Having a baby was joyful. Having a toddler is joyful. The months in between were hard. Reflections on parenting from 8 – 11 months old.
For months I have been trying to write about my kid’s shift from baby to toddler, which happened around 8-11 months old, and which has been the most challenging part of parenting for me.
I have a dozen different drafts in my Dropbox where I describe my bewildered experience, titled things like “Baby –> Toddler Shift,” “When Fran was 9 months old I stopped writing,” “Elimination Communication Meltdown.”
The stories blur into one meandering complaint, devoid of wisdom or humour. I was trying to make sense my child’s earth-shaking meltdowns and unprecedented bathroom accidents. These stories are uniformly depressing, which is why I did not publish any of them them.
Happily, I am now on the other side of the journey, and have good things I want to share with you!
I am now the cool and relaxed mom of a content, focused, and diaper-free 16 month old. I look back on our difficult phase and I think I understand why I had such a hard time: toddlers crave independence and being of service to their community; I kind of knew that initially, but didn’t know how to facilitate it. Now I do, and am here to tell you about it.
The jist of having a great time with your toddler is:
- constantly reorganizing your space to facilitate their independence (whenever they can’t do something on their own, like pour their own water, be like “how could I make it so they could pour their own water?” then get a stool or low basin and show them how),
- being conscious and present beside them, guiding their development (rather than taking a hands off approach, which I thought was the right thing to do at first), and
- leaving lots of room for adventure in your daily rhythms (expect making, eating, and cleaning up breakfast to take three and a half hours, which will leave room for your kid to wash a spoon for 45 minutes in a deep trance.)
I was inspired to write this story by my friend Claire, who DM’d me a few days ago asking for help understanding her previously easy eight month old. Claire found listening to my experience to be helpful. “MacKenzie we had a great morning so far!!!” she told me the next day, “I held him or was with him to do everything and he was happy, no meltdowns, and we caught almost everything! [meaning pees and poos]”
The first eight months of being a parent felt like the rightest, easiest thing ever for me. This was mostly because we attended a prenatal class called The First Forty Days where wise woman midwife Bridget Lynch advised us to do a forty day lie-in with our baby where we didn’t get out of a bed and just snuggled and breastfed. The result was not, as the haters had warned me, a deep-vein thrombois, but, unexpectedly, a groovy, animal, intuitive connection with our baby that resulted in us ditching diapers and falling into an easy rhythm of bedsharing, babywearing, exclusive breastfeeding, elimination communication, and gentle parenting. Me, my beau, and my baby floated together, suspended in a dreamy, heady soup of oxytocin.
Then one day, around eight months old, my kid took off running. Knees high, arms out, fluffy butt jiggling to high heaven, screaming with joy and independence. Suddenly none of my old mom wisdom worked.
We were no longer physically attached so I couldn’t rely on the little cues like muscles tensing in the sling to tell me when he had to pee, or bobbing his head against my chest to tell me he wanted to nurse.
I couldn’t nurse him to sleep anymore because he had teeth and would bite me mischeviously when he wanted to keep playing, which was often past midnight. Instead of lying snug in my bed with my groggy, milk-drunk baby I was bleary-eyed in my living room, bleeding out of the teeth wounds in my areola, watching my toddler roll trucks down a ramp forty times in a row at midnight, doubting everything parenting decision I’d ever made.
Elimination communication fell apart. I couldn’t catch a pee to save my life. At nine months old I was cleaning up fifteen plus pees on the floor every day and scooping poop off the floor from behind a plant. This felt insane, as we had been out of diapers without incident for months. At seven months old we took at five hour plane trip to Vancouver and spent the week sightseeing and visiting relatives, not a single accident the whole trip. “Maybe we should just put him in diapers?” my husband asked gently, “so he doesn’t think the floor is a toilet?”
