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Apr 11 2014

Your Toddler’s Just Not That Into You

By at 9:50 am

Your Toddler's Just Not That Into You

This post is part of our Torah MOMentary series. This Shabbat we read Parashat Ahare Mot. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

This week’s portion is roughly halfway through the Torah. Here’s what I’ve noticed after writing about parenting for half a year: it’s hard to find the middle ground.

To acknowledge the miraculousness without sentimentalizing, without glossing over the day-to-day reality.

And to acknowledge the profound daily challenges without complaining, without dwelling in negativity.

Middle ground has been in short supply around here lately, and not just because I’m pregnant with #2 and on my own hormonal roller coaster. Like one of those tantalizingly unpredictable loves of my early 20s, Sylvie, about to turn 2, vacillates between extremes:

1. Unbearable cuteness. Example: “Thank you mama, for brush my teeth!”

2. Frustrating randomness.  Example: “Orange juice please! Orange juice please! Orange juice please!” Then, when I bring her some: “No, I want apple juice!”; weeps in utter despair. 

This week, in an attempt to understand what the hell is going on, I read a parenting book someone recommended to me. Your Two-Year-Old, by Louise Bates Ames, was written 34 years ago, and it totally blew my mind.

It’s an unsentimental book, written by a child development expert to help parents understand their toddlers, and it felt like the parenting equivalent of reading He’s Just Not That Into You in my 20s. It didn’t prop me up with encouragement in the face of inscrutable behavior, or tell me I was doing a great job dealing with a hard situation. Instead it just described and explained the behaviors I was witnessing, acknowledged some of them were rough, and suggested ways of dealing.

Reading Your Two-Year-Old made me see that I’d been in this unhelpful cycle with Sylvie–adoration, frustration, adoration, frustration. And it helped me snap out of it, realizing a truth I couldn’t quite access through meditation, therapy, or endless conversations:

It’s not about me. It’s not personal. She’s just doing her thing. And there’s no need for me to react.

"Your Two-Year-Old"

I know this intellectually, of course, but really knowing it is another thing. It feels so natural, so in-the-moment, to melt with adoration and pride at the cute moments, and to collapse into frustration and self-criticism during the hard ones. And yeah, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t get pissed sometimes.

But in general, reacting is just not helpful. I sort of thought I’d graduated from my years of romantic drama, but as they say, wherever you go, there you are. Here I am finding the same thing in parenting as I used to find in dating: it is hard to maintain a cool head in the face of unpredictability. It is hard not to take things personally.

Reading this week’s Torah portion, Ahare Mot, I was oddly reminded of Your Two-Year-Old. They both have a certain deadpan, it’s-not-personal, it’s-just-human-behavior take on things.

In Ahare Mot, we get the basic laws of Yom Kippur–atone for your sins, cleanse yourself, be forgiven. It has a prohibition against eating blood. And then a long list of no-nonsense sexual prohibitions, listing forbidden acts from incest to bestiality.

I don’t want to romanticize this portion: there’s also the unfortunate prohibition against homosexuality, and the punishment for these transgressions is high Biblical drama–the land will spew you out, etc. Indeed, just like me, and like toddlers and teenagers and 20-somethings everywhere, the Torah itself has extremes–of love and harshness, of compassion and of judgment.

But in general, I find this portion to be admirably matter-of-fact. Like my new favorite parenting book, the Torah acknowledges that we humans are complicated. We have mysterious, innate drives. We are going to want to do all sorts of crazy things.

And so the Torah gives us a detailed list of things not to do. And it gives us Yom Kippur, because it also acknowledges that we are not going to be able to control ourselves all the time. We’re going to stray, going to mess up, going to go to extremes, going to break rules, going to lose our temper. But it’s not the end of the world. There’s always a way out.

Reading Your Two-Year-Old and Ahare Mot side by side, I wonder if the Torah can be seen as a manual for dealing with our own complicated minds and hearts–a sort of Your Adult Self. To help us learn to see ourselves clearly, with love, but also with a little healthy distance from the moment-to-moment desires and drama, the same way I strive to see my daughter.

To acknowledge the miraculousness without sentimentalizing, without glossing over the day-to-day reality.

To acknowledge the profound daily challenges without complaining, without dwelling in negativity.

To find the middle ground.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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