The Seven Stages of Shopping with a Three-and-a-Half Year Old

This week, I popped to the shops with my three-and-a-half year old to find a birthday present for a tricky-to-buy-for friend. When I say “popped”, please don’t imagine a brief and cheery little outing, because that’s not at all what this was. Rather, picture the way a buoyant balloon is transformed into a wretched scrap when stabbed with a sharp object. That rapidly deteriorating state of being aptly describes my psyche after popping to the shops with my preschooler. I’ve broken the experience down for you into seven stages.

Stage 1. Energy to burn

I open the car door after our seven minute drive, and Elijah springs forth like a spirited racehorse; pawing the parking lot with scuffed sneakers, twisting and tugging away from me in an effort to go it alone. Why walk when you can run? “Meet you at the other end, Mummy!” he hollers as he charges down the mall, pedestrians hurriedly scooting out of his way. I catch him, entreat him to slow down, attempt to pin him to me. 

Stage 2. Not touching the things 

Our first stop is one of those exquisite gift shops made of feathers and light that I adore visiting without children. It’s the kind of shop that’s full of candles derived from exotic substances and trendy fruit no one eats, like Blood Orange and Tahitian Overwater Bungalow or Pomegranate and Leafy Sea Dragon Vapour. The high ratio of glass to non-breakable materials is terrifying. My son wants to walk, I insist on carrying him. His fingers seek out all the pretty, glittering things. My heart is in my mouth. Shop assistants smile benignly as if we’re all having a very pleasant time. Meanwhile, I feel as if I’m walking a tightrope with a slippery, flapping fish in my arms. There is a good chance that this store holds the perfect gift for a classy girl, but to be honest it feels far too risky to get within reach of any of the treasures. 

Stage 3. Desperate for devices

Next up, and thankfully with less stuff to break, is Country Road. I waste no time plonking Elijah in a stylish bucket chair and handing him my phone while I rummage through the scarves and jewellery. As every parent knows, devices are a blessing and a curse. A couple of uninterrupted minutes is helpful, but fails to produce the perfect gift. I’m ready to move on, but my son is still very committed his game of EarthMovers. I peel him from the chair and placate him with promises of Subway cookies. 

Stage 4. Carry me!

We’ve refuelled and refocused. I’m so ready to complete this simple mission and go home. Elijah is still full of beans; legs pumping down the sidewalk, trying to squirm out of my hand, rushing to press the buttons at the pedestrian crossings. And then he stops, so suddenly that a gentleman behind us narrowly avoids a collision. I tug his hand, but for a little guy he’s remarkably unmovable. It’s as if his feet have been set in concrete. Then the wailing starts, “I’m so, so tired! I can’t walk for one more day! Carry me! CARRY ME!”. I carry him to the bookshop, feeling acutely every one of his 15 kilograms. 

Stage 5. Busting 

Back in the day, I could easily lose an hour browsing in a bookshop, but today my three-and-half year old is keeping me firmly grounded in the here and now. It’s a little hard to be swept away by the power of words when you’re wondering just what your child’s intentions are with Tintin’s giant rocket display, and whether you can finish reading a blurb before he starts climbing the biographies. I’m actually close to making a selection when he pulls out his trump card, the one that’s impossible to ignore: “I’m busting!” 

Stage 6. Public Parental Humiliation

So we go. Back along the street. More button pressing at the pedestrian crossing. Into the shopping centre (“Hang on! Hang on! We’re almost there!”). Down a long hallway. Posh shopping centres have posh toilets. There’s a parent room with one of those frosted glass doors that look like they’re going to be see-through, and that slowly glide open when you push the right button. They always make me slightly nervous – what ever happened to good old reliable latches on toilet doors? Elijah tells me that he loves this toilet. There’s a little play centre next to the door, which keeps him occupied when it’s my turn to go. Suddenly I hear Elijah say, “Sorry! Sorry!” and realise that the door is sliding open before I’m done. Next I’m shrieking at my son and trying to get myself in order. There are people outside the door; I’m pummeling the button and the door is lazily sliding across, so painfully, desperately slowly that I have time to apologise and explain to a lady and her child outside the door that we’re not actually finished, my son just opened the door on me. 