My kid began having meltdowns. Friends, early childhood educators, and health care workers in my life told me that meltdowns are developmentally normal starting around ten months, but I just didn’t buy it. Two months ago I was so connected to my kid I knew when he had to pee by the look in his eyes, and he knew the exact “heh” to make to alert me to help him pull down his pants. I would go weeks without hearing him cry. That level of connection couldn’t just disappear overnight. The meltdowns felt like the response of a scared kid at his wits end, frustrated with not being heard. The meltdowns were connected somehow to the unprecedented bathroom accidents, which were connected to his new level of mobility and independence. There was a most holistic thing going on… but what was it?
I also knew that in her book The Continuum Concept Jean Leidloff notes that toddler meltdowns were virtually absent in a community where toddlers had their continuum expectations met, that is, toddlers were trusted to be innately cooperative and social, have a strong sense of self-preservation, and were integrated into the activities of daily living in a bustling multi-generational community. She gives a famous example of a two year old girl grating cassava on a sharp grating board alongside older women like it’s no big deal, trusted to manage the risks herself, expecting that her contributions matter and directly affect the well-being of her community.
I knew that my toddler’s days did not look like those of the toddlers in Jean Leidloff’s Continuum Concept, but in the absence of a multi-generational community of women he could grate cassava with, I didn’t know how to structure his day.
I settled on the idea of giving him lots of space, wherein he could develop his own autonomy. He spent most morning explorings our house, which quickly became dumping garbage on the floor and eating eggshells out of it, spraying the kitchen faucet on the ceiling, and putting his fingers in electrical sockets. “I’m observing what he likes to do so I can better understand how to facilitate play,” I would tell myself as I mopped up another bathroom accident from beneath overturned garbage while he sobbed beside me. “I’m promoting his autonomy by being hands off and letting him explore the world at his own pace.”
You can laugh at me! I was figuring it out.
I start Googling
Every blog I looked at told me that meltdowns were normal and expected, which I just didn’t believe. Blogs also did not provide much guidance on structuring my kid’s day.
Googling “elimination communication falls apart” didn’t yield helpful free content so I asked moms in my beloved Elimination Communication Facebook Group if they had experienced their practice go off the rails around ten months, along with the onset of meltdowns, and received a chorus of resounding yes-es. No one was quite sure why, but everyone linked it to their kid’s increased mobility, which makes it harder to read and feel their bathroom cues. Bolstered by this shared experience, I kept researching.
I go to the library
Most toddler parenting books are very bad, written by a compassionate expert and aimed at an imaginary frazzled parent who needs tricks to manipulate their kid out of “bad” behaviour at the expense of the kid’s dignity. These books advocate arbitrary discipline techniques like sticker charts and separation tactics like “go to your room” or “you are a big boy now, you are too old for x behaviour,” which exploit the kid’s dependence on their parent and locate an inhuman amount of power in the parents. Of course these kids have meltdowns, I think as I toss these books into the fire, they have no power!
Based on Jean Leidloff’s observations, which made the most sense to me, I was moved to explore how to curate a toddler’s environment to best facilitate their autonomy. I wanted to help my kid prepare our family’s food, brush his own teeth, choose his own play activities and maintain and clean his clothes and space. By involving my toddler in activities of daily living I thought I might apply the principles of Jean Leidloff’s continuum in some small way in my little life. I reasoned that if I could support my kid to have more power in his day he might feel more grounded and focused and the meltdowns, born out of powerlessness, might stop,
The parenting book of the summer, The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies, promised to detail, beautifully, how to organize a toddler’s space and day to maximize their autonomy. Set up a tiny sink for them and they will do their own dishes. Give them a tiny hook in a central part of the house and they will put on their own coat. Set up an adorable tiny bathroom vanity for them and they will brush their own teeth. They will love all of this.
Davies’ Montessori Toddler shone like a beacon in my brain all summer as I looked for it. I thought that once I got this book and extracted its wisdom my toddler would be slaked with power and the meltdowns would stop.
