I’ll be honest: when my daughter turned one I thought I was nailing parenthood. My daughter was in a predictable routine, I was back to work part-time and it was all becoming a lot more fun.
I would spend Tuesday and Thursday mornings and afternoons doing uni work whilst she napped, meet my friends for lunch whilst she stuffed her face in the highchair and now and again we would sit on the sofa reading a book or two, or she would hang out on the floor playing with her toys whilst I had a cuppa.
To say I was smug was an understatement. I had a baby who loved sleeping and eating; cracked up at my jokes and would pretty much stay where I put her quite happily so I could apply make-up or catch up on WhatsApp.
Taking all this into consideration, it came as quite a shock when my contented baby woke up one morning half a year later as a fully-fledged, pissed off toddler.
Rather than it being a gradual process, all of these things seemed to happen overnight with my daughter when she reached 18 months.
Within a week of taking her first steps, she was running and climbing and she went from saying a handful of words to chatting non-stop: her favourite word being ‘no’ to the dog when she barked.
It also became apparent during this time that she didn’t really need to go back to bed two hours after she had woken up and, as all of my mum-friends had already been on the opposite routine for six months, I decided to take the plunge and drop the morning nap.
A week in and I was quite enjoying being able to head out first thing and hang out with my mates again and my waistline was definitely benefiting from having lunch at home rather than the pub. Back to being smug-Mummy again I thought to myself ‘what nap-transition?’ I’d successfully changed my daughter’s routine in one day and we’d never been happier.
And then everything started to unravel.
Firstly, after a bit of beginner’s luck, my daughter starting napping for 90 minutes tops. As I’d been used to having three hours off a day, and I was trying to study for a masters, this was not ok. I started having to put her to bed earlier and earlier to make her sleep longer and then that stopped working.
As well as this, my mornings out with friends, coffee and soft play ended abruptly. After a few days in her element being out in the mornings, my daughter suddenly turned into a hormonal teenager who was absolutely livid with life. I couldn’t sit down for a second without her going into absolute meltdown over nothing. My happy little soul was now a miserable cow who didn’t want to play, didn’t want to be held and was barely consolable with food.
From the moment she woke up in the morning to the moment she went to bed she would whinge. And, if she wasn’t whinging, she was banging her head on the floor in hysterics in full-on tantrum mode. I swear I was lucky to get one smile out of her all day.
Not only this, but her newly-found physical abilities had made her suicidal. As it happened so rapidly, I had no idea what she was capable of. Within a week, she managed to climb onto the dining room table and knock a freshly brewed cup of (black) tea everywhere (miraculously only managing to cover her sock-clad feet); she ran into the middle of our road and managed to open the front door! This was the child who, a week ago, couldn’t even get onto the sofa.
As someone who is naturally prone to anxiety, I was on the edge. Even ten minutes with this savage diva was leaving me hyperventilating. I spent hours hysterically Googling and posting on forums about ‘The Terrible Twos’, tantrums, nap transitions and developmental leaps in a desperate attempt to try and ‘fix’ her. The most frustrating thing was that I had no idea what had caused her dramatic change in behaviour so I was clueless as to how to try and stop it. I just wanted my happy little girl back and I started to become more and more despondent and helpless. Our days together had become miserable and I felt like a constant ball of anxiety waiting for the next outburst.
To make matters worse, seemingly she was an absolute angel with everybody else. My partner had her one weekend and said she was a dream, implying that the past two months had been a figment of my imagination. My sister had her for a morning and said she was a delight and every session at nursery provoked positive feedback. One time I picked her up and her key-worker told her off for whining and said she’d been uncharacteristically whiny that day. I couldn’t believe it: that was the noise I’d been hearing 24/7 for weeks.
At my wits’ end, I offloaded to my best friend (and mother of older children) during a rare evening catch up. Her advice stopped me in my tracks. She suggested that I was simply doing too much with her causing her to be over-stimulated and that I should slow down and basically chill the fuck out.
When I reflected on this, it seemed to make a lot of sense.
As an extrovert who hates staying in, I was desperate to get out as soon as my daughter woke up. As a perfectionist, who hadn’t left the house without makeup for 25 years, my daughter’s mornings would always consist of a good twenty minutes waiting for Mummy to get ready. I was always rushing her to have her nappy changed, clean her teeth, get in the pushchair and not really thinking about what she wanted. This would inevitably lead to a meltdown, which then escalated with my next demand.
I realised that I had unwittingly been putting my own needs and high standards before my daughter. The ironic thing was that it wasn’t benefiting either of us. She’d be so unhappy by the time we’d gotten out to meet people that I could barely have a sip of coffee/string a sentence together anyway as she was so inconsolable.
