It was the evening of what had been a very long Sunday. I stood with freshly-painted, lavender-colored toenails, crying in my closet, where I was hiding from my wife and kids so they wouldn’t see my tears, where I’ve hidden many times before in attempts to eat snacks without being found-out by my treat-seeking toddler―the closet offers a good, secluded, soundproofed environment that can muffle the loudest of snack wrapper, the sound that kids’ ears are apparently innately trained to hear from miles away. Yeah, parenting is weird. Quite a rollercoaster of emotion and experience, really.
Let me backup, though.
I’ve worked with kids as long as I can remember, from the time when I was just a kid myself. Over all of those years, I felt a deep fondness and love for many of the children I came to know. In some cases, I didn’t feel like there could be a bigger love than what I felt. And, over all of those years, I was told time and time again, “just wait until you have kids of your own” because “it’s different,” and “you can’t even imagine it until you have your own kids.” I really couldn’t even imagine it. I actually didn’t even believe it.
When my wife Raniece and I found out she was pregnant with our first child, we were extremely excited. But it didn’t really and truly hit me until that first visit to the ObGyn. The midwife did the various tests and prods, and asked the miscellaneous questions. Then, she picked up the little doppler heart monitor device and started moving it around on Raniece’s stomach.
The sound of some sort of digital storm and/or ocean caught in a metallic tunnel filled the room as the midwife searched for a heartbeat. That strange sound was accompanied by a palpable yet unexpected tension and anxiety that also flooded the room, a tension that was most probably overflowing from my chest. It was thick. Where was the heartbeat? What was going on? Why was it taking so long? Finally, a faint but solid rhythm could be heard, ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum. The midwife made a slight readjustment of the handheld probe and the lively beat became louder and louder ba-bum ba-BUM BA-BUM BA-BUM BA-BUM BA-BUM BA-BUM BA-BUM BA-BUM.
It was a strong drumbeat. It was a beautiful song. The beat filled the air and shattered the tension, replacing it with feelings of relief, of joy, of something new, of wonder, of life. My eyes turned into tiny ponds.
It was in that moment, suddenly and jarringly so at that, when I heard that heartbeat, when the midwife said it sounded “perfect,” that I began to understand what people were talking about all along. There was a tiny little human in there―somehow part-me and part-my-wife―and I was now responsible to protect and provide for little-bitty him or her. It was also in that moment that my own heart leaped right out of my chest and started dancing to the upbeat tempo of my womb-bound daughter’s heartbeat. I’d never experienced anything quite like that before.
And from that moment on, my heart has never returned to its rightful place.
This brings me to the best description of being a parent that I have heard thus far. Though it has been said before this, and I’m not sure who it is originally attributed to, I heard Barack Obama use this analogy in his recent interview with David Letterman. Paraphrasing, he said that raising kids is like having your literal heart outside of your body, just running around everywhere, and it’s not that smart and it’s doing dangerous things like crossing the street and stuff. Yep. Accurate.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Raniece was pregnant for real and we were going to be parents.
Even from very early on in the womb, the little one began to show her strong will, determination, and―what some might call―stubbornness. At her 20-week, in-utero checkup, the sonogram technician said, “Cooperation is not her strong suit,” and commented about “how stubborn” she was. The sonogram lady was trying to get a picture of her profile and little one kept turning her head away and covering her face with her hand. I would say that the lady could have gone for a more positive framing with, “Noncooperation is her strong suit,” but whatever.
I always say she got―at the very least―a double portion of stubbornness, both portions of which my wife stubbornly attributes to me. Though some people are not fond of the idea of stubborness, images of my daughter’s in-utero noncooperation actually made me proud. I liked to entertain the idea that she was already protesting. I loved it.
It was the very next day that I documented feeling her kick, or “punch or headbutt,” for the first time. That was truly magical. A couple of months later, I documented, “I was talking to the little one―with my mouth right on the belly―and she punched me in the mouth twice. So sweet.” At that time, she moved around a lot, with what I described as “gymnastics-kung-fu-spiritual-dance-capoeira-step type movements.” Though still in the belly, she was already a mover and a shaker.
We decided to name her Maya (“illusion” or “the supernatural power wielded by gods and demons to produce illusions”) Kaliyah (“slayer of the thousand-headed dragon”) Dalton (“from the farm,” if you must know).
About eight days before Maya made her grand entrance into the world, 38-week-pregnant Raniece and I were laying in bed trying to fall asleep. I broke the heavy night silence with a random question, “Do you know how to take care of a baby?” to which she answered, “No!” and we laughed hysterically, if not maniacally, for the next twenty minutes or so. She was not joking, though. It’s a good thing babies come with instructions.
Raniece started experiencing inconsistent, spaced-out, and mildish―in comparison to those to come―contractions on the Thursday before the Sunday Maya was born. The next evening, we went to a “birthing class” that we had to take for Raniece to be able to give birth in the birthing center with the midwives. A Friday night birthing class was quite the hot date!
