We haven't yet arrived at this stage, but I can certainly see it on the horizon. We're (luckily, I think) still at the stage of I find myself noticing that I must have not paid close enough attention for one minute, because my son clearly is eating something, and the only place he could have gotten it is the floor where it might equally be old food, thread, or a rock, and I have to struggle for ten minutes to get his mouth open so that I can get it out if it's something he'll choke on or is bad for him, by which time, he's swallowed it.
Toddlers, with their flawless skin, soft hair and wide-eyed stares,
are the pinnacle of human beauty, says Maggie O'Farrell. But as the
mother of a 21-month-old, she also realises their behaviour isn't
always quite so pretty
Saturday March 26 2005
The other week, I went to a photographic exhibition about
emigration. There were shots of long, snaking queues at Ellis Island,
of half-deserted villages, of families and their baggage on quay
sides, of people living in squalid, crowded rooms.
Among these were pictures taken on the boats to America. The
journey, the captions said, often took more than six weeks. In one, a
young woman sat with her back against the railings of the boat. With
one arm, she held a tiny baby to her breast. The other arm was
extended stiffly, grasping the hem of a coat belonging to a small
child. You could tell she had done this quickly, without looking,
without thinking. Her eyes were glazed, her face quite blank.
Somewhere in her brain a synapse had sent a message straight to
the muscles in her arm: child heading towards danger, possibly mortal,
therefore seize it.
The child was a blur in the corner of the shot, legs and arms
moving like pistons, intent on leaving the frame. I was very struck
by this photograph, not only because I had with me a child of about
the same size. And not only because, while I was looking at it, I was
obliged several times to perform the very same lunge-and-grab
movement to prevent my son from trapping his fingers in a door, from
switching off all the lights, from seizing the tail of a passing dog.
How on earth did this woman cope, with a toddler on a boat journey
to America, I wondered? How did she, and thousands like her, deal
with the demands of a small, ebullient, fractious person for over a
month at sea?
They belong to a strange race, these small people. The
word "toddler" is demeaning and also insufficient. They don't toddle:
they run, they hurtle, they stamp, they jump, they fall, they crash.
They never, ever toddle. But there isn't really another term for what
comes between babyhood and childhood, that distinct, unignorable
It's possible that they are just difficult to define. At times, they
remind me of nothing so much as the leprechauns in the Irish
folktales I used to have read to me when I was young. Contrary to the
Eiresatz tripe peddled about the globe, leprechauns are not cute wee
men in green. They are the great, indigenous tribes of Ireland,
driven underground by invading Celts. They are tricky, furious,
potent beings. The rest of the living world must respect and appease
them, not ignore or ride roughshod over them. They have huge egos and
can wreak terrible destruction if crossed or handled in the wrong
way. They are like us, yet not.
But there the similarities end. My 21-month-old son is not several
inches high, nor does he live in a hawthorn tree, and he only
sometimes wears green. My life with him is unrecognisable from the
one before he arrived, and inexplicable to most other people.
A friend phoned the other day and asked what I was up to. How could
I tell her I was sitting on a basket of wet laundry (to stop him
ransacking it and hurling it about) with one foot on the phone socket
(to stop him unplugging it), while with my free hand I was assisting
him in chopping up a wooden carrot (to distract him from the idea of
grabbing the receiver)?
They are, I think, the very pinnacle of human beauty. Some babies
are beautiful, and some definitely aren't, but all toddlers are.
Breathtakingly, perfectly, undeniably beautiful. Even ugly adults
were once lovely toddlers. It's the flawless skin, still smooth with
baby fat, the dense limbs, the still-soft hair, the small nose, the
dented knuckles, the wide-eyed stare. Don't plastic surgeons refer to
the angles, planes and dimensions of a toddler's face when creating
new features for people? It's no coincidence that artists have always
represented angels as winged toddlers. They are incarnations of a
fleeting aesthetic ideal. Perhaps this is nature's survival trick.
When the human race is at its most exasperating, it is also
at its most physically appealing.
Toddlers are past the all-encompassing dependency of babyhood, but
pretty much pre-verbal. They have urgent, towering desires, but a
limited range for expressing them. This calls for particularly weird
brands of diplomacy, negotiation, mime. My son understands an awful
lot more than he can say. He can decode quite complex sentences ("If
you go to the door and find your shoes, we'll go to the swings"), but
his vocabulary is limited to a handful of nouns.
His speech, like Cantonese, is largely tonal. "Ah-dah" can,
depending on how he says it, mean "all gone", "again", "at-choo"
or "oh dear". And at times, he will point at something on a crowded
shelf. "Ah!" he says, looking back at me. I offer him the teddy. He
shakes his head. "Ah," he says again, pointing. I try the CD case,
the jack-in-the-box, the book, the cup, the train, the pen. He is
near tears now. "Ah-ah-ah!" he shouts, pointing desperately, and I am
filled with a terrible sympathy. How dreadful to want something so
badly but not be able to communicate it.
Toddlers are a mass, a tangle, of desires and needs. They want
THIS and they want it NOW . Two seconds' time will be too late. They
are operatic,Shakespearean, in their extremes of passion, rage, love,
despair. And the ways in which these emotions are expressed is at
once so all-encompassing and so comically textbook, it can be like
watching a bad acting workshop.
If my son is pleased by something - a passing aeroplane, a song, a
cat on a garden wall - he will raise his hands aloft like an
evangelist at a prayer meeting, and hit top C with a shriek of
unalloyed joy. If enraged or upset, he will buckle at the knees and
cast himself face down on the floor, a puppet with severed strings.
It goes without saying that one state can be replaced by the other
within a matter of seconds.
I often think they represent our elemental natures; they are our
essences, unmoderated by the niceties of manners, behavioural codes,
social mores. Sometimes he is so pleased to see me that he will grip
the skin of my neck and twist it like fabric. It is agony, but the
feeling is entirely mutual. When I am away from him, I often feel
quite deranged by my desire to see him again. The only difference is
that I know that it is wrong to give people Chinese burns, even in
the name of affection.
I take him to a friend's house and, within seconds of our arrival,
he is on his hands and knees, dragging out whatever he can find from
under the sofa. I prise him away from this activity and he is
suddenly enthralled by a pair of shoes left lying in a corner. He
examines them closely, like an archaeologist with a find, gives them
a quick lick, then puts his feet into them and shuffles about. He is
offered a biscuit and he takes five.
My point is not how badly behaved my son is, although maybe he is,
but that he is doing what we'd all like to do. Wouldn't we all like to
know what our friends keep under their sofas? Don't we all want five biscuits
instead of one? Haven't we, at one time or another, felt like hijacking a
pair of someone else's shoes?
Of course, there are many things he does that I find baffling and
downright infuriating. I do not, for example, have much sympathy with
the desire to hurl things into the toilet. These days, I often clean my
teeth balanced on one leg, spread-eagled, as if in an obscure yoga pose.
One hand holds the toothbrush, one hand restrains my son, and one foot is
stretched behind me to clamp the toilet seat shut. If I didn't need the other
foot to stand on, I'm sure I'd be using it for something else. Meanwhile, I'm
trying to say - calmly but firmly, as parenting manuals dictate, but through
a gagging froth of toothpaste - "No, no. You are not to throw my mobile
phone into the toilet."
Their saving grace, when phones do land in the toilet and when you
realise too late that the cheese grater is inside the washing machine with
your most precious clothes, is that they are interested in everything. If
curiosity "weds us to the world", as Graham Swift wrote in Waterland, then
toddlers are engaged in a passionate, uxurious, intimate marriage. Watches,
stairs, lorries, lights, buses, sirens, planes, buttons, zips, latches,
All the things we take for granted are, to a toddler, like
encountering the Virgin Birth. Some things hold their attention for seconds, others
for days. My son entertained himself for an entire weekend with six teaspoons.
