The real game changers parents secretly celebrate
The following was originally published in “The Good Life Men’s Magazine”
As I was gathering up Macklin’s shoes and jacket, waiting for that perfect moment to snatch him up from the rainbow carpet where he and his classmates were sitting entranced by storytime, his teacher came up with a rare smile on her face. “Mack put his nap stuff back in his bag all by himself today!” she nearly shouted.
Stuffing haphazardly a blanket, tiny pillow and fitted crib sheet into a medium-sized duffel bag would in no other circumstance warrant such delight. But for a 2-year-old grinding it out in the three’s room, it’s a milestone worthy of celebration. In all honesty, it’s the only kind of milestone that matters… the kind that takes some of the heavy lifting off my plate (or, in this case, off his teacher’s plate).
These non-traditional milestones, as my wife and I have come to call them, are the true game changers of child development when examined through the selfish lens of a parent who’s back always hurts. The “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” books are full of advice on things like when your baby should start sleeping through the night, sitting up, crawling and walking, but now that those milestones are well in the rearview, I’ve come to appreciate the more subtle benchmarks of growing up. Sleeping through the night was, indeed, amazing, but nothing compared to what lay ahead.
No matter which brand or style of bottle or sippy cup you choose, ultimately it’s always at least one more part to wash. But first, disassemble. And maybe lose. Or break. Or drop down the garbage disposal, at which point you must decide how much you really trust your dishwasher to get clean something your child will literally suck on after it has visited the deepest depths of foul.
Saying goodbye to bottles is like saying goodbye to your first car. Both are strictly utilitarian, nobody’s first choice and always missing a piece that may or may not affect performance. It also means welcoming back some precious square footage in your cupboard. I can’t tell you how big a sacrifice it was having to go downstairs to retrieve a proper scotch glass on steak night.
Their First Self-Delivered Bite
The day your child learns to feed himself is the first major milestone on the road to true self sufficiency… the last stop being potty training. It’s also the first day you get to begin thinking about the day when you’ll once again be able to feed yourself an entire meal uninterrupted. I’m still waiting for that day — Mack knows how to get food into his mouth, but he’s not winning any gold medals for efficiency or cleanliness. Side note: toddlerhood should come with a free dog; real time cleanup is a wonderful thing.
When Mack figured out how to shovel food into his own mouth, it immediately freed his mom and I up from having to sit by his side throughout meal time. We suddenly had time to finish preparing the rest of dinner, throw some dishes in the dishwasher or run a rag over the counter. You can get a lot accomplished in the 45 minutes it takes a toddler to consume six chicken nuggets and some corn.
Don’t get me wrong. Crawling around on the floor playing with toys, pushing Macklin on the swing at the park and carrying him around town on my shoulders are some of my favorite times. But when he slowly started figuring out how to play by himself, it was one of the more proud parenting moments of my life.
I could see his creative genius taking root as the newly formed neural connections in his brain began firing in rapid succession trying desperately to keep up with the unfolding possibilities before him. He was a mad scientist clocking in for his first day of work inside his own private lab of destruction. And while he’s busy destroying, I get some work done in the next room door without worrying he’s going to accidentally roll down the stairs.
The Carseat Climb
Parenthood brings with it a range of challenges and rewards, heartache and joy. All boiled down, though, parenting is basically the intersection of three things: boundless love, intense exhaustion and good ol’ fashioned lower back pain.
With a ten pound baby who has steadily maintained his 99th percentile weight average since birth, imagine what a magnificent surprise it was for my wife to walk around her Subaru to find Macklin already sitting — and smiling — in his car seat. She didn’t even get the groceries all loaded up before she texted me with the good news. As I read the announcement, my back instantly relaxed, almost audibly so.
You can rank these and other milestones however you’d like, but there will be no disagreement on what stands at the top of the list. When your child looks into your eyes and blurts out an “I love you, Daddy,” good luck, my friends. Gooooood luck. It’ll never get any better than that.