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My family and I recently went on a 7-day cruise with another family. It was not our first cruise, but it was our first time vacationing for a whole week with people we were not related to. Collectively, our five girls ranged in age from 8 to 14, and it was their first time experiencing the freedom of having their own rooms and being able to set their own agenda. We told them that as long as they stayed together, they could come and go as they pleased.
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Surprisingly though, the girls actually chose to spend a fair amount of time hanging out with us–their apparently still-cool parents. We played lots of games, competed in trivia and other ship-sponsored competitions, and ate almost every meal together. We even went zip-lining in Roatán and snorkeling with stingrays in Cozumel.
It was a great vacation–one of our best ever–and I was reminded of just how much I love this age, the age where my kids are old enough to be a little independent, but still young enough to still love spending time together. Old enough to put themselves to bed, but young enough to still like being tucked in. Old enough to do the dishes, and young enough to not have a bad attitude about it!
It certainly hasn’t always been this way, especially not with my youngest daughter, Annie.
She’s the kid that has tested every limit, pushed every boundary, and defied every attempt to contain her. She’s the kid that didn’t sleep through the night until she was almost 4 years old, who every night for the first 18 months of her life, screamed continuously from 2am-5am.
Truthfully, she’s the real reason we only have two kids.
Once, when Annie was maybe 18 months old, we were invited to go on a retreat with several families from our church. Knowing all too well just how poorly she traveled, we were hesitant to commit. The plan was for all the families to stay in separate rooms in the same lodge. The thought of subjecting other people (or ourselves) to two nights of near-continuous screaming wasn’t exactly a thrilling prospect. But then, at the last minute, after much coaxing from our friends, we decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a try.
Who knew? Maybe this would be the trip where she finally did okay.
Alas, it was not to be.
The trip was an unmitigated disaster. She did indeed scream. All. Night. Long. She kept not just our family awake, but all the rest of the families too. Just like we were afraid of.
You see, little Annie was never one of those kids who could just roll with the punches. Every moment was a new challenge, every day an exhausting exercise in frustration. During those toddler years, most of our time was spent just trying to survive, and truth be told, she almost broke us. Even now when I look back, I sometimes wonder how we made it.
But hindsight is 20/20, and I also realize that as difficult as those years were, and as much of a “problem child,” as Annie was, she also taught me a whole lot. In fact, I sort of consider her my most essential life lesson, because there were definitely a few things I really needed to learn.
Lesson 1:You are not in control
I can admit that I tend to be a bit of a control freak. I like to be in charge, I like things to go the way I want them to, and I like to have a plan. Maggie, my oldest, was the child who fit my Type-A parent paradigm. I could predict her schedule to the minute, from naps to meals to bedtime, it all went according to plan. Except when it didn’t. And then I would become frantic over the fact that she was “off her schedule,” certain that all hell was about to break loose (which amazingly enough, it never really did.) I drove myself crazy trying to keep track of it all and fitting activities only in between naps and mealtimes.
From day one, Annie flat-out refused to be confined to any sort of schedule, and believe me, it wasn’t for my lack of trying! For the first two or three months of her life, I tried desperately to get her into some sort of predictable routine, re-reading every parenting book and sleep guide I could get my hands on. It just wasn’t to be. I finally gave up and then started to realize that a lack of schedule meant a lot more flexibility. I started to learn how to roll with the punches and just take it one day at a time. I stopped stressing out about the fact that she wasn’t napping when I thought she should, and started appreciating more the moments when she was peaceful.
Lesson 2: Attitude is everything
Several years ago, in one of our heart-to-heart chats, my sister gave me some advice that has always stuck with me. She said, “always remember that the mom sets the tone.” What she meant by that is that if the mom is crabby or depressed or out-of-sorts, than every one else follows suit. Over the years, we’ve had to remind each other every once in a while, but it is so true.
It would’ve be easy for me to wallow in the fact that Annie was, well, a challenge.
It would’ve be easy for me to keep feeling sorry for myself when I’d only end up getting 3 or 4 hours of sleep because she kept us up all night. Again.
It would’ve be easy for me to get very irritable after spending the day listening to her yell. And scream. And cry.
All. Day. Long.
And I’m not gonna lie, sometimes I did wallow or feel sorry for myself or get irritable.
But I tried very hard not to. Because what I learned is that it didn’t help. It made things worse. And so, I reminded myself, almost daily, that there were people in the world who had far worse problems then a miserable child. I reminded myself that I would survive. And she would grow out of it.
