Fire Engines and Feathers: Life with a Toddler

These are a few of my toddler’s favourite things: diggers, fire engines, cranes, motorbikes, big trucks with cars on top, monkeys, tigers, cousins, feathers. He thrills at blaring sirens, revving motorbikes, crashing diggers. He shrieks with delight at monkeys that show their lumpy crimson bottoms, puff their chests into balloons and hoot, or sail with insouciant ease from branch to branch. He gazes up, blinking and astonished at cranes that seem to stab the clouds. He adores any chance to run helter-skelter, throw balls and explore playgrounds with his cousins. And he loves feathers.

At two-and-a-half, my son is captivated by those fast and furious parts of life that roar and race and kick up dust. Things that go – quick as a flash, full steam ahead – are the things that appeal to my boy, because like them, he loves to go. His obsession with feathers seems a little at odds with all of his other fast, loud, bold objects of affection.

Last week, when we were getting in the car to take his big sister to school, my son picked up a small, downy feather. After dropping her off, we went on to our regular music group, where he played with Matchbox cars while I helped set up tables and chop fruit. We were part way through the music session that followed playtime, when I noticed his clenched fist. I peeled back his little fingers to discover the clammy, wilted carcass of a feather in his warm, sweaty palm – he had been holding it for two hours.


Today was a blustery Easter Sunday; trees aglow on the drive home from church and the first hint of autumn crispness in the air. My boy found a feather in the yard and was instantly bewitched. He held it tenderly in his hand, smiling at the wispy softness against his skin. A gust of wind snatched it from his hand and he squealed in surprised delight, grabbing at his treasure as it drifted and dipped just beyond his reach. Over and over we tossed the feather into the air and he laughed and chased and tried to pin it down as it danced away like a skittish moonbeam. Last year my son was spellbound by the demolition of a house over the back fence, but today he was just as transfixed by the mysterious paths a soft and silent feather wove through the sky.


And right there lies the sweet and bewildering paradox of life with my toddler. The world to him is a place of wonder and he runs into it full-tilt, arms wide, zooming like an aeroplane. He throws things he shouldn’t throw (a plate of toast crusts, a box of dominoes, a ceramic angel), he yells because he likes the sound of his voice, he runs to get places, he stomps when he’s happy. As my husband once said: he lives life with verve. But then there’s the flip-side: when he’s tired or hurt or overwhelmed or just wrapped up in a moment – the bravado slips and I see the quiet and gentle little soul that is just as much my son. When he presents a bumped knee to be kissed, when he looks at me with tear-stained cheeks and reaches up for a cuddle, when he folds his little arms around my neck and rests his head on my shoulder – these are the slow and cherished moments that remind me this is only the third autumn he has seen.

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Oh yes, this toddler of mine can race and roar and go, go, go. But he can also (sometimes) softly, softly stroke a baby’s hair. He can squat down in front of a one-year-old and observe in wonder, “It’s so little!” He can whisper in awe at the sight of the moon. He can bend down and watch the slow crawl of a fuzzy caterpillar. And he can hold a feather for several hours in his hand. Just don’t expect him not to crush it.