He put them into the washing machine, one by one, he took them out again,
one by one. He pushed them around in a box, he threw them on to the floor,
laughing at the tinkling noise, he pushed them into the gaps between the sofa
cushions and took them out again. Over and over again.
For weeks now he has been enamoured to the point of obsession with
bins. In any shape or form, but especially the big council-issue bins
around the streets where we live. He will snap upright in his buggy and point. "
BIN!!! " he will exclaim, like someone encountering a lost sibling.
Yes, I reply, it's a bin. "Bin! Bin! Bin!" he squeals, drumming his heels,
twisting round to see if I, too, am appreciating this vision. Mmm, I agree, a
We stop to admire. "Binbinbinbinbinbin!" he shouts, hoping to
engage a few passers-by. He has to get out of the buggy and walk around it twice
and I have to follow, stopping him several times from plunging his fingers
into its malodorous depths. Then we move on. "Bye bye bin," he will say,
soulfully, turning around until it is lost from sight. Fifty yards
further on, another green plastic bin will hover into view and the process
There's a cliche that children make you look anew at flowers and
clouds and bubbles and kittens. Maybe they do, but toddlers also want to
share with you the hidden wonder of bins, drains, carpet fluff and gravel.
With a toddler, your life is a series of daily milestones
(negotiating yourself and the child into clothes, getting through a meal without it
ending up on the floor), of bizarre conversations (him: "Meow! Meow!"
me: "I'm not sure otters say that") and strange activities.
The minutiae of this life can give you an overpowering sense of
insight into the lives of other women, both now and historically. (I do
realise that men look after toddlers, too, and I am more than supportive of that.
But in my experience it is usually the women. In music "classes", I sing The
Wheels On The Bus, with actions, along with 30 other women who used to chair
meetings and draw up contracts and broker deals, while 30 toddlers
mill about, ignoring us and the music. Once in a blue moon, a lone man
turns up, looking nervous and bashful.) When I am admiring a very ordinary bin
for the sixth time in a morning or consoling my son for the loss of a raisin
down a grating or struggling to get him into his coat and hat and shoes
before his patience and mine expires or trying to distract him from a gathering
rage, I find myself thinking: this is what women do, this is what women have
Babies are more portable, less intrusive. Yes, they, too, take over
your life and, yes, they destroy your sleep and your sanity; but it is
having a toddler that has made me meditate on the private mathematics of female
I could read any numbers of books, pore over museum displays, watch
100 films and I still wouldn't know what it was really like to be alive
in the Napoleonic wars or to be an Icelandic fishwife. But looking after a
toddler forms a kind of datum within variant lives. They are so elemental
that they can only provoke the same reactions, the same pleasures, the same
frustrations and challenges in us all.
I peel him from the carpet, where he is prostrate with rage because
the satsuma would not stay balanced on the chair arm, sit him on my lap,
and I think about my mother, with three, or both my grandmothers, with
four, or the mother of a friend of mine, who had nine. How did they do it? He
wails and screams because it has been a long time since lunch and I have to
hold him on one hip while hastily assembling baked beans on toast and I
think about those women who couldn't, who can't, open a cupboard and reach
for a tin. How do you explain to a hungry, pre-verbal child that there is
I stagger from the car, clutching him, a buggy, spare nappies,
wipes, a coat, a hat, some snacks, a drink of milk, his wellies, mittens, a
toy or two, change for the parking meter and I think: what if I had twins?
A few years ago, I went on a tour around a colonial mansion in
Patagonia. We were shown the ballroom, inlaid with marquetry, the surprisingly
short beds, the dressing rooms filled with silks and lace, the
greenhouse with its perspiring plants. In a basement at the back of
the house was a laundry room, complete with mangles and huge tubs for
washing. In the doorway was a pair of brass hooks, worn thin with use.
"What are they for?" I asked the guide.
"A swing," she replied. I must have looked confused because she
added,"For a child."
I often think about those Patagonian laundry maids, folding their
sheets,ironing the silks and lace from upstairs, all the while
swinging a child in the doorway to keep it happy, to pass a long
afternoon. Some things don't change at all.
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