Stage 7. On the floor 

I drag my son to the gorgeous homewares store, Wheel and Barrow. I know that this is my very last shot at getting a present. We’re both at our wit’s end. Elijah is writhing on the floor between black marble cheese platters and cocktail glasses, claiming to be a dangerous lizard. I pick something for my friend – who knows what. I hope she likes it. It was paid for with a lake of tears. 

Tonight’s Bedtime Monologue From my Two-Year-Old

7.20pm: Give two-year-old a pep talk about going to bed nicely, unlike the previous night.

7.22: Two-year-old lies quietly in cot.

7.23pm: “I’m waking up now! I want ice-cream! Green ice-creams. I want ice-creams all DAY! I want ice-cream all-ready!” (Hums for a while then stands up). “Mummy, me keep waking up! Door not shut! Not shut anymore. Not shut. One, two, three, four.” (Starts jumping in cot. I lie him down).

7.25: “Want go outside one day. All day…. Mummy! Me is cross! Me biting! Yeah! (Wet slurping noises). Want bite someone! Aaaagh! Can’t reach you, Mummy! Me not go to sleep!” (Stands up. I lie him down).

7.30pm: “Want to take off sleeping bag! Waaaa!” (Loud fake crying). “Want Daddy! Really want Daddy! Cuddle please Mummy!” (Give him a drink, discover toy Platypussy inside his sleeping bag which leads to much laughter. Put him back to bed.)

7.35pm: “Ha ha! Never seen Platypussy there before! Me know Zac. Mrs T got Zac. Me see Zac for long long time long long time. For long long time. Mummy! Not going anywhere! You stay Mummy! Never see Zac at childcare. Never see Zac at childcare. Hmmm. Pretend you is Mrs T, Mummy!”

7.40pm: “Let’s check on Lily. Let’s check on me.” (Starts humming tunelessly).

7.45pm: “Please sing song, Mummy! Not that one. Not that one. Different one. Wheels on the bus go round and round. You know that one for long time? Wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round. Wheels on the bus go round and round all day long. All day Mummy. All day Mummy. All day Mummy. All day meemee. All day hmm hmm hmm.”

7.50pm: (Starts humming softly. Hum gradually builds to scream). “Something on my Platypussy! Dad! Daddy! At work Daddy? Want Daddy! See Daddy after sleep? Then have my break-sast.” (Starts groaning loudly).

7.55pm: “Mummy! Mummy! Want Daddy! Daddy is home! I’m stuck! Aaaah! Can’t get it out!”
(I pull legs from between bars of cot).

8.00pm: “My friend’s called Wang-wo.”

8.04pm: Breathing deepens. Stay another 15 minutes just to make sure.

8.20pm: I exit room and head straight for chocolate stash.

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

Mother’s Guilt

Ah, Mother’s Guilt. It can hound your heart: fierce and persistent. I’ve had a bad case for about three-and-a-half years now. Of course, the thing about being a mother is that there’s always plenty of stuff going on to distract from a case of Mother’s Guilt. Like Mother’s Guilt about something else, for example. But in those rare silent spaces of the day, the shriek of guilt echoes still. And it says: “Why haven’t you taken her swimming lessons?”

Because here in Australia, it’s what parents do. We are a nation in love with water – which is not surprising given our environment. This summer we sweated through 12 days over 40°C (104°F). There was a day in January where my city held the dubious honour of officially being the hottest city on Earth (46°C/ 115°F). Our national anthem proclaims our home to be “girt by sea”: we are a big hot island enfolded in the most enticing sapphire. Our kids grow up with nappies full of sand and eyes smarting from salt-water. They visit Friends With Pools, ride on inflatable mattresses, play Marco Polo and smell of chlorine and sunscreen and summertime. Swimming lessons are a significant part of this lifestyle. You may have a naturally-birthed, exclusively breastfed, cloth-nappy-wearing, sleeping-through-the-night six-month-old, but if she’s not enrolled in baby swimming lessons, you’re only so-so as a mum. And yes, congratulations dear friend, for helping your baby achieve proficiency at Butterfly by his first birthday.

