I know I’m not the first person to say this — and certainly not the last — but living with a toddler feels like a losing battle. Every day, every hour, sometimes every minute there’s a new battle to wage, a new argument, usually an argument that we just had 20 minutes ago.
I know he’s 19 months old. I know this is his job. It’s unrealistic for me to expect him to follow the rules all the time. I get it. But he’s just enough like me — stubborn and strong-willed and determined to have the last word — that it makes choosing my battles incredibly difficult. Every time he pointedly breaks the rules, he looks me right in the face with that big grin as if to say, “Rules? What rules?” And I’m convinced that it’s so monumentally important that I win this battle, this one right now, otherwise he’s doomed to a life a lawless disregard for the rules. As if letting him climb on the chair or take off his pants will lead him to an inevitable life of crime.
I realize this is ridiculous now as I sit in my silent living room while he naps peacefully in the other room. Obviously toddlers are going to break rules. The best we can do is enforce the important ones, correct them when they test boundaries, and wait for them to grow up enough to understand why it’s not a good idea to climb on the table or throw alphabet magnets into the heat registers. But in the moment, when I turn my back for a split second and find him standing on the table again, I can’t help but feel like I’m losing. To a 3-foot, 25-pound dictator. And it is exhausting.
My husband tells me to choose my battles. I know he’s right. I spend so much time chasing him, correcting him, trying to get him to mind just for the sake of following the rules. I know if I could just relax and let some things go, I would spend less time pulling so much of my hair out and more time enjoying this time. So why is it so hard to “choose my battles” in the moment?
Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful moments sprinkled throughout the day between all of this chasing and correcting and preventing injury. I know when I look back 20 years from now, those will be the moments I remember. The snuggles and kisses and milestones. The books we read and the games we play. He makes me laugh and melts my heart as much as he drives me bonkers. I’ll remember all of that, and I’ll miss my little baby as he grows up. It’s one of the kind quirks of our brains — as parents, we have a funny way of filtering out the bad days and remembering the good.
But there are hard days, too. Days when I collapse in my bed after he finally falls asleep close to 10 o’clock. The house is a mess, the stack of papers I wanted to hand back to my students remains ungraded, my blog goes another day without an update, the bookmark in the novel on my nightstand that I’ve been reading forever doesn’t move. I feel exhausted and beaten, and all can do is wonder if I’m doing it all wrong. Surely, it’s not supposed to be this hard. Though every account I’ve ever read of someone else’s parenting experiences assures me that yes, it is this hard, it’s probably going to be this hard forever, but I still can’t help but my doubt myself.
The doubt is the worst part. What if I’m not just losing these daily battles? What if I’m failing him? That’s why it’s so hard to choose my battles. It’s so hard to tell which ones are worth fighting when there’s so much at stake.
Often when I’m standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to check out, and Judah is being particularly difficult — squirming, trying to climb out of the cart, grabbing at the credit card reader, picking up grocery items and throwing them on the floor, screaming — some kind older lady always smiles wistfully at me and says, “Enjoy this time. It goes by so fast, and someday you’ll miss it.” Though I question the truth behind that statement (obviously, I will remember the wonderful things about my son at this age, but somehow I doubt I’ll ever stand in line at the grocery store and say, “I miss those nuclear meltdown temper tantrums Judah used to have when I was trying to pay for my groceries.”) Still, I muster the kindest smile I can, and I always tell them, “I know. The days are long, and the years are short.”
And that’s what I tell myself on the bad days. I take a deep breath as I gently pick him up off the table or chase him down to put his pants back on, and I remind myself that it won’t be this way forever. It will get easier. And that’s exactly when I’ll forget all of the worst parts of life with a toddler and long for the good parts again.