On days like today I find myself staring at my 19-month-old daughter with a ridiculous grin on my face. This grin is often interrupted with one of my trademark cackles that result in me throwing my head back when someone says or does something hilarious. Though she is not my sole source of entertainment, my daughter's antics are increasingly becoming a major source of joy in my daily routine.
Babies are great, but so far toddlers are better. And so far 19-month-old toddlers are the best.
Nights like tonight I look at Natalie during dinner time, and I wonder what it would like to be inside her head, to be in this world of different rules, new experiences, and emerging vocabulary. She holds a fork in her left hand and a fist full of spaghetti -- her first that she's ever willingly eaten -- in her right. She shoves the pasta into her mouth only after titling her head back to look up at the ceiling.
"FAN!" she shouts.
I ask Matt what the world would be like if we all had to shove food into our mouths while looking up at the ceiling, shouting words.
She wants crackers, but they must be broken into pieces. This isn't me being cautious. This is my daughter's requirement. "Crackers! Break!"
On to the strawberries, she picks one out of the Tupperware by hand, then attaches it to her fork. She loves forks, even if in this particular circumstance they are definitely redundant. Still, it's a step in the right direction in terms of table etiquette, so I'll take it, I think as I look at my shirtless child with a tomato sauce goatee.
Today's nap ended prematurely when an ambulance's siren blazed outside our house, so our child is more tired than usual for this time of night, but after getting cleaned ("CLEAN!" she shouts at her hands and high chair tray) she runs for her Dora the Explorer ball. Then she hops into our computer chair in the living room-cum-office, playing with the Mac trackpad in a scarily precise way that makes us think she's getting ready to send some important client emails. Despite a tiny protest, we whisk her off to change for bed and prepare the night bottle. Yes, 7 months after turning a year old, she still drinks milk from a bottle in the morning, sometimes before her nap, and always before bed. It's as if the bottle is the last sign of babyhood at this point, and she's becoming increasingly detached from it, so I imagine she'll ween herself from it soon. I won't sweat it like I used to.
But while Matt is changing her upstairs and I'm finishing in the kitchen and getting the bottle ready downstairs, I can hear her crying, "Mama, mama, mama" upstairs. She's with her father, whom she adores, and who has been her primary caregiver this summer, but there's something about this primal crying for a mother that I think nearly every child shares in common. It's gratifying and heartbreaking. Baby cries did not pull at my heartstrings too much -- I knew she had basic needs that I was about to satisfy. But toddler wails when accompanied by intelligible words really get me. And I think she knows it.
As soon as I appear with the bottle, the world calms down again and I'm handed her latest favorite book, Bark, George! "George! George! Bark! George!" The little dictator calls for her two real-live dogs, "MAX! DOC!" Though I've missed most of the bedtimes in the last couple months, Matt tells me that the dogs' presence is absolutely requested at every night time reading session. First Max obliges, then Doc obliges, then Max decides he's had enough, and Natalie closes the door, only to want it open again so she can coax Max back in to no avail. Tonight Doc's presence is deemed worthy enough, so we make our way through the book while seated on the floor. She's in my lap, she's not in my lap, she's grabbing books two and three before we finish book one, but I keep going with the story we've already memorized.
When it's time for My First Real Mother Goose I'm told, "SIT!" and I remind my sweet daughter that when she wants something there's another word I need to hear. "Pweease." I hate the idea of baby talk, but this word gets me every time. So, I'm directed to the ottoman while my 19-month-old gets the plush glider. But she sits, and she listens...for the entire book. So, I'll take it. By the third nursery rhyme she has her ring finger and her middle finger in her mouth, her ultimate bedtime signal. She's arranging her bunny and stuffed dog rattle on the empty space on the chair. She's ready for her favorite song, "One, Two, Buckle My..." "SHOE!" "Three, four, knock at the..." "DOOR!"
She signals "more" when we've read the book once. "More" and "thank you" are the only two concepts she still signs instead of says. At least "more" is almost always followed by the semi-pathetic yet painfully adorable "pweease."
Satisfied with the second reading, she grabs her other favorite book these days, Romeo and Juliet: A Counting Primer. With this book, as with so many others, she reveals her own little idiosyncrasies as we run through each page. "2 Loves": she points out the "HEARTS!", her favorite shape. ("Draw hearts! Draw hearts!") "4 Roses": she leans in to sniff the page. "6 Musicians": she waves her arms in the air and says, "DANCE!" "7 Masks": She nearly blinds herself and says, "EYES!" By the time we reach the finale, "10 Kisses," she leans in to kiss me. My daughter leans in to kiss me. It is so true that love between parents and children only grows, and at this moment in history she is free with her love.
So, I grab her and put her into her Sleep Sack. We've yet to move to the blankets-only route, but maybe we will once she outgrows these last size large sacks. For now she is comfortable. And we do our kisses. And she kisses me again. We hug and I hold her tight like I used to when she was being a fussy newborn, and together we time travel to that seemingly distant but ultimately quite recent era when I held her tightly many nights in her nursery. But this time when I talk to her, she talks back. "Did you have fun today with Nana and Ashley?" "TREES!" (My sister draws trees that my daughter loves.) "Tomorrow we're going to a party!" "CAKE!" With that, I lay her in her crib and remind her that her bunny and doggy need to give her kisses, but now she not only receives kisses, she also gives kisses back. I squeeze her nose as I do every time I put her to bed, she giggles, and I know tomorrow morning she'll be ready to do it all over again. Unlike virtually any other routine in life, it's the one I always look forward to and one I'm so lucky to have.