Love Lessons from a Toddler

Having a toddler is a joy, most of the time. At 21 months old, Elijah amazes me with his intelligence, imagination, and aptitude for learning. He has a wonderful sense of humour and can make me really laugh. He is caring and affectionate, and when he asks for me by name, the sound of ‘mama’ consistently melts my heart. He is talented, too. He can throw a ball like a 10-year old and I’m grooming him for major league baseball (he takes after his mother). Perhaps he’ll be a world-class drummer too. Oh, and a comedian. He’s already a charmer; with those beautiful blue eyes and big dimples, he can flirt with a pretty girl like nobody’s business (yes, we’re going to have our hands full).

For all his positive attributes, I am so blessed. And I’m also blessed by his more difficult personality traits, because they are teaching me patience, perseverance, tolerance, and control. I am sure that he is also preparing me for other difficult situations and relationships in my life, and I am doing the same for him. But darn, sometimes he is a very stubborn, difficult and frustrating little guy! This past week, he has been testing my patience, without a doubt.

Elijah wakes up around 5:15; sometimes earlier, sometimes a tad later. He still has occasional nights where illness or teething wakes him at even more unfortunate times. Though I can manage getting up early, I do love sleep, so the transition to consistently early mornings has not been an easy part of motherhood for me. At times I have felt almost resentful, but I quickly remember my place, and that the trade I have made has been more than worthwhile.

The last week, Elijah hasn’t quite been himself. He had a cold which turned into a minor ear infection that is just now clearing up on its own. I couldn’t figure out why he was so ill-tempered, but now that he’s back to his cheerful self, I know it was just because he wasn’t feeling well. For a couple of days there, I was afraid we were entering an unpleasant phase. Though he is saying many new words and even stringing together short phrases, he can’t yet explain when something is wrong.

All children cry of course; it’s a natural part of development, and hopefully a normal, respectable part of adulthood too. Nevertheless, it hurts to see Elijah’s eyes well up with tears when he is really upset or hurt. On the other hand, he has his “I want what I want and I want it now” cry. When he cries for something he really wants but can’t have, he screams in a way that hurts my ears and conjures instant and extreme irritation in me. This doesn’t happen very often but as he has gotten more mobile, able to reach higher places and has gained a greater understanding of his limited world and all the things he could potentially have, his determination has also grown stronger. We are navigating the difficult period when he sees all his options, but does not yet understand why he cannot always have his way.

During the week, I drop Elijah off at daycare at 7:30. I send breakfast with him and he eats it there. I often pack a breakfast pita accompanied by fresh fruit or a homemade smoothie. Sometimes, he is hungry enough that he eats some or all of his pita in the car. Late last week, I decided to send hot oat bran with cinnamon, dried figs, coconut oil and honey. I knew he’d love it, and I often feel I should mix up the breakfast offering at least a couple days out of the week.

We got into the car, and within a couple of minutes of pulling away, Elijah began asking me for bread, which is what he calls his pita. “I don’t have any bread for you today”, I told him. “Bread!” he asked louder, emphatically using sign language to say ‘please’, hoping that being polite would deliver his request. “I’m sorry, Elijah, Mommy didn’t pack bread today”, I replied. I had packed some cheerios for the ride, anticipating he might get hungry. I reached into the back seat and put a handful into the cup holder of his child seat. This was utterly unacceptable to him, and the screaming began. He became red faced, closed his fists tightly, kicked his feet…..and the cheerios started flying. I tried over and over to calmly explain to him that I had chosen a very tasty breakfast for him today, but it wasn’t possible for him to eat it in the car as it required mixing with milk and heating. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hear me because he was shrieking at me. And as hopeful as I was, he realistically couldn’t understand the rationale I was trying to relay to him. I decided to just ignore him. The more he screamed, the angrier I started to feel. It took every fibre of self-control I have not to yell at him. Then, it took every fibre of self-control I have not to cry. I felt in that moment like the ‘little mama that couldn’t’. Why is my child screaming like this? Why can’t he understand that I don’t have bread, and cheerios will have to do? I didn’t want to teach him to react to a difficult situation by yelling; I didn’t want him to remember his mother’s loss of control; and I knew that yelling at him would only escalate the situation.

Suddenly, he stopped crying for a moment and said “Go-Go”. “Go-Go” is Elijah’s name for Gordon – one of the trains from the Thomas & Friends series. Gordon is Elijah’s most recent favourite in his expanding collection of engines. I looked around, and there was Gordon on the seat beside him. “Is that what you want?” I asked. “Gordon?” I stopped the car on the side of the road, got out, and gave him Go-Go. A smile crept onto his face; he giggled to himself, looked at me thankfully, and was again in good spirits. After a couple of minutes, he called me. I turned to look and he was offering Gordon back to me, kind of like a gift of apology for his recent outburst. I took the train and put him on the dashboard. Elijah enjoyed this immensely, and Gordon kept that place the remainder of the day. Somehow, that wooden train with the smiling face reminded me to keep calm and remember that Elijah is effectively still a baby, and it is my job to teach him how to behave. My example is the greatest lesson I can provide, and by using my self-control to stay calm, I showed him that even in the face of a difficult situation, there are appropriate ways to react. It’s a very good thing he didn’t know what was actually happening inside of me.

Throughout the day, I reflected on the events of our drive and how frustrated I felt. I began to feel irritated with myself for being so hard on Elijah, considering that he is going to be 2 years old the day I turn 32. I have had the benefit (or in some cases, the disadvantage) of 30 extra years of experience. It reminds me of my childhood and being told that, as the older sister, I should know better. He needs to test his boundaries; it’s part of normal child development. So, I decided that as I have regrets about some of my parenting choices, I will try not to dwell on them, but rather learn from the experiences. Hopefully I can pass that same message on to Elijah.

That evening, when I returned home, I was enthusiastically and joyfully greeted, and I felt relieved and content. Elijah ran over to me and planted a kiss on the end of my nose. I’m sure he had no idea how mature, meaningful and utterly needed that perfectly planted peck was, but I realized something important in that moment. In his 21 months of life, he has already learned two of life’s most important principles: he understands that he is unconditionally loved, and he unquestionably knows how to show love to others. This greatly pleased me and motivated me to keep trying my best as a mother, while remembering that just as I don’t expect him to be perfect, neither can I expect perfection of myself. And even when I miss the mark, he will love me just the same.

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