At 20 months, my youngest child has transformed over the past 6 months from baby to toddler. While my older two are happy to head off to bed with some lullabies or an audiobook, Miss E still needs me close to relax and fall asleep. As we lie next to each other, eyes level and holding hands in the dark, she often surprises me with what she has to say in those moments before sleep.
[Silence for several minutes while lullabies play.]
Me: [beginning to believe E is asleep, considering the best course for extracting my hand and ninja-ing away]
E: “Sissy . . .sissy buckle self.”
Me: [drawing my attention away from my plan to sneak away and trying to mentally place this sudden comment]
E: "SISSY BUCKLE SELF."
Me: “Yes, your sister buckles herself.”
E: “Bubby buckle self.”
Me: “Yes, Buddy buckles himself.”
E: “Daddy, daddy buckle self.”
Me: [wheels really turning by this point] “Yes, Daddy buckles himself.”
E: “Mommy, Mommy . . .MOMMY!”
Me: “Yes, E?”
E; “Mommy buckle self.”
Me: [understanding] “E, are you frustrated that you can’t buckle yourself in the car?”
Following her declarative “uh-huh,” she rolled over and drifted easily off to sleep. Meanwhile, I found myself wide awake in the dark, mind churning over the past weeks during which getting my toddler into and out of the car has been one of the more difficult points of every single day.
We drive - a lot. Dropping off and picking up the older kids, running errands, visiting the library, and exploring playgrounds all mean getting in and out of the car seat many times a day. In the weeks before this late-night (by toddler standards) conversation, my formerly happy-to-be-traveling toddler began declaring “NO BUCKLE” at an ever-increasing volume and making it quite difficult to get her settled in her seat.
As she is my third toddler, I’ve experienced this phase before, and I can handle it with some degree of calm. But, in my mind, the car seat kerfuffle had totally become a power struggle. On my side, the need to quickly and efficiently and safely get my littlest into the car. On her side, utter refusal to make quick or efficient or safe possible. I found myself battling increasing frustration with every car trip.
But, as I sat there in the dark while she snored softly beside me, I realized that I had it wrong. All wrong.
This wasn’t a power struggle. This was a child trying to communicate to me again and again with the tools at her disposal that buckles are a big deal and that doing it herself (like everyone else) really mattered. Buckling myself in doesn't seem like a hill to die on, but for her in that moment it was just that.
If I’m honest, bedtime is far from my favorite point in the day. I’m tired, and I’m ready for a little adult conversation or the chance to read a book or write something without too much distraction. So these little chats my toddler loves to have before settling in don’t always strike me as the most treasured moment in the day.
For example, she will want to discuss at length and with great repetition the pizza that we had for dinner several days ago, who ate it, and whether or not it is indeed all gone. While I strive to be the kind of parent who savors ALL THE MOMENTS, I know that in reality, no one can savor all the moments. Sometimes I’m tired. Sometimes I’m checked out. Sometimes I’m ready to be done for the day.
But this little conversation about who gets to “buckle self” and the knowledge that it matters deeply to my toddler? That is a moment I will tuck in the pocket of my mind and revisit often. Not because it will suddenly make all the moments of car seat strife past, present, and future magically disappear or overlay with a rosy filter and soaring music.
I will treasure this conversation because of what it means for me as mother and how I approach my children in a time of trouble - big or small.
When I had my first child, I suddenly found access to a part of myself that I didn’t even know existed. This part has the capacity to love with more self-giving and more strength than anything I had ever imagined. This part of me also has the capacity to grow, meeting each of the challenges of parenting by stretching and expanding - often with intense growing pains but still working to grow into the kind of parent I truly want to be.
This is the part of me I can turn to when standing opposite a red-faced toddler, stiff and screaming, in a busy parking lot. This is the part of me I can lean into and find empathy and calm in the face of frustration. This is place where I can come at a problem with collaboration, creativity, and humor.
An essential piece of this is listening, really listening, to what my child is saying and hearing it without the one-sided narrative playing in my mind - that one-sided narrative that says the car seat standoff is about power. But, it’s not. Or rather, it doesn’t have to be. Not for me.
Today, as I was getting my toddler zipped up to head out the car, I asked, “E, when we get to the car, can we buckle you in together?” She responded, “Uh-huh. Buckle.”
She’s growing and learning. You want to know the best part? I’m growing and learning, too.
Johanna received a Ph.D. in English in 2014. Now a postpartum doula and educator of childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant sleep, she blogs about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting.