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You Think Life Is Confusing? Try Being a Toddler

Photograph by Serge Bielanko Private

This morning, before the caffeine had even slammed into my veins correctly, my 3-year-old, Charlie, appeared in the kitchen fully dressed. It's becoming a regular thing, this little guy dressing himself. And that's fine by me. I mean, I can't undersell this baby. The truth is: I'm freakin' thrilled. Know why? Because I am over it. OVER. IT. I am ready to enter the next phase of my life. The one where I am no longer responsible for helping other human beings put their adult-wristband-sized Captain America underwear on.

Oh, it was a ride, alright—don't get me wrong. And I loved it all. But after eight years and three kids and an endless loop of a dream in which all I do is put tiny socks on tiny feet over and over and over again to the sound of Peppa f-ing Pig or whatever, I am quite ready to shake that particular form of parental purgatory for good.

Which, it turns out, is right up Charlie's alley. These days, he doesn't want me anywhere near him when he gets dressed. And not only that, but he doesn't want me picking his clothes out for him either. And if I do? OH HELLS NO. He isn't having any of that. He will take the clothes I laid out for him and jam them in the trash can or try and stuff them in an electric socket before he'll wear some pre-picked outfit chosen by the ancient man who controls the Cocoa Puffs.

I looked at Charlie as I continued to toss back coffee. Unreal. He'd done it again. Dressed in a way I couldn't manage even if I'd just pounded seven beers in a row. His football shirt? Backward, some forgotten player's last name tight across my son's chest. His shorts? Backward. The drawstring dangling like a flag planted in his little butt crack.

I held back a laugh. He'd slap me in the nuts if he saw me laughing, but I had to check his skivvies. This is the pattern lately, you see. So much wild, raw ambition. And everything on the wrong way. So peeked, I did, and guess what? His underwear? BACKWARD!

And here I go, falling in love with my youngest son all over again. Because you know what? It isn't easy being a toddler. For all the chaos and uncertainty they hurl at our grown-up lives, for all the exhausting days on end when young kids drive us to the brink of madness with their impetuous mood swings and their ungrateful demands, for all of the mud they keep stomping in when you tell them not to and all the Lego landslides they refuse to clean up , still I can't help but imagine how much crazier life is for the little wild ones than it is for us.

Every toddler is faced with raging newness and possibility at damn near every turn. How bizarre must it be to actually be them?

Reflect on this: Charlie has taken years off of my life. I already know this is true. I have felt, more than once or twice, something pop up in my mind as my son awakens in me some sort of dark new fear or anxiety or grief. I make it all about me more than I even care to admit. Yet, he is the one who typically has no idea what is going on.

Familiarity and grooves and routine are all new to him. Every day, every moment of his life at this point is still basically a wilderness of discovery. No one has ever walked through those particular woods as far as my little guy knows. And even if they had, he wouldn't be able to comprehend their experience or advice.

Every toddler is faced with raging newness and possibility at damn near every turn. How bizarre must it be to actually be them? To be faced with so much that they have never known or heard of or even dreamed of before and suddenly here they are, staring it all in the face. I can barely comprehend it, honestly.

And we, as parents, cramp the very style of the wild child we once were ourselves. There's no help for it. Blame it on the "developed brain" or whatever. All I know is that I can't make it right. I struggle to raise my toddler—my third and last one. He's beautiful, sharp as a tack, loving and fun. But I stress out over the little stuff. I get so tired at the end of the day. I worry about toys on the floor or kids jumping on the bed until the box spring collapses and I know I probably should just walk away from it all and let life happen.

But that's not how I'm wired. I'm wired to guide these kids toward the straight and narrow—toward a life that demands shiploads of conformity and civil behavior. So, I'm wired to correct them over and over again when they're trying to find their way. I'm wired to keep them alive and to make them happy but all within reason, right? So long as they're learning and behaving and understanding and blah, blah, blah.

I know, I know. It has to be done. It's the human story and it's the best we can do. I get it. I play along. But listen: You take all that stuff and try to imagine what it must truly be like for them—for these toddlers we live and breathe.

Because guess what? It's a wonder they survive us, not the other way around.

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