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.

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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.

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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.

When Good Fairies Go Bad

This is the scene behind my toaster at present: a shell filled with dried corn kernels, a floral toothpick-holder containing a shrivelled blossom, a cork, a scattering of rose petals, some small shells and a plastic sweetcorn. It appears that I may be some kind of hoarder-in-miniature, or perhaps that I’ve dedicated a bizarre shrine to the toaster crumb-tray. There is something far too precise about the collection to indicate that I’m simply a really untidy housewife, so cast that thought away. Each tiny item has been chosen and arranged with infinite care, as if by… well as if by very small magical people.

The view behind my toaster.

The view behind my toaster.

My daughter loves fairies. She talks constantly about her fairy friends, the language that they speak, the midnight feasts they share. She was distraught when our resident fairy family suffered severe flooding to their home in the strawberry patch thanks to some overzealous watering. Immediately, she packed up all of their worldly possessions and relocated them to a new home behind the toaster. I dare not trespass.

I’m in two minds about my daughter’s enthusiasm for small winged creatures of the magical persuasion. On the one hand, I love that her interest gives rise to lots of imaginative play: the creation of tiny enchanted worlds, funny new words, and magical potions from petals and basil leaves. On the other hand, it can be a little intense, verging on obsessional. No Mummy, you can’t throw out that (cornflake/ watermelon seed/ cup of brown sludge)! Please can I have (strawberries/ Tic Toc biscuits/ glow-sticks) for a midnight feast with my fairy friends? The fairies speak a different language, but you can’t understand it. I’m not pretending! It is real! And then there’s the situation behind my toaster.

When it came to gifts for my daughter’s fifth birthday, the question was: to fairy or not to fairy? Should we use the opportunity to try to broaden her interests a little, or should we give her what she really wanted in the form of fairy-related gifts? I admit that the very idea of seeing her eyes light up over something that she loved was an irresistible prospect. I had no concept of the power of this notion until I became a parent (though in retrospect, I suspect it was the light in my eyes that convinced my own father to let me have a pet duckling when I was her age).

So we gave her the glittery Tinker Bell doll that promised to light up and fly three metres at the pull of a string. And we gave her the fairy egg: just add water to hatch your own fairy friend. And there were gasps and squeals, and oh yes there was the light in her eyes.

After breakfast, we went outside to launch Tinker Bell. It quickly became apparent that achieving fairy lift-off was trickier than the ads had suggested, and my daughter started to become frustrated. She tugged at the cord with increasing agitation, perhaps less conscious of the direction in which the toy was pointing. Then suddenly, just as the tiny toes were poised to spring into the air, the spinning, glitter-encrusted wings twirled straight into my daughter’s nose. The sting to her face was perhaps less acute than the sense of betrayal from one of own precious fairy friends, and she immediately dissolved into tears.

Tinker Bell: Winged Assassin.

Tinker Bell: Winged Assassin.

Then there was the fairy egg. The images on the box promised a great deal, and deep down I suspected that the end result may not quite meet expectations. But I knew that my daughter would be enchanted by the thought of hatching her own fairy. (She was!). And it seemed like a fun idea.

What we were promised.

What we were promised.

We placed the egg into a jug of water and waited to see what would happen. The next morning, my little girl ran into the kitchen in a state of great anticipation to see if the egg had hatched. Indeed, the shell had peeled back just enough to reveal a bloated, yellowish face: a warrior of uncertain gender, with fierce brows and angry eyes. With a silence that filled the room, my daughter turned the fairy’s vessel so that she could no longer see its face. Then, without a word, she picked up her spoon and ate her cereal.

What we got.

What we got.

I’m starting to think that I needn’t worry about intervening in my daughter’s love affair. The fairies are obviously perfectly capable of destroying every last magical speck of fairy dust all on their own.

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.