Two weeks ago my brother (a recently unemployed PhD in molecular neuroscience, working hard to find a job in biotech) and his 18-month old son came to visit from California. “The boys” stayed with us while my sister-in-law, a high-powered chemist, stayed at a hotel downtown where she attended a meeting for a week. It was quite a throw-back, having this little being trundling around the house; my husband, myself, and my eight- and twelve-year-old-girls delighted in having them here. Their visit reminded me how intense life is when you’re in the throes of balancing your toddler with career, life, sanity, love, guilt, and sleep. It also made me realize that after just a few short years so many of the wonderful details of this time get forgotten: those tiny fingers on your face and around your neck and stretched out arms asking to be picked up; the joys of peek-a-boo; a relaxed little body on your lap; complete concentration on the simple movement of a ceiling fan; squeals of delight in a response to spinning or being lifted to the ceiling; utter satisfaction of sitting in a box or laundry basket; little feet pattering along, following you everywhere. It was a gift to pull out our old board books and toys and travel back to the time when toddlerhood was so much a part of our life. Eighteen-month-olds are ever astounding in their interpretations, comprehension, and discovery. There is nothing in the world like being an important person to a toddler.
During my brother’s visit I found myself in the interesting position of voyeur, able to stand back and get an intimate, day-to-day observation of a parent-of-toddler at work; a completely different perspective on this consuming job I held not long ago. I also got a glimpse of insight into the differences between the strategies and perspectives of this toddler’s mom and dad. Over the time my brother was here as solo parent, he took care of the baby in a very laid back manner. Yes, he agonized about a few things (he worried especially about whether his son was eating enough). But in general, my brother parented in a non-regimented way. Won’t drink out of the cup? OK, here’s the bottle. Out past nap-time? That’s all right, we’ll figure it out. Bib? Usually forgotten until the end of the meal. However, this changed at the end of the week when his wife joined us for a few days before they all flew back home. Suddenly the quantity and diversity of food eaten was much more accurately accounted for; routines were followed; options for naptimes, choice of milk vs. formula, and thoughts on whether a toy was too stimulating before bed were weighed and discussed and reasoned out; and baby bottles were lined up, easy to find, on a clean towel on the kitchen counter.
It dawns on me that I recognize these parenting styles, broken down along the same gender lines. They are nearly identical to those my husband and I had when our kids were toddlers (and certainly manifest themselves to this day, although they have evolved and mellowed to some extent). I was more intense by far, dictated what needed doing, attempted to figure things out rather than let them go. My husband went with the flow, followed my directions (although occasionally snipping back at me when I went overboard with a regimen) and generally worried less. For us these different strategies sometimes crashed, yet somehow there was also a balance that worked. My methods were stressful, yet I was often unable to stand down. My brother, referring to the parenting style of his wife, said, “I just can’t get my brain to work like that,” while expressing relief that the diaper bag was stocked when he needed it.
I loved every minute of this visit, bonding with my nephew, watching my kids do the same, and deepening my connection with my brother and sister-in-law in ways not possible if it weren’t for this sweet little bundle we all care so much about. Although our families live on opposite sides of the country, and we see each other infrequently, through our children we have become a tighter family even across the miles, and I’m grateful for that.
For those of you experiencing the toddler stage – hang in there and enjoy every moment you can. Without a doubt, it’s one of life’s more challenging phases, but it’s also got joys and wonder like no other. And it makes for fond memories.