A Toddler’s Ten Step Guide to Life

  1. Dirt is a glorious thing. All of its qualities make me happy: the way it feels between my fingers and my teeth, the clouds that form as I throw it in the air, the way it tumbles onto my arms and legs and settles into the creases of my clothes. Breathtaking.
  2. When you say, “don’t do that,” I hear, “you’d better do that really fast, cause this opportunity might not come round again for a while.” Hence the quite remarkable speed with which I emptied my drink bottle onto my pasty today. The three seconds it took you to get from around the kitchen bench to my highchair was long enough for flakes of pastry to be floating! It was an impressive record, plus I had the satisfaction of ticking another life experience off my bucket list. (Making lunch float: check.)
  3. Nudity is hilarious. So are running people.
  4. If you want to blow my nose without me kicking up a fuss, you’re going to have to show me the boogers. Seriously, wouldn’t you want to know what cool stuff your nose has made today? I’m always surprised and impressed by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colours and textures you pull out of there. Just show me the boogers, people, and I might even help by blowing a few more out for you.
  5. Every tunnel, without exception has or has had a train inside. This includes: tunnels at the playground, mouse-holes in picture books, toilet rolls and tube-shaped pasta. I find these objects quite thrilling due to their association with something I hold so incredibly dear. You can acknowledge the connection and get excited with me or you can try and tell me there is no train. Either way, there will be tooting!
  6. I need to experience all condiments on the dinner table ASAP. That mysterious bottle and bowl just out of my reach hold some kind of intriguing treasure which will, no doubt, enliven my palette and enrich my dining experience. I’m becoming familiar with the way these things work: bowls often hold material for sprinkling and bottles contain sauces for dipping stuff in. Either way, it’s going to be super fun and I really do need it on my plate now! I will scream and point while I wait for the transfer to take place.
  7. A container of water is for putting things in. Always. Some of my favourite combinations have been: Humphrey Bear in the dog’s water bowl, pizza in my cup and socks in the bath. The phone in the toilet was a thing of beauty. I could tell by the excitement in your voice that you thought so too.
  8. If you leave a marker pen lying within my grasp, I will creatively embellish the nearest clean surface. (Unless that surface is paper, of course. Duh!) Typically I gravitate towards white, particularly if the white is also shiny (hello tiles!). Sometimes, however, I do like to try out unusual surfaces (my truck was cool) or contrasting colours (the green looked rather nice on Daddy’s new orange footstool).
  9. As I can only say a few names, I find it helpful to use the one name to refer to people who are similar. So, for example, every smiling boy I encounter is called “Ben”, because that’s my cousin. And when I see a friendly-looking man, I call him “Dad”. Of course, strictly speaking, my dad doesn’t have a turban and or a long white beard like the “dad” at the library today, but the general vibe is similar.
  10. I like to wake up and call for you just a little while after you’ve gone to bed. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this special timing? My heart melts when you stumble all sleepy-eyed and messy-haired into my room, looking a little lost. I wrap my arms around you and hold you tight, thinking how safe and contented you must feel to have a lovely cuddle with me before going back to sleep. But don’t worry, sweet Mummy, I’m just next door and I’ll be sure to check on you a few more times throughout the night. You’re welcome.                                                                            Water is for putting things in

Wheel Obsession

The other night my toddler plunged head-first and fully-clothed into the bath during a desperate bid to retrieve the little red aeroplane bobbing just beyond his reach. I was in the process of filling up the bath at the time, and thankfully right there to witness his spectacular dive (points deducted for too much splash on entry), and to fish him drenched and wailing from the tub. Seems his admiration for things with wheels is starting to veer into the risk-taking behaviour of an unhealthy obsession.

It wasn’t always this extreme. Over the past couple of months, we have seen Elijah’s fondness for cars, trucks, trains and planes blossom into true, deep devotion. He “bwmm bwmms” his cars around the house. He squeals and points when a bus passes us on the street. He gasps with astonished joy when a caravan appears on Playschool. And sometimes he just must hold his little Percy train, or there’s no telling what might happen.

Like every true passion, my 18-month-old sees his dearly beloved everywhere he looks. Through his eyes, a vaguely hill-shaped object will somehow morph into the glorious form of a car. “Bwmm Bwmm!” he’ll exclaim pointing to an image of crumpled trousers in a picture book or a pig-shaped puzzle piece. During a recent visit to an electrical store, he became transfixed with the toasters, pointing and making excited engine noises. As far as he was concerned, Elijah was looking at a whole row of gleaming cars.

Then there was my mistake of reading a car-themed library book called Around Town as a bedtime story. It was an innocuous-looking little eight-page board book: brightly coloured, lift-the-flaps (two out of four missing), no story but pithy descriptions of various vehicles with a few chugs, zooms and woo woos thrown in. To be honest, it didn’t particularly move me; but for Elijah it was a revelation. We read it and then we read it again. And again. Every time I started on Hello Baby or Spot’s First Colours, the book was slammed shut and Around Town thrust on top in no uncertain terms.

After the eighth reading, I tried to put him to bed. However, the idea of being separated from that busy train and steady truck was too much. He stood at the bars of his cot, alternatively howling with grief and forlornly whimpering, “bwmm, bwmm?” while pointing to the door and the promised land of cars beyond. At the peak of his sorrow, he was hysterical to the point of dry retching, and no amount of patting, singing or shushing could soothe him.

Utterly wrung-out by his emotions, Elijah eventually lay down and allowed me to stroke his back. His sobbing ceased, his breathing became regular. But every time he started to drift off, he would suddenly spring to his feet amid a fresh avalanche of tears and “bwmm bwmms”. In desperation, I even tried putting Around Town into bed with him. But this was not an adequate solution. My little boy desired to commune with me, marvel together at this rich portrait of noisy, hard-working vehicles.

It was almost an hour and a half before sleep finally won out and – utterly shattered – I tiptoed from the room. Within an hour I had collapsed into bed myself, holding my breath in the silence. Sure enough, I was soon dragged from the lovely cusp of sleep by a pitiful little “bwmm bwmm!” With sinking heart, groggy head and gritted teeth, I heaved myself out of bed and prepared for another wearisome battle.

Silence. I waited, but there was no sound.

And I realised that my little boy must be seeing cars in his dreams.