Although she tends to be cautious at first, given a little time to adjust, Lily adores jumping waves with Daddy at the beach or bouncing through the swimming pool in Mummy’s arms. It’s not as if we have completely denied her and her brother the joys of water. But somehow we just never seemed to get around to those pesky swimming lessons.

Last week I finally – years too late and definitely not in the best season – made an attempt to appease my Mother’s Guilt, and enrolled both kids in swimming lessons. Lily had her first yesterday afternoon. All day she was bouncing off the walls, exclaiming how she couldn’t wait. In fact, her uncharacteristically eager compliance to all my instructions – bathers on, hair up, track pants over the top, showering before her lesson, new goggles on – actually made us early for our lesson.

There was a moment where I was almost lulled into thinking this whole swimming lesson caper was going to be straight-forward. I say almost because being mum to my precious Lily for four years has taught me that new experiences are never easy for her (which may help to explain my reluctance to dive into swimming lessons, if you’ll excuse the pun). Dancing lessons, Sunday School, occasional care, childcare, kindergarten – all looked marvellous to her from a distance, but became tear-soaked affairs the day they shifted into reality.

Sure enough, when the moment came to step into the pool, Lily burst into tears, “I thought I wanted to have swimming lessons, but I don’t!” she cried plaintively. “I’ve changed my mind!” The instructor ended up having to carry her, thrashing and howling into the pool. I watched (as well as I could whilst struggling to prevent my toddler from hurling all manner of items including himself into the water) as she manoeuvred my daughter’s reluctant little frame into a range of positions: belly, back, star float, belly with kick-board, back with kick-board. A bench-load of attentive parents were treated to an earful of wails and whimpers, climaxing in the blood-curdling protest: “I don’t want to get my hair wet!” And my heart twisted and crashed inside my chest as Lily’s face registered a gamut of emotions: distress, anxiety, concentration, fleeting pops of joy and pride.

Towards the end of the lesson, while the other little girl in the class ducked and dived and wet her hair like a mermaid, Lily – the picture of misery – huddled on the pool steps with teeth chattering, tears streaking her face, pink goggles askew and bather pants half-way down her bottom. Honestly, I wanted to cry myself. While there had been a few positive moments, it had been a pretty agonising half-hour on the whole. And as for the Mother’s Guilt: if anything, seeing my little girl struggle out there had made it roar all the louder. But then, what’s motherhood without an ample dollop of guilt?

Dear Fickle Four-Year-Old

Dear Four-Year-Old,

Gracious, what was I thinking? Purple is obviously a completely unsuitable colour for knickers. Just because your favourite spoon is purple, I was misguided to assume this preference should extend to undergarments. Lying on the floor weeping is a perfectly reasonable response to the suggestion you might wear such a heinous item to bed.

You’re right: toast should be cut into squares, never triangles. What a shock it must have been to see your snack so grossly disfigured. Daddy was ignorant of the Laws of Toast and got it very, very wrong. You have pointed out his error in a direct and persuasive manner which I doubt he will forget.

I’m sorry for telling you to get on the toilet right now, when your imaginary big sister was sitting on it. It wasn’t your fault that she was taking her own sweet time, and it’s not as if you could have sat on top of her. That would have been awkward. Of course you were upset given my lack of understanding in a complex situation.

The dog should not have allowed her tail to touch the sticker on your leg. Fur against stickers against skin is extremely distressing. No wonder you screamed and lost your appetite for dinner.

I’m sorry the sun is shining on your car-seat while your brother’s is in the shade. It is very unfair and thoughtless of it to do so. No wonder you shed tears at the injustice of life.

I was foolish to offer you a banana when you only like to eat bananas at the zoo.

Please forgive me for speaking to your brother when you were composing a song, thus interrupting the inspired flow. During future song-writing sessions we will remember to wear our soft-soled moccasins and carry out all essential communication in sign language.

I should not have asked you to carry your shoes inside from the car. My arms may have been laden with two bags and a toddler, but I have a pair of perfectly good ears from which I could have hung your shoes – if I was prepared to be a bit more considerate.

Dear Four-Year-Old, thank you for clearly and articulately highlighting my mistakes, lest I ever start to become conceited. And thanks for reminding me daily that I am most certainly not the centre of the universe.

Love from Mummy.