When I finally got my hands on Montessori Toddler I was disappointed (never meet your heros!) – lots of “set your kids toys up this way” with no backstory or further explanation other than “Maria Montessori said so.” I wanted to love this book so bad, but just didn’t. (That being said, as I wrote this post I kept referring to little things I had learned in Davies’ book so it clearly had an impact on me.)
A mom friend I admire @newmoonmama recommended Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers, Or Anyone Who Acts Like One by Canadian counsellor Dr. Deborah MacNamara, who is a colleague of attachment parenting researcher Dr. Gordon Neufield, who famously collaborated with Dr. Gabor Mate on the gentle parenting bible Hold Onto Your Kids.
A treasure trove of a resource, Rest, Play, Grow was exactly what I was looking for – lots of “why” certain approaches nurtures a toddler’s developing sense of personhood, very little “how to.” Perfect for someone like me, who loathes following instructions.
Drawing on personal and clinical experience as well as research in psychology and neuroscience, Dr. MacNamara argues that the idea of independence is thrust on kids too young through things like being thrown into the world without clear, close guidance, forcing them to sleep alone, forcing them to grapple with big emotions alone, and being expected to act mature without being given the time or support to genuinely mature.
MacNamara argues something along the lines of: toddlers look to adults for connection, support, and a model of real-life behaviours, and often instead find closed doors, a lack of direction, hurtful discipline, and maternal replacements. In turn toddlers express themselves with very behaviour that parents hope these distancing practises will solve.
I have too many highlights from the book to paraphrase interestingly and I don’t want to bore you so here are the points from it that I think about daily:
- The part of children’s brains that regulates emotion does not begin to develop until they are about five years old; before that they live in the present moment. Living in the present is what gives rise to the adorable, delicious, joyful spontaneity that is unique to toddlers, but it also means that they need a parent to contain their big emotions and regulate for them. This translates to:
- When my kid is scooping beans from one container to another in a focused trance for ten minutes and then gets so into it that he starts throwing beans everywhere and yelling, he is begging me to contain him. “Beans are not for throwing,” I say gently as I hold his hands, “Let’s say goodbye to the beans and go throw some pinecones.” Unless my kid is exhausted, he will say goodbye to the beans and come with me without a meltdown.
- When my kid is whining softly and playing with his trains as naptime nears, I see that it is my job to facilitate a gentle transition out of play and into nap. I “get in his face,” collect him, and ask him to help me say goodnight to the room as we get ready for nap time. “Goodnight lightswitch” *he flicks the lightswitch off* Goodnight trains *we put the train away together.* I pop him in the sling and we walk around singing and saying goodnight to things for 20 minutes until he falls asleep.
- “Getting in their face” or “collecting” them to change activities or get their attention. Toddlers have a uniquely powerful attention span where they can get lost in an activity in a way adults simply cannot. When you call out your toddler’s name for dinner and they ignore you while pouring water out in and out of a pot, it’s not that they are trying to be malicious: they truly don’t hear you. The water activity is all-consuming. Their attention filters out everything that isn’t directly involved with their activity.
- In order to get your child to change activities, “get in their face” and go collect them: squat down to their level with a big smile and a clear, honest voice and tell them that it’s time to move on. “We need to go home from the park now because mom is hungry.”
- If they melt down at this activity change, it’s because they are exhausted or overstimulated, or, rarely, they really, really need to finish what they are doing. Hold them, sing to them, nurse them, until they are calm. Rarely, if the meltdown continues past a good nursing session, I will return to the activity and encourage them to finish their play. Often it only lasts two or three minutes before they have wrapped up and are ready to move on.
- Toddlers have a strong “dependency instinct” that has evolved over many millenia. They learn through observing adults, and instinctively know that their best bet is to attach to a loving, present, mature adult.
