is around eighteen months, and you’re thinking behaviour problems should be starting any time now, but since they’re not you must have the best-behaved child in the world. You go around the supermarket, outwardly commiserating with the harrassed mother coping with meltdown in the biscuit aisle but secretly smug because your little angel is sitting contentedly in the trolley smiling serenely at the world. Then one day they decide enough is enough and you are suddenly the harrassed mother, caught totally unprepared because you’d been lulled into a false sense of security.
6. How much you can love and loathe CBeebies simultaneously. No matter how much you swear pre-parenthood that you won’t let them watch too much tv, it’s a rare parent that doesn’t, in a moment of desperation, blurt out “How about CBeebies?” and savour the moments of peace that follow. Mister Maker is pure genius, at least that’s what my son thinks. On the other hand, Waybuloo is just weird and you want to shoot Little Cook Small after about three minutes.
7. Their unerring sense of timing. They will desperately need something (insert most inconvenient request you can think of here) right when you need to make a phone call / leave the house / go to the toilet. They are at death’s door until the moment you get them into see the doctor, at which point they jump up and run around, completely healthy. They will sleep through for the first night in eight months the night they sleep at Grandma’s (not that I’m bitter and twisted in any way).
8. The total lack of fear. They’re tiny, they look so fragile and you hear horror stories about children who’ve landed on their heads. So you spend your life a quivering wreck if they are higher than 5 centimetres off the ground or even slightly close to the road. But the little so-and-sos really don’t care. They climb onto the sofa, jump off, roll off. They climb onto the slide and try all sorts of interesting ways to come down, none of which include nice and safely on their bottoms. They launch themselves off every piece of furniture they can get onto. They arrange toys so that it makes a precarious ladder to the top shelf just to reach a DVD. Or just for the fun of it. And every hair on your head that turns grey overnight they count as a job well done.
9. The lack of freedom. Yours, not theirs. When they’re a baby, they lie in their pram looking cute and you can go just about anywhere and do just about anything. Please, make the most of it. Yes, you have to stop for an occasional feed or nappy change, but this is nothing compared to going out with a toddler. They don’t like a shop, they WILL let you know. You fancy a pub dinner? Forget it. You can’t just up and out for some late night shopping because they need to be back in bed by seven. I hadn’t realised how often we had popped out for an evening, browsing at Borders and having a leisurely latte in Starbucks (with our only constraint the closing time), until we couldn’t do it any more.
10. How much none of the above matter. You are totally unprepared for how much you love this little person. When I am upset or ill Daniel will come and give me a cuddle and ask “alright Mummy?” with such love and concern in his face, and there is no way of describing the feeling that comes with that. Just as there is no way of describing the feeling you get when you haven’t seen them for a couple of hours and their faces light up when they see you.
Is there anything I have missed?