A Dispatch from the Trenches
“Having a two-year-old is like having a blender without a lid.”
— Jerry Seinfeld
This is a dispatch from the war. I’m writing this from the trenches, in the heart of the conflict.
After what has felt like hours of intense battle, the rebel soldier has deployed her ultimate weapon, the one that is unleashed when all else fails: standing in the center of the kitchen, screaming at the top of her lungs as droplets of saltwater jump from her eyes.
What could have caused such a reaction? What did the oppressive totalitarian government do to the people to cause this emotionally-charged attack from the rebel?
Dinner was served.
We have dinner as a family every night and, almost every single evening, when the food hits the table my younger daughter, who just a moment prior had been in great spirits, walks over to her spot, looks at the plate, and lets out a blood-curdling scream like Pacino at the end of The Godfather Part III. It’s not about the food. There have been times that she’s begged for a specific type of food, we made it, and she still loses her mind when it’s time to eat.
She’s now almost thirty-two months, just over halfway through this most difficult year. The twelve months from the age of two to three is a long year in which a lot of things happen. We all grow and evolve over the course of a year, but that is especially true for toddlers. They are not the same person on their third birthday as they were on their second.
Every parent that has ever gone through the experience says to cherish and value this time. Many love to quote the great line by Gretchen Rubin: “The days are long, but the years are short.”
They’re right, of course. A toddler’s smile will make your day, hearing their tiny feet scampering across the floor is like a jolt of energy, and their giggle is so infectious, it’s almost impossible not to laugh along with them. It’s amazing and rewarding to see them figure out the world and their place within it. They say and do some incredible things. Every day is a new discovery. They are unbelievably cute, absolutely adorable. They can melt your heart.
They can also break your brain — and your spirit.
There is kicking, headbutting, eye-gouging, sometimes even biting. It’s like a one-sided MMA fight. For some reason, as if drawn by a magnet, my kid’s feet always manage to strike my crotch with full force. I’m six-foot-three and not exactly petite, so my kids love climbing all over me and treating me like a walking jungle gym. The little one really enjoys climbing on the back or side of the couch and then falling on top of me like a body dropped from a rooftop.
Even when they’re not active, I’m apparently more comfortable than any chair or couch. Even as I’m typing this, I keep having to move a tiny foot away from the keyboard as she repeatedly collapses on me, laughing each time.
It’s not only tough on our bodies. Our homes are also in constant danger. Toddlers are like tornadoes that exist within four walls. There are entire listicles dedicated to the damage and havoc these tiny forces of nature reign down upon households.
Such is life with a two-year-old.
“Parenting is basically being sleep deprived while small people yell at you.”
This is not my first time on this battlefield.
However, every military engagement is different — think of how different World War II was from World War I.
When you have two (or more) children, you are constantly reminded of a great mystery of life: two people — same parents, same womb, same everything — completely different outcome.
Our first child is nearly nine now, and she was an absolute delight until the age of three. (After that? Different story. She became the ultimate threenager.) She was loquacious from the start, speaking in full sentences by the age of a year-and-a-half. She was also a phenomenal sleeper. There were days where she was actually asleep for more hours than she was awake. That has continued. Even now, whenever she feels tired, she just lies down and falls out. It’s as if she’s a laptop that simply shuts down. There have been times where we’re at a family function or holiday event and she’ll pull an Irish goodbye and crash in a random bedroom.
The same cannot be said for her sister. In fact, she’s the opposite. She sees sleep as a weakness.
For much of the past year, bedtime was an absolute nightmare.
My wife tried everything to no avail. All of the tricks and hacks that worked the first time around were useless. When my young one feels herself drifting off, she’ll pop up and start moving around to wake herself up. Getting her to finally fall asleep would take two to three hours. She would be quiet, but wide awake. Whenever we consulted with the pediatrician or other therapists, they would ask the same questions.
Did you try to institute a routine? Yes.