- Giving your toddler distance is not the same as fostering autonomy: letting them spend the morning roaming the house without guiding their experience is not, I was surprised to learn, fostering independence. Long stretches of unstructured time makes toddlers go crazy and feel anxious and unmoored. They need a parent they can depend on and a structured activity they can focus. If they don’t have this sense of rootedness they will attach to whomever they perceive to be their “best bet”, including peers or a TV.
- Being really assertive as a five-to-seven year old is associated with having no single dependable “best bet” adult around – with having to become your own best bet before developmentally ready.
- Because toddlers lack control in so many aspects of their life, it is essential to organize their day into predictable rhythms. This doesn’t mean a school-bell type structure where every 20 minutes you change activities, but rather, moving through your day in a predictable way. While it provides a sense of rhythm, which kids thrive off of, the school-bell-type-structure lays waste to all the brain development that grows out of the toddler’s powerful attention span, which can sink into an activity for hours given the chance.
- We follow a predictable daily rhythm:
- Open the windows with the same song every morning (“open the windows/ sweep out the cobwebs!” from the Anne of Green Gables musical)
- Come downstairs and make, eat, and clean up breakfast. Fran cooks. He cracks, salts, and stirs the eggs, adds the cheese to the omelette, scoops oatmeal and water and mixes them, turns on the burners, stirs the hot pot, mixes nuts and water into the food processor for nutmilk, presses the on button, and helps me strain the nut milk bag after – these are all skills we worked on after he expressed interest.
- After breakfast we go for a walk or an errand. He helps weigh containers at the refill store and pays for groceries with my credit card and puts it back in my wallet. Mostly we like to walk to the local construction site and watch the big trucks move.
- We come home and make, eat, and clean up lunch. We play after lunch. I have organized a shelf with couple of different activities, Montessori-style, and he chooses what he wants to do and cleans it up after. Once he looks bleary-eyed we try nursing to sleep for naptime and, if that doesn’t work, go for a walk until he falls asleep.
- Once he wakes up we make, eat, and clean up dinner, and then play for a while, then do bath, storytime, and bedtime.
- Singing and rhyming is a powerful tool for collecting and organizing your toddler. Once I became a toddler mom I went from basically only ever rapping Drake alone in my car to singing constantly, all day, about everything we’re doing.
- I typically use the same melody with different lyrics to describe the transition. When we are going into the car I sing “Take me a riding in the car” by Elizabeth Mitchell but I change the lyrics a bit to describe our errand (mostly so other people in the house know what we’re doing). Fran grabs the car keys and walks to the car door when I sing this song.
- I watch my kid play and encourage his interests. He loves anything with wheels so we build ramps and push things down them. He loves scooping water and will sit in the kitchen sink and move water between cups for half an hour at a time. Play is where a sense of personhood unfolds.
- “Getting to tears.” Dr. MacNamara has a lot about helping toddlers regulate their emotions. Getting to tears is her expression for helping toddlers come up against the futilities of life – for instance, your toddler wants to put a used condom in a public garbage bin (a real problem we had), wants you to drink the boiling hot tea they just made for you, wants to hit the cat, or rip houseplants. These are things that they want to do, but that you just can’t support them to do.
- There was a time when I would watch my kid rip a plant apart and think, “let him experience life, I’m a cool mom, what’s the worst that could happen.” The worst that could happen is that my kid feels confused, unmoored, and like he can’t depend on me. He knows that this activity sucks but can’t figure out how to get out of it. He feels unsafe and unprotected… and I don’t feel great, plus my house plant is dead.
- Our days went so much better once I realized that it was my job to help my toddler sit with the experience of not being able to do somethings, to help him process frustration.
- Once he started to cry about not being able to do something, like ripping plants or hitting the cat, the tears usually lasted twenty seconds or so, and then I collected him and it was over and our day went on better than ever. (The tears of coming up against futility are not the tears of a child who has been left to process big emotions or fall asleep by themselves. The difference is connection – you are there with them as the mature, dependable adult helping them process their experience.)
