Three year olds – a survival guide

Years ago I remember a friend telling me that parenting a child aged three is magic. At the time I thought it was such a lovely thing to say.  Her declaration came at a time when I was still in that very early newborn phase which to me was also a bit like the honeymoon phase only much less “relations”.  Those early days when everything was so dishevelled but it was also this beautiful time of love and awe and hormones.

I think in parenting the degree of difficulty is wildly subjective because whilst we have had many a moment of magic, the last 12 months living, raising and loving a three year old has basically kicked me to the curb.

Excuse me whilst I take a break from writing this so that I can put the said 3 year old back in bed for the 6th time in the last 40 minutes.  Bedtime can feel endless and then suddenly I get called back into his room for no other reason other than because he wants just one more kiss, one more cuddle and then the kicker, he tell me that he loves me.  How can I possibly begrudge bedtime when that happens?   That first, unsolicited “I love you mummy” untethered my heart and gave me something that can’t be captured by words.

I wonder if we spend every age milestone thinking the next one will be easier?  We are mere weeks away from celebrating Charlie’s 4th birthday and my hopes are high.  How many parents of four year olds are reading this and smirking at my naivety? Remembering that for a long time I feared I would not become a mother is a fact that is not at all lost on me and I am acutely aware that it is a privilege to be a mother. I still think “how the hell did I get so lucky?”  But that doesn’t mean that I am immune from the challenges motherhood can bring, I think it means I’m human.

Anyway, I’ve taken a few lessons away from the past 12 months and since sharing is caring, I’m here to share:

Tantrums.  They come in many forms and are sent to drive you to distraction and to break your spirit.  They are best approached with reckless abandon because you have zero power. Somehow you have to give the three year old the exact amount of attention that prevents further tears and meltdowns but be sure that whatever it is you are meant to do to disarm the situation you will do the exact opposite thereby making the tantrum worse. Of this you can be absolutely certain.

Learn to lower all expectations.  It is quite liberating when your standards are at ground level.  About everything really. Food, cleanliness, choice of music, body fluids, sleep.  Go underground if you must.  I once made this divine spinach and ricotta tart, renamed it Dinosaur Pie, I hashtagged the shit out of it and thought I was about to have my moment in the sun.  20 minutes later I was serving peanut butter toast.  This was back when expectations were high.  I still serve Dinosaur Pie but with the lowest of expectations comes a certain amount of freedom.  I’ve discovered that the success of parenting is not something that should be defined by your child’s vegetable intake.  My child knows how much I love him just as much as he knows how much he hates spinach.

Let go of the concept that there is surely a “right way” to do things.  I am 30 seconds away from pulling out of the driveway when a very loud noise emits from the seat behind me. The noise is insistent and the demand is great.  The toddler needs his blue matchbox car, you know the one, the “funny, silly” one.  Charlie owns maybe 50 matchbox cars and a high percentage of them are blue but what makes one particularly funny and silly is a complete mystery to me. This blue car could be effing well anywhere. Silently cursing myself for buying so many matchbox cars, I do what every child psychologist/parenting expert says I shouldn’t do and that is I give in and get out of the car in search of the offending blue car. A quick calculation in my mind suggests that the time it takes for me to do this, far outweighs the consequences of not doing it.

Obviously I am never going to write a parenting advice column.  Which is kind of my point.  How the hell do you know what is the right thing to do?  Easy.  You don’t.  At least I am making peace with the not knowing.

Apparently three year olds have to learn how to “lose”. We learnt this the hard way.  Charlie and MM were having a race to see who could get undressed the fastest.  (Hidden agenda – child gets in the bath.)  Anyway, for the last 2 years this has been a race that Charlie wins.  It’s a set up of course and yet never fails to do the trick.  Only just a few weeks ago MM decided to mix it up and thought it would be stupid funny to this time win himself.  Cue a tantrum of volcanic proportions. Charlie was outraged at the indignity of losing and whilst a pre-bedtime tantrum is the last thing I am compelled to do with my time it actually was a little bit funny.  Suffice to say, we spent the next week religiously reading Pig The Winner at bedtime.

Do not attempt to reason.  Three year olds have a very incomplete and irrational way of thinking.  Case in point. I peel an apple for Charlie’s afternoon tea. Because since the beginning of time he has flat out refused to eat an apple with the skin on it.  Remembering that since I’ve lowered my expectations around food I have chosen to not worry about his fibre intake and so I peel.  Only on this occasion he flips his lid and downright demands I put the skin back on.  Sweet Jesus I swear it is like I have shattered his world into a million pieces.

For all of those times in crazy town there were hundreds of days that were wonderful and surprising. Motherhood has stripped me bare and I know that Charlie is a blessing beyond measure.  It is impossible to understand how someone can be so loud and so defiant be so sweet and so precious.  We have more laughs, more sleep and more time-outs.  He may have been asleep for no more than 30 minutes and on some days the sheer relief is profound and yet on other evenings I miss him while he sleeps.  I still check on him every night and place my hand on his heart and wait and watch for his chest to rise so I can know that he is breathing.  I don’t know if this is a product of my own anxieties or a rite of passage for motherhood.  I leave his room and wonder how it can be that he is a part of me and that he is mine.  For now at least.

I am certain that all mothers say that their children are extraordinary beings, but holy shit my son truly is. He is wild, kind and funny.  He radiates joyfulness and his laughter has the capacity to buckle my heart.  He is full of crazy questions, theories and ideas and I’m astonished by the way his mind works and that his natural state is one of innocent curiosity.

Charlie had me from the very beginning as I held him as a newborn and now as we enter our fourth year I will continue to hold him, physically and metaphorically.  I’m clueless to what four will be like but I no longer think that the age milestones are all that relevant.  Besides, whoever coined the term “terrible twos” must not have parented a three year old.  In a way I’ve come to accept that there is no right way to do toddlerhood.  It feels like it will last forever and some of the best advice I was ever given and probably the only advice I would share if asked is that the days are long but the years are short. 

Some clichés really do have a truth to them.

He will always be my first baby and he is my last. He is my one child so this is it.  My one chance.  I don’t get to do the newborn phase again, I won’t get to do the toddler phase again and though I don’t always have to enjoy it, I do know that my intention for now is to be more present and not wish I had a fast forward button on our lives.












2 comments on Three year olds – a survival guide

  1. Tanya
    July 19, 2017 at 11:40 am (7 months ago)

    Ha ha……I can really relate to this post! Wait until they turn 4 though… boy just turned 4 and with it came extra cheekyness and attitude. Add to the mix a 18 month old brother…….

    • Tracey
      July 21, 2017 at 8:25 am (7 months ago)

      Our soon to be 4 year old has started the eye roll and I’m terrified! I love the cheeky side of it but the attitude will be interesting. Hats off for you managing also with an 18 month old. I’m always in awe of parents with more than one child!


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