It is so hard to fit in everything I want for my family– everything I ought to do, everything we could do.
Obviously. I know I am one woman, with one life. My life comes with its own special set of circumstances, as does yours. Right now mine includes a toddler, pregnancy, and teaching part-time. A few months ago I was basically in survival mode, but here in the lovely second trimester I have the energy to think through what I want for this season of life, now that we are thoroughly in the toddler days.
I used to have margin to get things done if I ran out of time. I could just pull an all-nighter, or run out the door without breakfast. No longer! Now, that skipped meal or sleep deprivation means not nourishing my nursing baby or taking care of my pregnant body. Now there’s one inside, needing me to rest and take vitamins, and another outside, needing to be carried and sung to. Humans have always been limited creatures, but motherhood is an odd mix of discovering both unbelievable strength and limited-ness. The task is so much bigger than meeting basic needs– I’m teaching children how to live a life!– and I could never accomplish all I’d like to.
My everyday work is not comparing my life to others’ lives: my habit must (must, must, must) be to face my day, the day ahead of us, and ask God what he would have us to do with it. How does that friend of mine do it all? I have no idea. Really. My morning prayers are not always consistent, but this is partly why they should be. How often is someone else’s life and accomplishments a source of anxiety in my own? How often do I find myself drowning in the anxieties and tasks of the day, without really knowing what was actually important for that day?
I happened to be in my car, listening to the radio while working on this post. The reports came in from all the world: families in Syria whose homes were burned to the ground, refugees flooding from Congo, wars. The truth is, at the end of the day, if my children have known my love and the love of God, it has been a “good day.” Well-loved children, safe and fed. Everything else– good and important though it may be– is really icing on the cake. I use the term “a good day” quite often below, so keep in mind that I recognize these are really “icing” goals. They are important and good to me, but only that– important and good! Here are the basic goals I came up with.
1. Time Outside
I get lazy and hot in the summer, and I hate being cold in the winter. I am usually the impediment here. But being outside for long stretches is so important, even for very little ones! Charlotte Mason wrote that children need to form a “reverence for life” by daily time outside. Their bodies need the sunshine and fresh air, their hands need to be touching rocks and dirt and flowers, their minds need to be observing the seasons and the plants and around them, and their souls need to be surrounded by beauty. There have been many days this summer I would prefer to stay in the cool indoors, “getting stuff done.” It feels unproductive sometimes to be wandering around the outdoors with a toddler. I need to remember I am nourishing my child’s whole person in a lasting way.
Charlotte Mason talks about this one quite a bit, too. Even in the midst of me teaching or blogging or cleaning, my little one is forming habits. It would be nice if he only formed habits when I left the kitchen to work with him. But no, toddlers are becoming who they are all day long. I find that all-too-common advice to “let the housework go and enjoy my kids!” frustrating… because my house is already always on the verge of being really unkempt. So I am training myself to slow down: to see his little person, always, whatever I’m doing. Efficiency is not necessarily the golden virtue anymore; mindfulness, and patience are my goals now. Making dinner is slower, because I let Janio help stir. Getting out the door takes longer, because I am teaching Janio to come to me when I need him, and not just chase him down. It takes time to teach him how to solve problems on his own and what to do when he’s upset. A good day doesn’t have to mean I let the dishes go and played trains all afternoon (though that might be lovely here and there). It’s more that I saw my son and taught him as we did the things we needed to do.
We speak Spanish almost exclusively within our family. We want our children to be bilingual, so everything that can possibly happen in Spanish, happens in Spanish. Whatever language is being used, though, we talk to Janio a lot. We discuss what we’re passing in the car, who’s coming to visit, how Mommy makes pancakes, and what the bunny outside is doing. It feels silly sometimes, yes, to be talking to someone who can barely talk back. I am especially self-conscious about this in Spanish, which is not my native language! And there are many times when Janio is engrossed in cars or watching out the window, when I soak in the silence and don’t say a word. But in my years of teaching, I can always tell which students merely got talked at, and which ones had parents who took the time to converse. We are modeling speech all day long, and that includes sentence form, richness of vocabulary, gentleness of tone, and the kindness in our expression.
There are popular links on Pinterest full of activities for toddlers, and some are really fun. But I don’t feel guilty when we don’t get to them and I’m okay keeping it simple. Children are born so curious already that I suspect providing the right environment is more important than structured activities. We try to keep the electronics to a minimum and to have a small number of quality toys that encourage imaginative play. We cheer little accomplishments like connecting a train track or setting his place at the table. With lots of exposure to nature and stories and Janio comes up with quite a lot to do himself. And I think that’s healthy. A good day is one of those days where screens were mostly off and I did not rely on Thomas the Train in Spanish at any point. That did happen a lot first trimester. But on a good day, Janio was surrounded by interesting things (read: bugs in the garden, or sand at the playground, or pots in the kitchen) that developed both mind and body.
5. Exposure to Language and Sounds
A good day also means we have read books together, recited poetry, and sung songs. My plan isn’t to push flashcards and reading skills early, honestly. It’s okay if that happens naturally, but there’s no rush to push “skills.” Give me a secure student with a sense of wonder and good habits any day. There is a certain window for language, music, and sound that cannot truly be revisited later, and I’d rather emphasize those things. I try to play music in French, Spanish, or English. We regularly say little rhymes and poems. I try to fill our shelves with books that are beautiful and beautifully written, with good stories and characters. Right now Janio often only cares about turning the pages (with several ripped pages to show for it), and I often have to give him a container of grapes to make it a nice time. But as we snuggle in together every day, he is acquiring the habit of books, and learning that they are pleasant and important.
The days fly by, and that’s why I need to boil down my grand plans to lists like this. My to-do lists often include read together, time outside, etc, because it’s so easy for those things to get crowded out by plan Spanish Class, clean the bathroom, or just… scrolling through Facebook.
Parenting is so such a gift. But especially in the U.S., we are not like mothers and fathers of the past, with wisdom from the ages guiding us. Now there are a million voices, all with different opinions, shouting for our attention. I am here to say that yes, these toddler years are short and yes, there are a ton of things we could be doing!– but the important things are simple. Not at all easy, but simple.
What is important to you for the toddler years? What are your basic goals for a “good” day?