Toddler Lockdown

Having a baby limits your personal freedom more than just about anything this side of a prison sentence. It’s a life sentence too, with the possibility of parole after eighteen or twenty years. If you’re lucky.

Those of you with children know what I’m talking about. For the benefit of the rest, I will elaborate.

Your first few weeks with a new baby are a blur of diaper changes, howling, and being covered in disgusting bodily fluids. Your baby will probably sleep for most of its first week on the outside and you may begin to think that this is not so difficult. Don’t fall for that. It’s a trick. Once the baby wakes up she or he will, it seems, not sleep again for several months.

Infants have only one means of communication. Crying. It’s your job to try and figure out what the problem is. You’re as likely as not trying to solve that riddle at 2:30 in the morning, after having only slept for a total of three hours over the past two days. Good luck.

Things that were very easy before, like jumping in the car and running over to the store, suddenly become major productions. Not only are you tethered to a baby that may, at any moment, start howling like a fire engine, but there is a whole caravan’s worth of support hardware that you have to haul around. At night, someone always has to be available to cover nighttime feedings and other crises. (After the first few weeks I had, much to my wife’s disgust, learned to sleep through the routine nighttime wake-up crying. A few times, though, our son managed to get his leg caught between the slats of his cradle and woke up with an entirely different “Daddy, daddy, something’s got me!” cry that would snap me out of bed instantly.)

In short, your entire life now revolves around providing support to a tiny, helpless, human being who is entirely dependent on you. It affects everything, down to taking time to use the bathroom.

It gets a little easier when he begins sleeping through the night, but there is another trap out there waiting for you. Not long after that your helpless little baby becomes mobile.

The one saving grace of the early months is that the baby will stay where you put him. Lay him on a blanket on the floor for a few minutes while you go to the bathroom and he might start crying, but at least he’s going to be there when you get out. Once he becomes mobile, though, you have a whole new set of problems. Now the whole layout of your house might have to change, especially if you have stairs. (Our boy could climb stairs before he could walk.)

Toddlers become very mobile. They won’t even stay with you in the store. They’ll hare off to the other side of the store, where they remember finding toys the last time you were there. They’ll hide on you, or run around obstacles in a deliberate attempt to lose you. Elevators and escalators are fascinating new toys.

They are also endlessly curious. Any sort of container is liable to be opened and dumped out, just to see what’s in it and if it’s any fun. Or tastes good. A cup of water is almost as likely to be dumped on the table (splash, splash!) as to be drunk. A moment’s inattention to what the little imp is doing might cost you twenty minutes in cleanup.

As of this writing, my son, Nathaniel, is two and a third years old and our life revolves around him as much as it did when he was one month old. Getting him dressed is usually a tag-team wresting match and shopping is a major expedition (and likely to result in the purchase of more little toy cars, regardless of what it was we were originally shopping for). He can climb like a monkey and has to be watched carefully to make sure he isn’t getting into something dangerous that he couldn’t reach the week before. He is as demanding as ever of our attention and has a broader vocabulary with which to tell us what he wants. Even what kind of car I buy is determined primarily by the fact that a toddler is going to be riding in it. Now, though, instead of crying endlessly he’s scampering around the house, or demanding to watch Wow Wow Wubbzy one more time, or pushing me down behind the couch with instructions to “Hi’n’see’.”

Being the parent of a young child is, in many ways, like being a prisoner. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I am luckier than many parents in that I am self-employed, which means I have some flexibility to set my own hours. I try to make a little time every morning to play with him before I leave for work, and I try to be home every evening not later than bath time. Sometimes I am lucky enough to have a day when I can work from home and spend much of the day with him. He loves that.

Most days, though, I leave in the morning and get back around suppertime. When Nathaniel sees me getting ready to leave in the morning he knows he’s not going to see me all day and he gets quite upset. He will run to me and throw his arms around my legs and if I pick him up he will wrap his arms and legs around me and resist any effort to get him to let go. Eventually we get him pried loose and I drive away, with him still sobbing, “Da’y, Da’y!”

Under the circumstances, it is hard to work up any enthusiasm for heading off to work.

The last couple of months have been very busy ones for work, with me frequently working six out of seven days a week. I have very mixed emotions about that. On the one hand, of course, the money is very welcome. On the other hand, I hardly saw my son at all.

Toddlers are toddlers for such a very short time, and watching them discover the world, all bright and new in their eyes, is such a joy, that I begrudge any time away from my family. Right now, I am still a superhero to Nathaniel. It won’t be very long before he’s a teenager and I’m a public embarrassment to him. As far as I’m concerned, every hour is precious.

But the bills still need to be paid.

It’s an irreconcilable situation and I have no particular words of wisdom for anyone else who may be struggling with the same balancing act. We all have to set our own priorities and find our own paths.

I’m sleep-deprived and my house looks like it’s been carpet-bombed with toy cars. I’m giving up my two-seater pop-top roadster for a sensible family car. My library is still mostly in boxes because we don’t have money to spend on expensive bookcases and Nathaniel would just pull all the books off the shelves anyway. We hardly ever get to go anywhere because by the time we get out the door it’s his naptime and he falls asleep in the car. If we’re lucky. With all the germs the kids pass around on their playdates, I’ve been sick more times in the last two years than in the whole ten years previous.

And I’m a superhero. Da’y, da’y!

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