The Terrible Two's

They’re here—the terrible two’s.


For Nate and Sam, the terrible two’s started at about 18 months. For Tess, having two older brothers seems to repress a lot of her toddler impulses. Instead of throwing her little body to the ground in a dramatic display of rage and frustration, she mostly rolls her eyes at her brothers, looking to Tighe and me, like, “Can you believe these idiots?”


Then she’ll turn and yell at Sam, reminding him to finish his breakfast or put his shoes and socks on.


At least somebody knows what’s going on around here.


But she has slipped into Two-dom on a few occasions. And I’m sure it’ll get worse before it gets better.


I first noticed the onset of the Terrible Two’s one morning when we were leaving open gym at Sylvester Powell. She had just finished playing with two of her friends for two solid hours in the big open space designed for toddlers and preschoolers. There are balls, giant foam blocks, a bounce house, indoor playground equipment, and lots of cars and tricycles and wagons.


She was exhausted. And she was hungry. And it was cold outside.


“Okay, Tess, let’s get your coat on!”


“No,” she said pushing it away. She stared straight ahead, like a boxer in the corner of the ring psyching herself up for the next round.


“Okaaay, but it’s cold outside,” I warned, in one of those know-it-all mom voices.


She’ll change her mind, I thought. I’ve had this same argument with Sam and Nate a million times and they always change their minds as soon as they step outside.


Holding hands, we stepped through the doors, and I waited for the cold air to take her breath away. But like a stone-cold killer, she didn’t even flinch.


“Want your coat?” I prepared to kneel down and slide it around her shoulders.


“No,” she growled, still staring straight ahead.


“Okay. Well, hold my hand, please, while we’re in the parking lot.”


“No.” Her lack of any affect told me that she was hungry and tired—a dangerous combination for anyone, but especially a toddler.


The parking lot curves a bit, making it difficult for cars to see us where we were standing in the crosswalk. And since everyone was leaving open gym at the same time, preparing to head home for lunch and naps, there was quite a bit of traffic.


I walked ahead of her—at five foot-two, drivers can see my frame more easily than they can her tiny one—but I also didn’t want to be too far away from her. Toddlers are unpredictable. You never know when they’re suddenly going to zigzag and dart out into traffic. Like a gecko. All kinds of weird, irregular lateral movements and then they suddenly go motionless, distracted by a spec of dust or a shiny object. The other day she suddenly sprawled on her back in the cereal aisle at Whole Foods, windshield-wiping her stylish little boots back and forth and contemplating a box of Kashi.


Back in the parking lot, she was making me nervous. I was regretting that I hadn’t found a closer parking space. Parking is crucial.


But five steps into the crosswalk, she froze. Not from the cold. But from stubbornness. Cold-hearted stubbornness.


“Tess, come on! Let’s go get lunch!”


A car was approaching the crosswalk. The driver, another mom, saw us and was slowing to let us pass.


“No,” Tess said, flatly.


Her face was still staring straight ahead, aiming for the other side of the crosswalk, but her eyes moved sideways. First, up at me and then, to the driver of the approaching car, almost daring her to hit us. She was like Katniss Everdeen, staring down President Snow, only Tess usually carries around a plastic Ninja Turtle Sword, not a bow and arrow.


The woman smiled and nodded, motioning with her fingers for us to pass.


“Come on, Tess!” I was starting to get impatient. It’s one thing to waste my time—that’s what being a mom is all about—but it’s another to waste the time of this poor woman, who’s also probably anxious about getting her kid fed to avoid a similar meltdown.


I moved toward her, but she saw me out of the corner of her eye and sprinted back the other direction, back onto the curb and down the sidewalk.


I glanced back to the woman in the car and waved her on. I pursed my lips in solemn gratitude and we had a moment of unspoken solidarity. “Fight the good fight,” I imagined her half-wave was telling me.


Encouraged, I turned, sprinted after Tess, and carried her, kicking and screaming, to the car. I restrained her in the car seat, dug into my pocket and found the other half of a cookie she had gotten at the grocery store that morning. Angry, frustrated, and defeated, she promptly threw it on the floor of the car.


Then immediately asked for it back. Still sulking, she munched on it quietly the whole car ride home.


A few weeks later we had a similar incident leaving Children’s Mercy Hospital with Sam and Jimmy. You know, for Sam’s second round of stitches.


All three kids were hungry this time. But Sam and Jimmy, older and wiser with age, knew what to do about it: cooperate with Erin and she’ll make sure you get nourished.


They hurried across the parking lot to our very mediocre parking spot—the ER was crowded that morning—and climbed up into the car.


Which is what Tess wanted to do. But she also needed to assert her independence first. Instead of using sidewalks and crosswalks like civilized people, she veered away from me so she could gallop across the grass, stumbling up and down the curb, and into the crosswalk.


She didn’t freeze this time. She kept moving forward, like an experienced pedestrian, only much, much slower, shifting her eyes left and right and left again, as if to note with pride how the cars, one of them a very large F-350 pickup truck, stopped for her.


She smirked, nodding to herself, like, “Yeah, this is how people walk.”


Perhaps the most embarrassing display of the pending Terrible Two’s was one evening at karate.


Nate’s karate class starts at 5pm, which is Witching Hour for small children, and it’s 45 minutes long. And on this particular Monday, Tess didn’t take a nap—very rare for her.


When she was showing signs of irritability earlier that afternoon, I actually thought to myself, “Maybe we should skip karate tonight.”


But we went anyway.


And the last fifteen minutes or so were a real treat.


The set up in Nate’s dojo is this: one big open space with a large mat in the middle and perimeter seating for parents, grandparents, siblings, whomever. And the mat is no joke. The students have to bow when they step onto it and bow every time they step back off. No shoes are allowed on the mat, so if I step on as a parent to help with something, I have to remove my shoes. They’re encouraging a sense of respect and reverence, and even I get intimidated by it.


Tess held it together for the first two-thirds of class. She and Sam were busy with consuming every last snack and stick of gum I had in my bag. Then they searched my pockets to see if there were any crumbs, rogue sticks of gum, or other snack remnants.


At the end of class, the students started sparring. Which is funny to watch. In pairs, they jive and jab and duck and kick the air without ever making actual contact. It looks like a very awkward and poorly choreographed dance.


Tess was starting to lose it. She was trying to tiptoe along the narrow black strip of wood that surrounds the karate mat, staring me down as she did so.


I raised my eyebrows at her, nodding my head and mouthing the words, “Good job, Tess!”


Which is apparently not the reaction she was going for.


Still staring at me, she raised one side of her mouth into a smile and lifted her eyebrows as if to say, “Watch…this…”


And she stretched one of her feet onto the mat, still in its bright pink Puma high top.


“Oh, no!” I said, grabbing her and hugging her to my lap.


“No, Mom, no!” she wrestled herself free and went right back onto the mat, with both feet this time.


I snatched her again and pinned her to the ground, trying to distract her with tickles. She giggled, but managed to pull herself away and stand up.


Composing herself, she walked slowly away from me on the wood floor where spectator traffic is allowed.


I relaxed, assuming she was just walking down to the other side of the room where Sam was positioned on the bench, watching the sparring matches.


But once she got a few yards away from me, she turned back to make eye contact, to make sure I was watching. Then she made a hard left onto the mat, weaving in and out of the sparring pairs! She was about to get kicked in the head, or punched, or stepped on.


I shot up out of my seat and took off after her, ducking and weaving to avoid getting hurt myself. It was very much like a slow-motion fight scene in The Matrix.


She had been giggling hysterically, proud of her mischievous actions, but when I dragged her off the mat and back to the big wooden bench, she started crying. And then screaming.


Tears were streaming down her face, snot pouring from her nostrils, and her face was blotchy and red with despair. As she realized our battle was over and that I was winning, her screams got louder.


I grabbed her with one arm and snatched up my bag with the other, marching towards the door before she could disrupt the class any further.


Nate and his partner had stopped their match to watch in silence as I dragged the screaming, flailing toddler from the building, and other pairs had also paused to see who would win our match. Hint: I would.


Since it was too cold to wait outside, we stopped in front of the door where Tess stopped crying.  She rubbed her eyes, licked the pool of snot from her top lip, and jammed her face into my shoulder, exhausted.  


And so begins our journey into the two’s. In just a few short weeks, our sweet, compliant baby turned into a rambunctious, loud two year-old. Her chatter rivals that of Nate. She likes to color on her potty chair with gel pens. She won’t touch a fruit or vegetable. She loves Judy Blume books. She wants to watch Moana, Frozen, and The Nutcracker. She carries her precious Blue Baby everywhere she goes. And best of all, she calls Tighe “Tighe.” She’s a real treat. Just don’t look her in the eye.