At the class, another expecting mother, who already had kids, shared advice to the group of expecting parents. She said, “The best advice I was ever given about parenting is to tell everyone that if you want advice, you will ask for it.” We thought that was funny on different levels, but also great advice, since we had already experienced the multitude of, often conflicting, opinions different people have about how to raise children and all related factors. It’s advice I definitely pass along to any expecting parents who ask.
The very next morning, the mucus plug came out when Raniece was using the restroom. This began what ended up being the very long journey of a stubborn little girl’s dramatic entry into the world. Maya had made herself comfortable in there and it didn’t seem as though she planned on coming out, so much so that she never rolled over. Because of this, Raniece had to endure over 30-hours of back-labor after the water broke.
Raniece and I hadn’t slept for 43 hours. It was 2016―a leap year―and it was 11:43 PM. It seemed as though Maya was holding out to be born on the 29th. I leaned down to Raniece’s stomach and spoke to Maya, “Looks like you will only get a birthday party every four years.” With that said, on the next push, at 11:45 PM, Maya made her way into the world, face up and eyes wide open. She clearly wanted all the birthday parties. The midwife said she hadn’t delivered a baby “sunny side up” in about ten years and that Maya must have wanted to see exactly who was putting her through all of that.
Maya was finally here and we were so excited to have her. Those first few days and weeks of having her home were filled with such fond memories. I remember sitting in my chair, just looking at her tiny little face, and being overwhelmed with emotion. On several occasions, Raniece walked in on me during one of those moments, as I sat staring down at Maya just weeping. The first time it happened, Raniece panicked and said, “What’s wrong?! What happened?!” I choked on my tears and words and said, “She’s just so perfect.” Then, Raniece and I sat there and stared at her as we cried happy, grateful tears.
It sounds very dramatic. I mean, it was. It is. I was overcome. I was―and am―madly in love. And for someone who doesn’t cry that often, not by choice but just by nature, I found myself in tears more often than not. But they were wonderful tears. And my life was forever changed.
We were responsible for this tiny little human. We were charged with the weighty task of caring for her, teaching her, protecting her from harm. Her survival depended on us. What a wonderful and terrible, amazing and frightening thing! We didn’t necessarily know what we were doing, but we learned as we went, asked for advice when we needed it, did what seemed and felt “right” to us at the time, and learned by trial and error. Though there are maybe “wrong” ways of parenting, I’m convinced there are no “right” ways―only what is “right” and works for you at the time. And, as we’ve learned, as many parents before us have, what is “right” and works for one kid, might not be “right” and work for the next.
It has been important to us to give Maya the boundaries and structures she needs, accompanied with the love, support, and guidance she also needs in order to learn how to stay within those necessary boundaries. At the same time, we want to attempt to provide the love, support, and guidance that she needs to break out of the potentially unnecessary societal boundaries that are discriminatorily put on her. We don’t want her to feel restricted by undue limitations, but, at the same time, we want her to know her limits.
We want her to be strong. We want her to be empathetic and caring to others. We want her to be courageous. We want her to be loving. We want her to be bold. We want her to be her, whoever that is now, whoever she grows to become.
We don’t necessarily know how to accomplish all of that, but we do the best we can. We laugh a lot, read a lot, sing a lot, hug a lot, try to have as much fun as possible, and encourage Maya to explore the world around her. We’ve realized that, in order to encourage her to be the best version of herself, we must also try to be the best versions of ourselves.
I believe there are no insignificant moments. Every moment counts. Every word matters. The delivery of those words make an impact and are felt, whether for the good or bad, and become part of our children’s makeup. Though, of course, we are not perfect, we try to be intentional about everything, whether it is seen as big or small, because “the small” is actually often bigger than what we perceive to be “the big.” We mess up and make mistakes, and apologize when we realize we have. We try to have fun and love each other well.
It has truly been a beautiful and incredible journey so far.
Now, we’ve welcomed our second child―currently eight-months-old―Teige into the fold, and with Maya, we find ourselves smackdab in the middle of what people refer to as the “terrible twos.” And with a confident, stubborn, strong-willed, already-extremely-opinionated two-year-old, I can see where this developmental stage has earned this name. It can be tough. It can be frustrating. It can be beyond infuriating. A tiny, little, itty-bitty human can take you, a grown ass adult, to places of vexation and exasperation that you didn’t even know existed, hence me standing and crying in the closet with my lavender toenails.
It had been a fully-packed Sunday of tantrums for no reason and blatant disregard for boundaries with no care, more “no’s” and “I don’t want to’s” than I can count, and multiple visits to timeout. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Unclear if Maya’s behavior on that particular day was due to her age, or her continual adjustments of sharing attention with a new baby sister, or maybe a mixture of both, I decided to give her some one-on-one attention.
As I often do, I decided to paint her toenails. She’d picked out some lavender-colored nail polish on our last visit to the store. I set it all up and sat her in her highchair. She was excited as usual.
I painted the first coat on her itsy little toenails. I blew on them a little bit and then told her we needed to wait for them to fully dry before I could do another coat. She said, “Paint your toenails, my dada!” I decided that would be good entertainment for the drying-time, and took her up on her request. She thought it was great that I was painting my toenails too.