After reading Rest, Play, Grow I realized I wasn’t being the mature adult that my toddler needed to depend on. I was giving him way too much distance and mistaking it for autonomy. My toddler needed oodles of structure and direction, and he needed me more present than ever.
I thought that my kid walking meant that I had time to sit and read or something (lol) while he explored the house. How wrong I was. Instead, it meant that we had entered a new chapter of togetherness, just as intense as before, but this time, on the move. I don’t need someone to “watch him” while I make dinner and it isn’t better if he sits quietly in the other room for 20 minutes while I chop – this likely makes him feel unincluded and anxious. Instead, he makes dinner with me: he moves cauliflower from the cutting board to a bowl, he slices apples with a butterknife, he scoops soaked chickpeas out of water. He washes dishes and loads cutlery into the dishwasher. He has his own rag and tidies up with us while between dancing to music with us. We communicate back and forth the whole time, and I hear him when he gives a little chirp that says “mom I have to pee.” As I start including him in every aspect of my activities of daily living, the quality of both of our attention became sharper and more focused. He starts peeing in the toilet again seamlessly and the meltdowns stop.
Another book I found helpful at this time was Dr. Shefali’s The Awakened Family, which helped me organize my thoughts around boundary-setting and discipline. Dr. Shefali starts with the premise that children do not need discipline and that “how dare you” think you have the right to discipline a perfect, good, whole child. Instead, children invite us to reflect on our own lack — where we have room for spiritual growth and what we need to leave behind as we become confident parents.
She gives the beautiful example of screentime: if you child is addicted to screens, before you set limits on what they can do, evaluate your own use. Do you derive most of your connection from screens? If so, your child will turn to screens to satisfy their basic human need for connection as well. Work on yourself first and approach your child from a place of connection and love, rather than shame or rule-setting.
In the style of Dr. Shefali, I have never disciplined my toddler. When he is acting out, I name his big emotion and sit with him to work through it, for example, “you are so excited to see the cat you hit her! Cats are for loving, not hitting. Let’s work on gentle petting with this stuffed animal.”
On the other side of the shift
My son is 16 months old. For a few months now I’ve felt like a confident, elated toddler mom. I feel good as we move though our days, which unfold as a dance of seeking out new opportunities to build skills, be creative, and work towards independence, with lots of guidance and attention from me.
When I notice my kid fall into a deep trance of concentration – the hallowed play that researchers pinpoint to be the place where brain development and a sense of personhood really take off — I intuitively step back. I know what busy work I can do to best practice “attentive inaction,” knitting, sewing, tidying, sipping tea… being present for my kid while providing space and modeling life stills. Meltdowns are predictable and limited to occasions when I push his energy too far and he is exhausted.
I’m working on bedtime still – he wakes up around 9 am, naps from 3-5 pm, and is up until midnight playing hard most evenings. I haven’t found a way to gracefully, lovingly move bedtime up but am working on it – stay tuned!
Galleries of Fran and our space during the shift
Gallery of Fran at play and at work
Gallery of how our space is organized
Where will we go from here?
Our current arrangement is labour-intensive and requires constant attention and thought on my part. It precludes me from paid labour outside of the home and asks a lot of personal support from my husband. We make a conscious effort to avoid leaning on technology and consumerism and try our best to instead rely on our loving and intuitive presence. This style of parenting is extremely important to us.
Our parenting style was born out of peace times and privilege. I sense that it will need to change as the ripple effects of the pandemic alter our lives forever.
The pandemic promises to throw the global economy into a depression which is projected to last a decade. The psychological, economic, and social effects of the pandemic will last generations. Though we are in an extremely privileged situation — my husband is a software engineer employed in oil and gas and I previously worked as a midwife — I no longer feel like I am best serving my kid’s future by staying home with him when I have a skill set that is so urgently needed by my community and the means to make money when, for so many, work is scarce.
All this to say: stay tuned in the coming months as I explore the tension, challenge, beauty, and work of weaving intensive parenting with returning to work, set against the backdrop of the pandemic!