Not only that, when I would find myself up at 3am and unable to go back to sleep, I started making the most of it. Knowing I will probably feel tired later in the day, I learned how to take advantage of a quiet house and get as much checked off my daily to-do list as I possibly could.
I often organized closets and deep cleaned or de-cluttered while everyone was sleeping, and then, after I started writing this blog, discovered that those early mornings were my most productive writing time. I discovered that it was hard to feel sorry for myself for not getting enough sleep when I felt like I had actually accomplished something.
Lesson 3. Stuff really isn’t all that important
I like nice things. I like my house to be pretty and clean. There’s nothing wrong with that. Except when having nice things becomes the most important thing in my life.
Thankfully, Annie gave me plenty of reminders that stuff is just stuff. I guess I had to learn that lesson more that once. Once she took a Sharpie to our brand new leather ottoman, which I then tried to clean using a Magic Eraser. (For the record, Magic Erasers should not be used on leather.) It was completely ruined.
Another time she took a pen to my beautiful Pottery Barn duvet cover, and decided to add a design of her own, and she banged her fork so hard on our brand new, artfully distressed kitchen table that she left a series of decidedly non-artful permanent dents. One by one, she somehow managed to leave her mark on almost every single piece of furniture in our home.
I’m not going to lie, each time it happened, I’d be pretty upset, at least for a few minutes.
But then I’d remember that it’s just stuff.
Lesson 4. Relax!
Perhaps more than anything else, Annie taught me not to sweat the small stuff. In fact, my rule became that if she wasn’t choking, screaming, or in danger of drowning, I’d just let her be.
She was that kid, the one that put everything in her mouth, and for my own sanity, I learned to let it go. She ate dog food every single day for six months. Not just a piece here or there, but whole handfuls. The first ten or twenty times, it really bothered me and I did everything I could to stop her, to no avail. Anytime she’d see the laundry door open she’d make a mad dash for the dog food container, which she had figured out how to unlatch by 10 months old. I finally concluded there wasn’t much I could do about it. So I stopped trying.
And eventually–thankfully–she got tired of it. As a toddler she ate dirt, sand, crayons, markers, day-old half-eaten chicken nuggets, beads, window clings, and probably a whole lot of other things I don’t even know about. And you know what? She’s fine.
She was also the kid that emptied every drawer, every cabinet, every box, every basket, every bookshelf every single day. She just couldn’t seem to help herself. She would push chairs, stools, ladders, the now-ruined ottoman, and anything else she can find to where she needed it in order to get to what she wanted. We finally resorted to child-proofing the house as much as we could, and then just let the chips fall where they may.
And once again, she’s fine.
Lesson 5:No Season Lasts Forever
When Annie was little, some older, wiser mom warned me that while the days might feel long, the years are short. “They’ll be grown up before you know it,” she said.
I’m starting to understand what she meant. When I look back, it seems like just yesterday they were babies. The time has gone by SO fast. And yet, I don’t wish to go back. Maybe I’m not supposed to admit that out loud, but it’s true.
On our cruise, I noticed many families with little kids. Often the parents were struggling–pushing strollers, hauling bags full of gear, wiping tears, trying to stay calm through yet another temper tantrum, and my heart went out to them. Most of the time, they all looked pretty miserable.
Because little kids–even the most angelic, well-behaved little kids–are tough.
But no season lasts forever. Those exasperating toddlers will grow up to become hilarious, personality-filled little people with opinions and thoughts and ideas, people you love spending time with.
In fact, the real turning point, I think, is when you can take a trip and instead of having to carry your kids AND their stuff, they carry themselves and haul their own stuff. For us, that magic moment happened when our girls were 5 and 8, and it has only continued to get better from there.
And if you are still in the thick of the toddler years, just trying to hang on? I promise it gets better. Just try to avoid making any major life decisions while your kids are under the age of five, and hold on to the hope that soon you will turn the corner.
At the end of the day, love is all that matters
I continue to be amazed at the infinite capacity of my love for my kids. Even when they drive me absolutely crazy, I love them more than I could’ve ever thought possible. They are the reason I get up in the morning, the sun, moon and all the stars. No matter how naughty, how annoying, how infuriating, how frustrating, there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect them.
And while Annie might have started off as a “problem child,” and while she still certainly has her fair share of exasperating moments, I can tell you that there is no sweeter girl on the planet. She has a magnetic personality, and an almost magical ability to charm anyone who crosses her path. She is funny, adorable, caring, loving, smart, beautiful, sensitive, goofy, strong, inquisitive, observant, loyal, & generous to a fault, just to name a few.
But even if she wasn’t any of those things, I would still love her more than life itself.
Because she is mine.