Just as I was getting to my final couple of toes, she accidentally hit her, still wet, toenails on the foot rest of her highchair. She noticed the paint came off and discovered a new game. I told her not to do that because it will mess up her toenails and get nail polish on the highchair. She did the watching-you-whilst-moving-slowly-in-preparation-to-do-the-thing-you-told-her-not-to thing. I said, “Maya, if you do it again, I’m going to have to remove that nail polish from your toes.” She paused, looked at me with defiance beaming from her eyes, and rubbed both of her toes all over the foot rest.
I actually couldn’t believe she did that.
Normally, I don’t let my feelings get in the way or get hurt when I’m dealing with her in these types of situations. But this time, for whatever reason, it really hurt my feelings. It had been a long day. I was tired. She had tested boundaries all day. And it felt more personal than it should have.
I quietly removed the polish from her toes, as she sat there with a satisfied look on her face. That’s what made it even worse―she seemed to be pleased with herself. I cleaned the nail polish off of the foot rest and then I went back to my closet. Out of nowhere came a flood of tears. I looked down at my lavender toes and cried harder. It was a pitiful sight, I’m sure. I eventually dried it up and moved on with the night.
Though that was the first and―so far―only time I’ve broken down like that during this “terrible twos” stage and it hasn’t really been all that bad, it truly can be so tiresome and taxing to deal with a strong-willed toddler who is constantly pushing boundaries and trying to understand how the world works. Be that as it may, I’ve tried to adopt and maintain a different outlook on it, I’ve tried to see it, feel it, and experience it on a deeper level. I’ve come to realize, the very things that make this stage terrible are actually merely manifestations of something truly wonderful.
Maya is in the psychosocial developmental stage Erik Erikson called “Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt.” She is literally trying to become autonomous, more self-reliant. That’s a beautiful thing. She’s pushing our limits and testing her own. Every time she insists, “Maya do it!” though it might take more time, and it might not be done completely right, and it might not be the most convenient, she’s attempting to become more independent and to no longer rely on others for tasks that we consider basic, but that are monumental milestones of achievement for her.
It can be terrible and frustrating to be a part of, but it is also a wonderful privilege to get to witness and experience―it’s wonderfully terrible and terribly wonderful. Every “Maya do it,” every “No,” every “I don’t want to,” every tantrum, even when they don’t make sense, is an assertion of autonomy, it’s an assertion of her tiny little self. The angst that comes with this stage is nothing personal, much like the angst observed in adolescents in a similar developmental stage of “Identity versus Role Confusion”―the two year olds are trying to become little independent people and the teenagers are trying to figure out who they are.
We are now on the other side of potty training. Maya can tell us when she needs to go to the bathroom, she goes, wipes herself, washes her hands, and we celebrate. This is mammoth. It’s magic. As I squat in front of the toilet and wait for her to finish, watching her legs, that suddenly appear to be so lanky, dangle down from the toilet seat, I realize that, though I still call her “my baby,” she is truly no longer a baby anymore.
She’s growing up. And it’s an honor to be a part of such miraculous growth. I have to remind myself of that. I have to be patient. I have to not take things personal. I have to be consistent. I have to (try to) be loving. I have to offer second chances and allow opportunities for redemption and growth, for us all really.
On the Monday afternoon after that terrible Sunday, I picked Maya and Teige up from daycare and we went home. We had a snack as we usually do, and after we cleaned it up together, I asked Maya, “Do you want to try painting your nails again?” Her face lit up. She squealed and said yes. I can’t help but think that part of her excitement was for my sake, but she was legitimately excited as usual.
I set it all up and sat her in her highchair. She sat, extra still, with an extra amount of care, for both coats. When I was finished and her toenails were dry, she looked at them and warmly exclaimed, “They look pretty, my dada! Like my dada’s toes! We have matching toenails! Pretty purple toes!”
And my heart did a little dance around our pretty purple toes.
Older parents with older kids often say to me, “Oh, enjoy them while they’re this age! It goes so fast!” with an unspoken message that kids become less and less enjoyable as they get older. I know they don’t mean it in that way, but that is how it comes across to me. I do try to enjoy every moment with my kids now. But I hope to enjoy them in each and every season and stage life gives us together, no matter how difficult or wonderful it might be.
In hindsight, time has gone by fast. But as it was going, it felt just the right speed, and I feel like I’ve been able to savor each moment―no matter how big or small―and enjoy it for what it was, until the next moment came and took its place. And though most of those moments were so dear, I don’t try to hold on to them, or long for the ones that have passed in a way that I will miss out on the moment I currently find myself in. I still see those moments, though some are faded and some remain brighter than others, in the collection of moments that came together to create who we are and what we have become together in our present moment. And right now, we find ourselves in the “terrible twos,” and I have to remind myself to savor it, enjoy it, and find the wonder within the terribleness.
This is my postcard from the “terrible twos,” and I hope it finds you well.