Raising toddlers is hard.
This is not a radical statement, nor should it contain information new to anyone who has had toddlers, met toddlers, read about toddlers, knows the word toddlers… Point is, it is a well-known and thoroughly-accepted truism.
I’m not trying to challenge the truth of it: while I think many mainstream-Western parenting practices and philosophies do make the toddler years more difficult (for just one example: by pushing infants away when we should hold them close, then hovering when we should let them explore), I am not about to play a round of Blame the Mother and say it’s our parenting that makes it so. Raising toddlers is hard, challenging, difficult, demanding, requiring us to stretch our minds and our hearts — and our lungs, whether to yell or take yet another deep, supposedly-calming breath.
I think I’ve figured out at least part of why. (And you know I’m gonna say kyriarchy is at the root of it.)
What I’ve realized is that toddlers are triggering. They have almost no sense of body-boundary, feel free to climb and touch and grab whatever part of us they please, they don’t listen to our Nos, they refute our (and the obvious-to-us, “objective”) reality, they ask and ask and ask again, yell at us and throw a completely out of proportion fit if they don’t like the answer — and then try to do it anyway.
Even if you — like me — have been lucky enough to have escaped being raped thus far in life, I don’t know anyone who is not a straight white well-off cis male (and very few of those) who hasn’t been abused in some form; and what I described above, in any other context, would be recognized as the actions of an abuser.
I’m not calling toddlers abusers, of course. I emphatically do not subscribe to the school of thought that we enter the world as little monsters/devils/dictators/savages who need to be “civilized” (or worse, “whipped into shape”) by adults. Rather, we enter this world primed to attach to and learn from the older humans around us, and all of childhood is naught but practice at adulthood. That’s why playing “house” and pretend “work” are universal, why toddlers start mimicking us as soon as possible, why they always want to “help” (no matter how much their “help” is actually a hindrance).
No, the problem is not with toddlers, who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, but with the triggers we as parents have brought to this gig: the problem is that we were abused in the first place, that our bodies were not considered ours, that our nos were ignored, that others felt free to violate us, that those who should have protected us instead turned aside and pretended not to see. And for that, of course, I blame the kyriarchy.
In my case, my triggers almost all originate in childhood: a 7-years-older brother who wouldn’t stop tickling me and wouldn’t believe my shouted “NO” (and would use his greater strength to prevent escape or retaliation); the other children (“friends”, supposedly) who would throw away food/treats/toys rather than share with me (just to deny it me); more obscurely but perhaps more universally, regularly not being heard or listened to or believed or obeyed or respected, because I was a child (and a much younger child, at that, surrounded by adults and near-adults); and the laughing — always, the laughing, the laughing when I was hurt, the being laughed at for being me, the laughing at jokes at my expense, the laughing and making it my fault I wasn’t laughing too, the laughing and making me laugh even as I cried, even as I raged inside.
There is an overarching theme here of powerlessness: I was frustrated in the exercise of my own power, abused by those wielding power over me, so when I am confronted with a toddler just learning to exercise his own power, my memories are activated — triggered.
The Boychick doesn’t do those exact things, of course. That’s why they’re triggers, not further abuse and trauma. (And let me take a moment here to recognize just how easy I had it compared to some. I will not dismiss or belittle my own real pain, but I know that too, too many had it — have it — so, so much worse.) Others are attacked by their children, have their children do things that were shamed or beaten out of them (wasting food, talking back, refusing to pick up), hear words and phrases that deny their reality in ways that abusers did to them.
These things are rarely problematic in themselves (even children prone to violent outbursts rarely are capable of actually damaging us, more than superficially at least), but they come too close to sore spots in our past, and suddenly we are back there, we are back then, we are back to being who we were back then, we are powerless, we are young and small and weak in a world of the old and big and strong. And to seek to protect ourselves, our hurting selves who deserve so much love and care and gentleness, we make ourselves the old, the big, the strong, and we lose sight of the reality of our comparative sizes and strengths and knowledge and experience, and we attack back — we yell, we spank; we punish, we shame, we mock; we grab and shove and force; we withhold our love and our approval and the connection all children crave. We hurt our babies because we were hurt, are hurting.
This is almost the definition of — perhaps the origin of? — kyriarchy: creating hierarchies out of whole cloth, using our oppression to justify oppressing others, becoming bullies from a well-intentioned but inevitably inimical desire for self-protection. It is “us v them” because we are too damaged to see — and let ourselves a part of — a healthy whole human “we”. And so the pain is perpetuated.
In such a cycle, it can be hard to be optimistic. There are ways to mitigate — disrupt — this cycle: by recognizing that our reactions are not rational, and not really in response to our toddlers’ actions; by identifying their real origins; by practicing mindful breathing and mindfulness meditation and playful, joyful parenting; by directing our real and righteous anger about our pain at the appropriate sources — our abusers, the onlookers who did not come to our aid, and ultimately the society that allowed and encouraged those actions and inactions — rather than our innocent toddlers; and eventually, gradually, eliminating the triggers of their power over us altogether.
But we are human, imperfect, imperfectable. We will continue to be triggered, with and without recognizing it as such, we will continue to become infuriated, to respond inappropriately. Are we dooming our children to a lifetime as kyriarchs? I am not so pessimistic: from my own life, and in my observation, I think it matters at least as much how we talk about, and what we do about, our less than ideal behaviors. We must not fall into the abuse-apology trap, in which “I’m sorry” is just so many words, and works only to ensure that the abused will stick around to be hurt again. But there is something to be said for modeling making amends, teaching through demonstration (if too-oft repeated) the process of acknowledging and naming our past pains, our current flaws, and taking the steps necessary to reduce our risk of being so hurt — and acting out inappropriately — again.
Toddlers are triggering, yes. But this means we are daily — hourly, constantly — offered opportunities to practice being better people, showing our children what it means to live in kyriarchy without consenting to its further creation.
Not one said it would be easy, this parenting gig, this anti-kyriarchy work, this life. But I cannot stop believing that it is ultimately so worth it.