Do you let her cry it out? Yes.
Do you try to calm her with a bath and a book before bed? Yes.
Do you make sure she has a full stomach? Yes.
Have you tried sitting with her? Rocking her? Singing to her? Yes. Yes. Yes.
At a certain point, they all shrugged their shoulders and said something along the lines of, “This is a tough one. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Her constitution is remarkable. When she was eight months, we went on a cross-country flight. When it was naptime, we gave her a double dose of Benadryl and she shook it off like a spitball hitting a Tyrannosaurus.
Eventually, my wife took her to a sleep specialist and we’re now up to four mL of Melatonin every night, usually hidden in applesauce or a fruit pouch. Even that is not a guarantee, but most nights she is asleep at a reasonable hour. Finally.
Like virtually all toddlers, she may start the night in her bed but she eventually winds up sleeping between us. And, like virtually all toddlers, she somehow takes up the most amount of room despite being the smallest in size. She flops. She kicks. She helicopters. She usually winds up perfectly perpendicular to us and moves us to the absolute edge of the bed. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to brace myself against the wall to prevent her from pushing me out of bed completely.
She doesn’t sleep soundly without her blanket and pacifier, but of course she doesn’t bring those herself. One of us has to retrieve them…and then find them throughout the night.
Every parent knows the haste and urgency of frantically searching the bed for a pacifier at 3 a.m., hoping to find it quickly to not only avoid a meltdown, but also so that you yourself are not so awake that you can no longer fall back asleep.
Usually it’s embedded in the comforter or wedged behind her back, but there are times when they just vanish. That can happen because my kid finds it hilarious to drop her pacifier behind the headboard and listen as it plays Plinko on the way to the floor, where it will remain — forgotten — until a rescue crew can be dispatched to the area.
Often, that is followed by the realization that the diaper is full and ready to burst. Nighttime diapers are great but they’re not impeccable, particularly as the child grows.
Have you ever changed a diaper in the dark? Or just after polishing off a bottle of wine after a long week? Have you done it without waking the child? It’s like taking the physical challenge. What you think you can do with your eyes closed and what you really can do may not always align. And, for the record, that diaper cream is not as cooperative when the room is pitch black.
Trust me when I say that the morning light illuminates all mistakes.
Families survive the terrible twos because toddlers aren’t strong enough to kill with their hands and aren’t capable of using lethal weapons. A 2-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult would be terrifying.
— Paul Bloom
My two-year-old is so healthy that I often have to remind myself of the time and struggle it took just to bring her into the world. After the first conception and birth were (relatively) simple, the second time around led us down a difficult IVF journey that ultimately resulted in a baby weighing ten pounds, seven ounces.
She was substantially larger than the other newborns in the hospital and her growth has not abated. She’s huge for her age, literally off the charts. She already wears 5T clothes — and they fit. I think maybe the IVF drugs had some HGH or PEDs mixed in. Perhaps I should get her a Barry Bonds doll. Her arm was broken when she was born, but there are no lingering effects — she can throw food and break things either hand. You’ve heard of switch hitters? She’s a switch-destroyer.
She’s the size of a five-year-old, but is still two-and-a-half so she’s strong beyond her years and comprehension. Her grip is impressive and her strength would be unbelievable if I didn’t deal with it myself. Combine that with her stubbornness — something she inherited from both parents — and it makes things exponentially more difficult.
While she and her sister have every doll and toy they could ever want, my toddler, like most kids her age, is far more interested in causing mischief in areas she shouldn’t. She enjoys throwing toys in the toilet and really likes causing a ruckus in the kitchen, either using the handles as footholds to climb Mount Counter or grabbing Brita pitchers and running around with them as they slosh and splash all over. When we put things out of reach, she’ll stand one chair on top of another in order to try to get them.
