(Originally published on HuffPost Parents)
This is my crew. My first two are 18 months apart, my second two are 21 months apart. Right now, I’m raising my second round of toddlers. As I’m chasing my current little ones, I often think back to the first time I did this — balancing one on a public potty while holding the other away from the toilet with one arm; scanning a playground for two little heads at all times; the exhausted ,whiney late afternoon hours; the intense bedtime routines; the way I was forever searching for training cups and helping with shoes; the fight for my lap during storytime. Nurturing little ones close in age is an intense experience. And — thanks be to God — I get to do it all again.
Throughout my day, I often imagine what I would tell myself if I could go back in time. I think about who I was back then — that mum of two tiny boys who never stopped moving and hardly ever ate, who loved her life deeply, but was plagued with a few insecurities that turned out to be irrelevant. If I could, there are a couple of things I would tell her. Such as:
1. It really is this hard. You’re not doing anything wrong.
With my older two, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the difficult parts of parenting easier. Why were my children so rambunctious? Why did I keep losing their sandals/water bottles/sun hats/tiny toys? What could I do to get my kids to be calmer and more obedient? How could I get them to leave the park without tantrums or stay in their rooms during rest time? I was constantly evaluating and strategizing. Surely if it was this hard, I must be doing something wrong. There had to be a way to make life easier.
If I could go back, I would say, relax. Tantrums, running away, accidents, lost belongings, mischievous nap times… it’s all a normal part of toddler life. I wasn’t making life harder than necessary. Raising two toddlers really is just that hard.
2. Accept your kids’ personalities now.
The first time around I had one cautious introvert and one thrill-seeking extrovert. I can’t begin to imagine how much mental energy I devoted to trying to make my introvert more outgoing, and my daredevil more cautious. I can’t tell you how many times I scolded one for exploring a new area too enthusiastically, while encouraging the other to get out and explore.
Five years later, I have one cautious introvert and one thrill-seeking extrovert. All of that energy did nothing but frustrate us all. The time I put into worrying whether one “should” be so intent on taking risks or the other “should” be having more fun at birthday parties, did not change who they actually are in any way.
Our children are given to us with their own innate personalities. We can’t make shy kids love crowds, and we can’t make thrill-seekers settle down. We just can’t. I didn’t fully accept my kids’ personalities until a year or so ago, and it has completely changed my relationships with them. These days I have one toddler for whom all of life is a PARTY! and one who observes life from behind my leg. Only this time, I am encouraging both to be exactly who they are. Who am I to tell my EXCITED! kid to focus, or to tell my hesitant kid he needs to go and explore?
Like every mother, I want to see all of my kids grow into happy, fully functioning people. But I am now convinced that endeavor can only begin when I accept who they naturally are.
3. Eventually, parenting works.
Now that they’re a little older, I see the fruit of our labor in my big kids’ lives. Back then, my husband and I put our energy into teaching teamwork, creating solid bedtime routines, nurturing a love for stories and eating healthy foods (though in general food is not a battle in our house). We now have big kids who work together (mostly), go to bed (mostly), love to read and have at least a basic understanding of what kinds of foods nourish their bodies. But we do not, for example, have kids who pick up after themselves, because it was never our top priority. Family life is never going to be perfect. But the areas most important to us really do take root in our kids, eventually.
This is so encouraging for me, both in my new round of teaching toddlers to go to bed and in my new task of teaching big kids the next level of expectation. Knowing they are good at bedtime because I was so serious about it back then helps me to be more consistent with things like chores and finishing schoolwork now. All that hard work really does pay off.
4. I know, I know, I KNOW how hard it is to believe this, but this season will end.
Everyone tells you to enjoy the little years because they go by fast. It doesn’t feel very fast, does it? It feels as though you will wipe bottoms and dice food until the end of time. But it really will end. There actually will be a day when the babies you can’t let out of your sight can do their own thing for hours, and you can trust they are not in the medicine cabinet.
Knowing the season is temporary is double-edged. On one hand, the toddler years are beautiful, full of life and energy and curiosity and fun. I sometimes miss that sweet season the big boys and I shared. On the other hand, I know now we have a lot of life ahead of us. Those cute babies are going to morph into actual people, with their own sense of humor and passions and struggles and friendships and life. I love the toddler years. I really do. But with my second set of toddlers, rather than wishing I could freeze time, I often look at my babies and think, just you wait. In a few years we’re going to have so much fun, kid.
Stephanie Gates is a mum to four beautifully rambunctious children and wife to a guy who still makes her smile. If you’ve ever abandoned religion in search of faith, ever left your home town to find your home, or ever climbed to the very tiptop of a jungle gym to rescue an overzealous toddler, come and sit by her. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at her blog, A Wide Mercy. You can also connect at HuffPost Parents, on Facebook, or on Twitter.