In early March 2020, at five months pregnant, I transitioned my 2.5-year-old from a crib to a toddler bed. He was going to be a big brother and change was inevitable, though mostly I was tired of hefting him over the railing, which required a bending motion that encouraged my second-trimester heartburn. He’d always struggled with transitions, hadn’t slept through the night until close to 2, so I was ready for a battle, and determined not to let my own feelings about the seismic shift he didn’t know was coming affect my resolve. My husband and I would be firm and kind, and our son would ultimately learn—if it took a few nights of screaming and tears, we’d suffer through them. This was how we’d worked through his other anxieties, like having his fingernails clipped and being dropped off at day care, the sort of short-term pain, long-term gain that helped us all grow.
Then, of course, came the pandemic. Rather than tucking him in and leaving the room, I found myself sleeping night after night on his floor, increasingly uncomfortable as I approached my due date, but convinced that he needed me and this was for the best. I took a similar approach to television and treats. After a strict one-a-day rule for fruit snacks, I began saying yes whenever he asked for them. They brought him joy, and who was I to deny him that at a time when he couldn’t go to school, see his grandparents, or have playdates? I’d been worried about adding a sibling, but now his whole world had been upended, as had mine. I promised myself that when this was over, I’d return to the discipline and structure that I knew helped him thrive. For time being, letting my toddler win our battles could be a pandemic band-aid.
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Flash forward to 2022. We are still in a pandemic, and my daughter, born in June 2020, has entered her own toddlerhood. Last night she was awake at 3 a.m., crying because she wanted to watch a show. As it happened, I, too, had been awake for much of the night, reading about the leaked Supreme Court opinion and how she might lose her basic civil rights. About climate disasters that will have devastating impacts in her lifetime. About racist manifestos and mass shootings. About another spike in COVID-19 cases. About the 19 students and 2 teachers gunned down at a school in Uvalde, Texas.
When I went to her, my instinct was to coddle, to indulge. I wanted to say yes to another hug, a midnight book, to spend all night rocking with her in the glider, her little hands clutching my hair. Look at what she’s losing. Why not give her the gift of right now? Why not let her have these small things? Over the past two years, I’ve said yes to hundreds of extra desserts, at least 20 new Hot Wheels cars from the dollar bin at the pharmacy, 20 more minutes at the playground that inevitably lead to naptime meltdowns when we’re thrown off our schedule. I always knew better, but in those moments all I wanted was for my children to be happy. Then I thought about the cavities the dentist found in my now-5-year-old son’s teeth because I’d stopped fighting him on late-night gummy vitamins and flossing.
It’s one thing to give in to a toddler’s desires in unprecedented times, but what are we to do when there’s no end to the unprecedented? I’ve been in crisis mode for my daughter’s entire life, but my adult feelings about social collapse don’t correspond to what my children need from me. Little kids need to be fed and kept from danger, they need to test and learn boundaries, they need to feel love. We’re the ones with nuanced, complex emotions about global events. We’re the ones processing our guilt and fear and helplessness. Of course acknowledging my small children’s feelings and helping them work through them is important, but there’s a danger in projecting my own disappointments, or even successes, onto them. Yes, my toddler is frustrated. But it isn’t because of Alito’s draft decision on Roe v. Wade—it’s because she’s 22 months old and doesn’t want to go to sleep.
As a parent, I need to recognize that doing right by my kids won’t always align with what makes me feel slightly better about the world burning around them. This has always been a truth of parenthood, but as the flames inch ever closer, we are grappling with increasingly complicated feelings about the inheritance we’ll leave. I’m trying to remind myself it’s alright to disappoint my children, it’s alright to parent them. The future is coming, whether or not they get to watch TV at 3 a.m. The only way I’ll teach them the resilience to face our world and the empathy to change things for the better is by saying no even when I wish they could have everything.
“It’s nighttime, and at nighttime we sleep,” I told my daughter last night as she demanded Daniel Tiger. I gave her a hug, as much to soothe my own nerves as to soothe hers, and put her down. “I hear you,” I said through her tantrum until she had settled and I could go back to my own bed. She won’t remember the tears, yet hopefully this lesson will stick with us both.
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