As well as this, no sooner had we arrived anywhere, I was desperately trying to get her home and fed before nap time so I could do uni work. This often backfired as I would be so traumatised from the morning I’d just had that it would take me a good hour to get in the right head-space and then she’d wake up 30 minutes later.
It had gotten to the point where I would try anything for a bit of peace and sanity so one morning I decided to go against all of my natural tendencies, turn off my alarm and go with the flow.
The results of which were astounding. I couldn’t believe that in order to make my life easier I had to do just that: make my life easier. By slowing down the pace, my daughter morphed back into something resembling her old self almost as quickly as she had changed into an unreasonable monster. Three months on and things have gotten much more predictable again.
These are my top tips for navigating the 18 month itch:
1. TV is your friend
I used to be one of those mothers who thought that sticking your child in front of the TV was lazy parenting: now I know that it’s survival. Not only that, but I realised that, without her morning nap, my daughter needed the downtime. Spending a good hour glued to ‘Hey Duggee’ in the mornings has meant that, by the time we get out at 10am, she’s actually up for it and is generally pretty happy. Not only that, but she’s so mesmerised by it that I can sneak off to the toilet without worrying about her next suicide attempt and I can now keep up with WhatsApp!
2. Ditch the make up
Not completely of course. But are your mum-friends really going to notice or give a shit if you ditch the foundation or eye shadow for a day? I think not. Embracing the disheveled mum-stereotype has been liberating. Most days I still manage a full face of make-up but I care a lot less if I don’t.
3. Inviting people around
Along with looking like shit, as a mum it’s completely acceptable if your house looks like shit. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are limits, but I used to be so obsessed with my house looking immaculate that I never invited anyone over. These days I see guests for what they are: free childcare.
4. Relaxing the routine
Now, three months on, my daughter is back in a predictable routine of napping at 12pm and going to bed at 7pm but during the transition, this just didn’t work every day. Some days she would be falling asleep on the stairs at 11am; other days she would still be running around like a headless chicken! I tried to stick with 12pm as much as possible but some days she was so overtired by then that she only managed a cat-nap. On these days I compensated with an early bedtime.
5. Opening up
It’s hard to admit that you’re afraid of a one-year-old but, when she’s not on form, my daughter is terrifying. When she turned 18 months, I felt completely out of control with her – it made me miserable. When I spoke to others about her behaviour, it was a relief to hear that they had all been through a similar phase and that things had gotten easier.
Rather than being an unresponsive blob, my daughter is now her own person with her own thoughts, feelings and ideas about what she wants to do. When I try and get her dressed when she doesn’t want to get dressed, rather than getting frustrated and carrying on whilst she gets more and more hysterical, I’ve learnt to stop and try a different tact (like offering her a choice of outfit). Sometimes talking to her calmly, telling her I understand and giving her a cuddle relives my stress as much as it relieves hers.
Now that she is a little bit older and understands a lot more, bribery works a treat. Anything I want my daughter to do (get dressed, let me change her nappy/wipe her hands/put her shoes on), I just promise a reward at the end. Sometimes that might be an episode of Duggee or a snack, but at other times it’s things like watering the plants or going out to visit a friend. If I make something sound like a fun thing to do, she’s generally up for being tricked into doing it! Thankfully, even though she understands most of what I say, she’s still unbelievably stupid. The latest is that I’ve convinced her that the daddy long-legs in her room is her mate and that when he gets tired she has to go for a nap too! He’s also conveniently positioned above her changing mat so she can talk to him during nappy changes rather than flinging the nappy on the floor and refusing to lie down. I’m already dreading the day that Mr Spider moves out!
8. Have a break
There’s no doubt about it, the ‘terrible twos’ are a challenge and there are days when I’m counting down the seconds until bedtime. Try and carve some down-time into your day to unwind if you can. Recently I’ve started taking the dog out whilst my partner gives our daughter her dinner. I don’t think he’s clicked yet that I’m just trying to get out of child care and that I’m thinking about myself and not the dog’s ever-growing waistline, but happy mum: happy everyone and all that.
One thing I’ve realised, over the past couple of years, is that everything is a phase and that there are a million and one reasons why a child might be unhappy. Sometimes you just need to make it through until bedtime and write the day off. Inevitably on those days, as soon as I sit down, I miss my daughter and feel guilty for feeling so frustrated with her and just want to go and give her a cuddle (not that I would; I’m not insane). Whilst they’re learning to navigate the world, you’re learning to navigate motherhood and sometimes it’s not easy. Thankfully, a lot of the time toddlers are also super-cute and it’s amazing seeing them develop. I’ve learned to try and enjoy those moments as, after all, she’s not going to believe in Mr Spider forever.