Surprised by Joy: Toddler Edition

Neve, after she recently squished a Smurf. (Or colored her hands in "washable" blue marker. One of those.)

Neve, after squishing a Smurf with her bare hands. Or applying “washable” blue marker to her palms. One of those.

Part of the bedtime ritual around here consists of me carrying Neve – after she’s been changed into her jammies and had her teeth brushed – upstairs to her room while chanting “Books with Mommy, books with mommy” repeatedly, climbing one step for each syllable. It’s catchy.

So catchy that Neve usually sings along quietly, anticipating the time we lie sideways on the queen bed in her room (which used to be the guest room before we moved the crib in there) each night by lamplight, reading “Corduroy,” “Silly Sally,” “Bear Snores On” and other books, our heads sharing the same pillow.

Even though Lily has her own reading time with Joe or me before she goes to sleep, she’s lately asked to be part of “books with Mommy.” So of course I said yes, but told her that Neve gets to choose the books.

We grab a second pillow, I lie between my girls – who like to snuggle under their old baby blankets while I read – and we read. Which is lovely, because only lately has Neve been engaged in books Lily would enjoy, too. Books with a story. (She’s getting there, I’ve been thinking. Her little brain’s developing, just as her vocabulary is exploding.)

So last night, after an unusually peaceful night, wherein the girls even helped Joe make quesadillas for dinner, we enjoyed “books with Mommy” together and Lily left the room for her own bedtime preparations.

I lifted Neve into her crib, and at first, things went as they usually do. She flopped out on her stomach in the darkness, with a blanket over her, and I rubbed and patted her back through the bars.

Normally, she’s out in minutes – she’s my easy sleeper, folks, believe me – but last night, she was restless. And that’s when a small miracle occurred.

I didn’t see it coming, though, because things began simply enough. After tossing and turning a bit, Neve asked me to pat her back again. “Pat, Mommy,” she said.

Then she said, “Punkins scare me.” (Pumpkins is our new cat. He doesn’t like to be picked up, yet the girls had become obsessed with trying to do just that earlier in the evening. He’d flicked his paw and snapped his jaws to let them know he was done.)

“Well, I think you scare him, too,” I told Neve. “He’s still getting used to us, so we just have to be gentle, and remember he doesn’t like to be picked up.”

“He not like it?” Neve asked, shaking her head.


“Pumpkins bite.”

“He won’t actually bite you, sweetie, but if you’re scared, leave him alone, or go to another room.”

“I want to pet Punkins.”

“In the morning. You can feed him and pet him in the morning.”

“I play with Justin,” she said, referring to her friend at preschool.

“You played with Justin today? Did you play with him outside?”

“Yes. I time out.”

“What for?”

“I hit.”

“Miss Leslie said it was because you wouldn’t stop running in the classroom.”

“I running?”

“That’s what she said.”

“I play with Justin.” Pause. “I don’t like Punkins.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized – partly because that bedtime finish line is an all-consuming goal for perpetually exhausted parents – why this basic exchange felt strange and kind of exciting: Neve was having her first-ever heart-to-heart talk with me.

It was repetitive and all over the map at the same time, without clear transitions – wait, was this Neve’s monologue or a Virginia Woolf novel? – but for the first time, Neve was describing to me what she was thinking about, what was going on in her head. It was like a window to her mind just flew open.

Though infants’ (and toddlers’, to some extent) needs are generally simple and straightforward, there’s a frustration that comes with their inability to communicate: when they’re not feeling well, or they’re agitated, you’d give your right arm to know what’s going on in there. They get frustrated because they can’t tell you, and you get frustrated because you can’t possibly know.

With a just-turned-2 year old, meanwhile, you’re often providing 95 percent of words spoken between you. You ask questions like, “Do you want milk or water?” “Did you like going to the park?” “Do you want to wear pants or a dress?” And although a 2 year old certainly voices what she wants (maybe to a fault), it doesn’t go much further than that.

But now, at 2 years and 3 months, Neve is giving me a first glimpse of the trippy toddler movie on a loop in her mind. I just had to be in the right place at the right time, and I had to be quiet enough, for long enough, to hear about it.

Neve was still chatting about the cat and her preschool transgressions when we heard Lily come up the stairs, and we both listened to the creak of Lily’s bed down the hall, as she climbed into it, and we heard Joe start to read from a Nancy Drew book.

“Daddy talking to Lil-lay,” Neve said.

“Yes, sweetie, Daddy’s talking to Lily.”

“And I talking to Mommy,” she whispered.

A couple of sudden, happy tears surprised me and ran down my cheeks.

“That’s right,” I said, with a small nod and a sense of wonder in my voice. “You’re talking to Mommy.”

2 thoughts on “Surprised by Joy: Toddler Edition

  1. Rina Miller says:

    Oh good…me with runny mascara at work. Thanks, Jenn. Lovely column.

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