I just got the latest copy of But You Chose To Do This, the magazine for parents who need an occasional reminder, so rest assured I seek no sympathy here for my elderly, thirtysomething back pains or the post-traumatic stress symptoms my husband and I now experience now from being guerilla-attacked at surprise intervals by our 2-year-old with an exclamatory "Ta-da!"
It's just that ever since the kid turned two last week, it's as if all the clichés of toddlerhood have now converged on a street corner outside my apartment and decided it was "go time" — the extreme, irrevocable cuteness, the odd demands, the meltdowns, the repetition, the adorable Jekyll and Hyde personality that can turn on a dime from saccharine ("Mommy want a hug?") to demonic (thwack! slap across the face immediately after aforementioned hug). Oh, and the meltdowns. Did I mention the meltdowns? They are like Valley of the Dolls without the promise of stardom.
"Mommy, those are my sunglasses," she insisted the other day as we rode in the backseat together while my husband drove us to the park. It's the same sort of thing she might have mistakenly thought when she was 23 months old, but could still be easily convinced of reality back then.
"Nope, honey, these are mommy's sunglasses."
"Nope, MY sunglasses."
"No, my sunglasses. Mommy's."
"No, MY SUNGLASSES."
"No honey, see, these are mommy's sunglasses."
"NO MY SUNGLASSES!" face screws up, eyes redden, waterworks, slaps sunglasses of my face, then follows with what is possibly the saddest, tiniest voice of the single most wronged person on earth emerges.
"MOMMY [sobs] THOSE MY SUNGLASSES."
Some part of me untrained still as of yet for this business of parenting thinks she might just stop mid-sob, turn to me and crack up, acknowledging it's all just a joke and of course there's no way she could feel as wrecked about my sunglasses belonging to her as I might about watching a batch of just-born bunnies being torched. But nope. She's for real. She fucking means it.
"But duh, didn't you expect parenting to be just like that based on every single depiction of toddlers in the universe you ever saw, from Shit My Kids Ruined to all the movies," you would rightly ask.
Uh, sure, yeah, I saw all that stuff. I knew there'd be Extreme Clichés, like, up all night, vomit-in-your-face clichés, but I figured even that was probably somewhat exaggerated gargoyle-faced lies, just like everything else in the movies/on the Internet/in the lore about parenting.
Seriously, I didn't believe it for the same reason I don't expect sex to comprise of making out, fade to black, then waking up the next day with tousled hair in bed but still-perfect makeup. Stuff gets left out in the retelling, dig? Nuance is a unicorn. Every baby is different.
Boy, was I one unicorn-finding idiot. You know how in The Exorcist, the whole possession is super scary and even pretty gross but you know that deep down in there somewhere is that sweet little girl Regan who just wants to cuddle up and be besties? Or like in Poltergeist where they're all like, "It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don't give it any help, it knows too much already." It's like that.
A baby, such as my actual baby, might be splashing about in the bath and exclaim, "I got you, bubbles!" and you will all delight in the joy and warmth of parenting and love. And then she might turn around and fling those bubbles directly into your eyes. And then laugh. Maniacally.
My sister and I compared notes about how I express to my toddler that she did something that hurts me, versus how she lets her cat know not to scratch her.
"I pretend to be hurt and meow in pain and then walk away, and it works," she said.
"I tried that with the baby after she scratched my eyeball and she just laughed."
One time we refilled her cup of milk at snack time and she said "Oh! That's better!" and we all laughed so joyously and with such earnest truth that it rang into the California mountainside for all the world to hear the purity of our love. And then she dumped the milk onto my laptop.
The laptop that survived 10 years and a constant dusting of cigarette ash, coffee spills and beer sprays couldn't hold out for ten minutes with a toddler.
Same with my phone. I managed to take an iPhone through a boozehound's crusty bar life for three years of stumblies without so much as making a dent in it, and then the kid shows up and in one fell swoop knocks it out of my hand onto the sidewalk, where it erupts into shards.
Sigh. All we can do is what anyone would do: try somehow to figure out how to fake a prescription for painkillers. Kidding. [Someone please send me painkillers.] We keep repeating the same mantra to ourselves: Just one kid. Just one kid. Super kidding! Well, sorta.
The actual mantra is something my friend told me she read once about difficult phases with children: If your kid is a crazy boundary-pusher during this 2 to 3-year-old phase and goes through a huge identity crisis, there's a good chance they won't act out so much as teens, so maybe, just maybe, you're actually dodging a worse bullet.
Or maybe this is a lie to get parents through the terrible twos, banking on the knowledge that by the time teenage years roll around, good old-fashioned amnesia will have kicked in anyway? Kinda like how no one tells you about sweeping the membranes when you're prego?
But really, if it is, in fact, seriously possible to take the heat early and avoid the future gothy-angry-for-no-reason-sullen-defiant-know-it-all-ism of the American teen experience by simply putting up with Chucky for two more years, well then double my Valium prescription and let's call it a night. Mama can handle a little old down-cycle.
Sure, that down-cycle might mean enduring her head-butting with a smile, or trying to look for the positive in the way she lovingly shoves a wet, limp piece of pasta fresh off the floor from dinner in our faces and repeats TRY IT TRY IT TRY IT TRY IT TRY IT over and over again until we fall down onto the floor weeping, begging her to stop.
She's just pushing boundaries, we remind ourselves! Reinforce them as many times as it takes and she will eventually understand, uh, right? Sweet bath bubbles baby is still in there somewhere, and she's trying to get out. Carol Anne? DO NOT GO INTO THE LIGHT. DON'T EVEN LOOK AT IT.
Tracy Moore is a writer living in Los Angeles. She misses the old TV static.
Image via Salim October/Shutterstock.