Not long ago, I came across a new phrase in an article from the Scary Mommy site: POOPCUP, or “Parents of One Perfect Child Under Preschool Age.” I chuckled, because it wasn’t that long ago that my husband and I fell into that category. I distinctly remember my parents-in-law declaring that our son was a perfect child when he was a baby. He seemed never to misbehave. Delightfully affectionate, quick to learn, always obedient, never throwing tantrums — at least, when they were watching. They were convinced that he was perfect, and even occasionally mentioned this conviction to Aaron’s sister, the mother of four beautiful, amazing, active, well-disciplined children (and who is an inspiration and wonderful example). We tried to explain that he wasn’t perfect, that he had occasional fits and temper tantrums and moments of disobedience, but they rarely saw that side of him, so they continued to happily believe that Niko was perfect. And, despite those little hiccups, we privately agreed that we had this parenting thing well in hand.
Yes, when Niko was a baby, Aaron and I were blissful POOPCUPs. We didn’t know it, of course. We thought we were very hardworking, well-scheduled parents who were generally nonjudgemental of other parents whose children were sometimes less angelic. We knew that Niko was unusually mellow and easy to teach, and we knew that his manageability had more to do with his temperament than with our own skills as parents. We also knew that much of what others saw as his amazingly calm and sweet temper was a result of our knowing when he would be at his best, and taking advantage of it. We made sure he was fed and ready to take his first nap of the day in the car on the one-hour drive to see Aaron’s parents, and we made sure we left immediately after dinner so that his evening grouchiness could happen away from everyone else. On trips to the grocery store or the mall, we took a similar approach: we went out after a nap, snack in hand, and made sure we were done before it was time for the next round of eating, sleeping, and eating again.
Despite knowing that much of Niko’s sweetness was his own lovely personality, it was hard not to take some credit for it. We’d watch sympathetically as another parent attempted to wrestle a rigid or thrashing child into a shopping cart, and then when the duo was out of sight, we’d murmur, “That must be so hard. I’m sure glad we waited till after Niko’s nap to shop.” We didn’t think we were being judgmental. But deep down, we were thinking, Too bad that mom didn’t do the same thing. Scheduling is everything!
Then we had Sofia.
Long pause for effect.
By the time Sofia arrived, we’d been noticing that our little boy, still as sweet and compliant as ever, was becoming more and more… well… active. Hyper. Distracted. He was at the age that we expect a toddler to be able to follow not just one simple direction, but two or three in a row, but not Niko. “Put your clothes in the laundry, put on your jammies, and go potty,” we’d say. He would cheerfully run off to obey, only to forget what he was supposed to do. Sometimes he’d come back to ask what we’d told him to do. Other times, he’d forget entirely and become distracted by a book, or a toy, or his reflection in the mirror. Even one simple instruction was often more than he could manage, and his sometimes almost manic hyper behavior was often more than I could manage in my enormously pregnant state.
So, when Sofia arrived, we were already starting to experience a little parental adversity. But none of that was enough to prepare us for the reality of welcoming our little girl home.
Sofia was as different from her brother as a lion is from a kangaroo. While Niko had a regularly scheduled Fussy Time for a couple of hours in the evening for about two months, Sofia was fussy all the time. Niko slept through the night before three months; Sofia still woke up several times a night at nearly eighteen months. When I was pumping and freezing milk for Niko, absolutely nothing I ate bothered him. When I was nursing Sofia, a single accidental swallow of milk or bite of cheese would magnify her constant crying to unbearable levels. Niko loved being held by absolutely anyone; Sofia hated being held by anyone but me and, occasionally, certain relatives. If I put tiny Niko in a bouncy seat while I worked in the kitchen, he’d kick his legs happily while watching me. If I put Sofia down anywhere at all, even if I was right next to her, she’d scream as if she were being tortured.
When you have just one baby who takes regular naps, eats on a schedule, and has predictable times of being fussy, it’s pretty easy to plan visits and outings to maximize on his good nature. When you have a baby who cries constantly, often even while being fed, who seems to constantly want to nurse but hates bottles and reacts painfully to every formula you try, who panics when she’s set down even for a moment, it becomes a little harder. And, when you add to that mix a toddler who has outgrown morning naps, is in constant movement, can’t remember instructions no matter how badly he tries to please you, and has to be constantly monitored because his impulsiveness often causes damage… well, it’s safe to say you’re no longer POOPCUPs.
Now we had to manage two kids, with different schedules and needs. Now we were the ones being eyed by strangers as our baby shrieked and our son ran in circles. We now understood why some kids seemed a little out of control: they simply had active bodies and exhausted parents. It turns out, much to our astonishment, that not all babies can be scheduled.
Since we’ve left the happy land of POOPCUPs, we’ve learned to cope. We often split the kids between us. Niko stays much calmer when he’s on his own with an adult, and Sofia by herself isn’t very demanding. In fact, in some ways, they’ve switched roles; Sofia is now, at three, mellow, cheerful, helpful, and capable of following directions. Niko is also cheerful and helpful — he tries to be, anyway — but no one who spent more than five minutes with him would call him mellow. We’ve learned ways to help Niko remember instructions, and ways to help him stay calm. That easily-scheduled baby is now a routine-dependent boy; depart too far from the expected progression of a day, and he becomes anxious and hyper. We’ve learned to warn him in advance when something will change, and let him know what to expect when we do something new. With Sofia’s newfound cheerfulness and a better understanding of how Niko works, life is generally a bit easier now.
Still, no matter how many coping techniques we learn or how many management methods we adopt, and no matter how successful we may appear to observers, we now have a constant awareness that we’re just one missed snack away from those hassled parents we pitied back when we were POOPCUPs. Adding a second child has been humbling and eye-opening.
So, to all you parents out there who have children who are a bit less than perfect: it’s okay. You’re in good company. There are plenty of us out there, and we’ve got your back.
And to those still happily traversing the POOPCUP road: you’ll understand. Whether it’s after you’ve had a second child, or when your single child reaches tweens or teens, at some point, you’ll understand that even the best-parented child will have moments of imperfection, usually at an inconvenient and embarrassing moment. When that happens, the rest of us will be here, ready to listen sympathetically. We’ll have your back, too. And until then, please — don’t judge us. We’re doing our best.