At one point, she became enamored with the silverware drawer. While it was mostly spoons, there were a few times she managed to grab a knife and run with it. I installed a childproof lock that was “guaranteed to keep children out.” She broke it within a week. She pulled so hard on the drawer that the lock snapped. I reached out to the company regarding their guarantee and they sent a handful of complimentary locks. I put a new lock on the drawer. My daughter broke that one the next day. So I gave up.
Toys and dolls and even prized possessions are smashed and discarded like debris. A difficult-to-find Barbie camper that was one of her sister’s favorite gifts? Cracked in half. The floating shelf next to my bed that serves as a nightstand? Ripped out of the wall after she tried to sit on it — twice!
At the same time, her tantrums are becoming legendary. She’ll get so mad she’ll throw her pacifier or her water, but if it doesn’t go far enough or she doesn’t feel like it emphasized her point enough, she’ll walk over, pick it up and throw it again.
Nearly everything is a fight. To get her to eat. To get her to take medicine. To get her to leave on her pants. To get her to sleep. Each day is a series of small battles.
She’s only recently begun to speak, so much of this can be attributed to her frustration at not being able to express herself, but she’s known the word “no” a long time and prefers it so much that at times she’ll scream it out randomly.
Most of this is not rare — they’re called the “terrible twos” for a reason, after all — but that doesn’t make it any easier. Plus, her size makes her even more obstinate. She’s so strong that forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to do — such as changing her diaper — is a challenge and there are times when it takes two of us to complete the task.
Speaking of diapers, her new favorite game is pulling it off. Sometimes she’ll do it just for the hell of it while watching TV, but there are times when she’ll discard it while on the move, like a marathoner chucking away a paper cup. One day, she ran upstairs. I went after her a few minutes later — because I just needed a moment before continuing my pursuit— and noticed a diaper on one of the steps and an area of liquid on another.
“Dada, pee. Dada, pee,” she said while pointing to the wet spot. At least she copped to it.
My wife has tried to get her to go in the bathroom, but she just sticks her foot in the toilet, so we have some work to do there.
Even if there had not been a global pandemic for the past year, we wouldn’t be able to leave her with anyone else for more than a couple of hours, certainly not overnight. Between the battle to sleep and the amount of pain and damage she inflicts, we won’t even stick her with her grandparents for a full night.
It’s all on us.
Of course, that’s part of the job. Parents are the original essential workers. No days off. And rarely even a break.
Life with a two-year-old means constant movement. You’re either chasing them (“Put that knife down!”; “You need to wear a diaper!”), being displaced by them (my daughter loves to climb behind me and push against my back with her feet until she dislodges me from the spot where I’m sitting), prepping for them (locking doors, keeping blind cords out of reach, pushing everything to back of the counter so she can’t grab it), or picking up their mess (water cups, snack bowls, puzzles, Legos, dolls, toys, crayons). Oh, god, the mess. No wonder we’re all so exhausted:
“Of course, everyone needs to clean their house, but parents need to clean their house SO MUCH. Bending over, putting away, bending over, tidying up, putting away. Wiping. Wiping. Wiping. Picking up toys. Toys. Toys. Spooling reams of unrolled toilet paper. Dishes. Dishes. Dirty laundry. Bodily fluid-soaked laundry. Replacing grown-out-of laundry. Toys. Toys. Tiny pieces. Puke. Toys. Toys. Toys. Never-effing-ending bowls and bowls of Cheerios.”
That exhaustion is not just physical. It’s also mental and emotional. It’s a life of constant worry. I don’t hear her, what is she doing? She just walked toward the front door, I locked it, right? She was lying down in our bed, what if she falls out? What is she doing over there behind the table? All of the sockets are plugged up, right? Are the scissors within reach?
It’s constant, but it is temporary. It’s a phase that will pass. Eventually. Billions of others have fought in this conflict and survived. In the future, we’ll look back on these days fondly and reminisce about how cute she was and how this was a special time. I’m trying to keep that in mind and soak up every second.
But, for now, I’m going to keep my head down and try not to become a casualty of war.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.