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.


Eating Humble Pie Gratefully

I know kids pretty well, I think. I’ve been babysitting other people’s kids since I was old enough to be left on my own — age eleven or twelve. During my senior year in high school, I used our tiny church school’s senior Independent Study program to teach a combined first-and-second grade class three subjects (two of them were split over half the year, so it was an hour a day of teaching). I spent two years as a preschool teacher in a daycare. In my favorite pre-teaching job ever, I spent five years working mostly in the children’s department at Anchorage’s Barnes & Noble. I have a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and I have five years of teaching under my belt.  I’m the parent of an active four-year-old and a firecracker 18-month-old.  So, really, I’m not new to the whole dealing-with-kids thing.

The problem is, there’s knowing kids as a general category, and then there’s knowing how to deal with one particular child. My one particular child, Sofia, is a darling, bright, engaging little girl who, at 15 months, appeared to simply never want to ever sleep. She fought it like no one I’ve ever known.

As a tiny baby, Sofie had colic. She showed every sign of being in pain nearly all the time. She cried most of every day; she screamed most of every night. Around 1 or 2 in the morning, she would calm down enough to fall asleep, only to wake after 45 minutes needing to nurse. For the first four months of her life, I was lucky to get three or four hours of disconnected sleep nightly… and that nifty idea of napping when baby naps? She never napped. She would sleep in our Ergo carrier, strapped to my chest, and that was it.

We found that part of her colic-like symptoms were the result of a milk protein sensitivity, which meant that she was calmer and in less pain if I stayed away from dairy. It also meant she couldn’t handle formula, even the “gentle protein” kind; and for some reason the milk I pumped was souring immediately, so bottles were no go. I simply resigned myself — more or less — to having her attached to me constantly. I carried her in the Ergo while I cooked, cleaned, weeded, and did everything else that needed to be done. Until she was about six months old, she would panic if I set her down for more than five minutes; around that time, I could set her down for about half an hour at a time before I had to pick her back up. I rocked her to sleep each night before gingerly laying her down each night; she took most of her daytime naps, or started them, in her Ergo carrier on my back or chest. I believe the term “high-needs baby” could correctly be applied here.

Sofia napping in her Ergo during a Fourth of July walk.
Seven-month-old Sofia napping in her Ergo during a Fourth of July walk.

At fifteen months old, she was almost a year past her colicky stage (though too much dairy in her diet would still keep her awake at night). We were weaning, but I would still nurse and rock her to sleep each night, spending 45 minutes or so putting her to bed. She would wake anywhere from two to five times at night; most nights, she’d sleep in about two-hour increments before waking, and I’d nurse her back to sleep each time. It was exhausting, but was — I thought — what she needed.

I knew I couldn’t do this forever, and with a 2-day trip coming up during which Aaron’s mom would stay with the kids, I was on a deadline to figure out a better way to put Sofia to sleep at night and nap during the day.  I was determined not to use the Cry it Out method — despite my exhaustion, I just couldn’t face the idea of ignoring my baby’s cries. But I needed a solution.

I asked my mom how she night-weaned my brother and me. She told me that once we were eating solid food, she reasoned that waking up during the night was just habit, and she simply let us cry for a little bit till we learned that we wouldn’t be fed. At that point, we stopped crying at night. “How long did we cry for?” I asked. “How long is too long? Twenty minutes?”

“I’d say twenty minutes is too long,” she agreed. “You didn’t cry that long. Maybe ten minutes, and then you just went back to sleep.”

Well, that settled that. Sofia is more than capable of screaming in rage for two solid hours. She stops, not when she’s exhausted, but when her situation changes. It’s now been months since she’s done this, but the memory is still raw. Her screams are piercing, literally painful to the ear. So letting her cry at night didn’t seem like a workable solution — after all, the rest of us, including her four-year-old brother, needed to sleep too. Back to the drawing board.

Not long after my conversation with my mom, Aaron and I went on a rare evening date. Our babysitter, Alyssa, arrived with her own newborn just as fifteen-month-old Sofia was waking up from a nap. We discussed bedtime routines. “I honestly don’t know how well she’ll sleep for you,” I confessed. “I nurse her to sleep, and it takes forever. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry — I’ll put her to bed when we get home.”

Around 9:00, I sent Alyssa a quick text — “How’s it going?”

“Just fine!” she answered. “Everyone’s asleep.”

What? Everyone? “Sofia too?” I asked.

“She’s been asleep for about half an hour. She hardly cried at all. She went down really well.”

Over the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder what magic Alyssa had worked. How had she gotten Sofia to sleep? Finally I couldn’t stand it any more. I texted Alyssa: “Do you think you could tell me what technique you used to get Sofie to sleep? I could really use some help figuring out how to get her to sleep without being nursed.”

She called me back. “I’m sorry, I wish I could help you, but I really didn’t do anything special. We just did all the bedtime stuff, read a story together, and then I put her into her crib and closed the door. She cried for about a minute, and then she went to sleep.”

Waaiiiiit a minute. She put her into her crib…and then walked away? Just like that? Impossible. She must have worked some wizardly mind magic on her. Still, the thought seemed full of potential. I might not have Alyssa’s touch (she also got Sofie to take a bottle when I couldn’t), but I do know how to use my legs to walk.

That night I braced myself to unleash hell. “I’m going to try it,” I told Aaron. “I’m just going to walk away.” We read a story in Niko’s bed, I tucked Niko in, and then I carried Sofia to her own room. “It’s time for bed,” I told her. “Niko is in his bed. Mama and Daddy are going to go to our bed. And you’re going to sleep in your bed, too.” I kissed her, wrapped her in her favorite soft blanket, and laid her down. To my amazement, she immediately rolled over onto her belly, stuck her little bottom into the air, and cuddled down into the bed without resistance. Her bright eyes watched me calmly, a peaceful smile on her face. I tucked her warm yellow crocheted blanket from Grandma around her, said good night, and walked out of the room. Then I stood outside her door, holding my breath. There was a soft wail. Another. And then…silence. Silence stretching on for minutes. I finally tiptoed away from the door, reeling with the shock. Realization was slowly dawning: for who knows how long now, Sofia hadn’t wanted to be rocked to sleep. She had been wanting to go to sleep on her own. Her resistance to sleeping at bedtime had been resistance to being rocked. And it took an evening with a babysitter for me to discover this.

Sofia rests peacefully at nap time... all by herself!
Sofia rests peacefully at nap time… all by herself!

Yes, I know kids. But what I’m learning is this: no matter how experienced a parent is, how in tune with a child’s needs, at some point, we all need a fresh perspective. The most dedicated parent sometimes misses something essential. This rather humbling experience was one of the best things that’s happened to our family. Sofia, now eighteen months old, has blossomed into a joyful, loving toddler. Putting her to bed without rocking or nursing paved the way for night weaning. I was finally able to take my mom’s advice and let her cry when she woke up at night — and just as my mother predicted, she cried for less than ten minutes before she decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. And weaning turned her into a different child. She now runs to her dad when she sees him, rather than withdrawing. She no longer panics the moment I leave a room. She explores, climbs, experiments with new words, waves to strangers, gives hugs to her dad and big brother. She is…fun. I’m enjoying her like I never truly did before. And it all started with a babysitter who just tried doing something a little differently than I’d been doing it.

I’ve never been so delighted to devour a giant slice of humble pie.  Mmmmmm, delicious.

Happy Sofia smelling the flowers.
Happy Sofia smelling the flowers.