I’m curled up in the sunroom of our vacation rental that is perched on a low bluff of San Juan Island, gazing at the sun glinting on the water below and the breeze rustling the leaves of the madrona trees growing into the steep rocky bank. While Theo naps in the bedroom, the white noise machine drones through the closed door as I’m trying to find the words to capture the last 18 months.
Theo woke early this morning, before 6:00 a.m., as he almost always does. I pulled him from his travel crib and into our bed while Elie went into the kitchen for a bottle of milk. For the next half-hour, he snuggled back and forth between me and Elie, drinking milk, cuddling, laughing and asking (through sign language) to sing his favorite songs. We start our day like this every morning, the three of us snuggled in bed, and it’s often my favorite part of the day.
This 18-month toddler age is both my most favorite developmental stage and my least favorite, at the same time. Watching Theo, I am once again seeing the world as a child, through his eyes. I watch him crouch in the grass, very still, intently watching a honey bee buzz from one clover flower to another. Or see how he wants to turn over every rock, expecting to find crabs scurrying underneath, defensively raising their claws in the air as they search for cover. Or how he wonders why every bush and tree doesn’t bear blackberries for him to eat by the handful, until his mouth and hands are stained deep purple.
This has been our summer, the summer Theo became a toddler, exploring with curiosity and the aplomb that comes from a total lack of self-consciousness. When we’re at home, every morning after breakfast we load up the stroller and walk the 15 minutes to the beach, where we play in the sand or look for crab or sit at the shore and throw rocks, one after the other. It is a test of our ability to be patient and present in that moment, because Theo will not get bored. So, we try to sit by his side and watch and observe and have the same excitement he shows in watching the water ripple to shore as the rock hits the surface and sinks.
Every morning, we wait for the train, standing by the tracks and waving. As the last car passes, he wonders why it’s so short, turning to us with an arms-outstretched, “Where did the train go, and why can’t I make another appear?” stance. We stay outside until it’s time to go home for naptime. Sometimes we repeat the same field trip in the afternoon, or we’ll head in a different direction explore another park or trail. But, we are always outside, because that is where Theo is happiest.
He would rather stand outside on the sidewalk and watch the excavator across the street digging a hole in the ground than play with any toy inside. However, he does like playing with these stickers, in case anyone is looking for a good toddler activity for independent play. He also loves to read, and we probably go through 20 or more books a day, mostly about trucks and excavators, but he also loves this alphabet book about fruits and vegetables. Also, just in the past few weeks we’ve started videos. Don’t judge us, but when he’s really tired or teething or we’re in the car, watching a little Mother Goose Club can save everyone. He also loves music videos, especially Mandolin Orange, which we can all enjoy.
Theo loves to help Elie and me in the kitchen. If you’ve seen my Instagram stories, you’ve probably seen Theo standing on the counter putting dates in the Vitamix to make almond milk or using the plunger to help make a smoothie. I hope this love of the kitchen sticks, because I adore having him in the kitchen with us. Letting him stand on the counter and cook with us summarizes our philosophy of raising Theo. We talk to him and treat him like a person, not a baby. Has he ever burned his finger? Yes. But, we think the benefit he gains from being given responsibility (within reason) and letting him learn far outweigh the risk. We give him choices. We have breakables on the coffee table, and we’re just teaching him to be gentle and respectful. So far, it’s working.
It’s amazing to see him grow into his own person, his personality starting to shine. His sense of humor tickles me. Even without having many words, he knows how to tease. It sounds funny to say this of an 18-month old, but he has a great sense of timing, using pause and suspense for effect. It’s adorable and charming. He is so playful, so filled with curiosity. He loves to be the center of attention, to perform. But at the same time, he can be suddenly bashful. He’s incredibly social, loving to meet new people and to be around lots of people, but he doesn’t want Elie or me to be away from his side. He is so loving, giving spontaneous hugs or big, slobbery kisses. My favorite is when he runs up and hugs me at the knees or sneaks up on me while I’m sitting on the floor and puts his arms around my neck. He’s kind and generous, gentle with the dogs we meet as we walk and always wanting to share his motsets (soother) with our kitties. We have taught him to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and he uses them regularly and mostly without prompting.
I keep waiting for him to just walk into the kitchen one day and start talking to me in full sentences. He has an amazing comprehension of our conversations, because sometimes he will sign a comment or answer to something I’m saying, even when I didn’t know he was listening or knew what I was talking about. His verbal words are pretty much still limited to ‘dada’ (his favorite) and ‘yeah,’ but he says a lot that we just don’t understand. And every now and again, he’ll say a word completely clearly, but then he won’t repeat it. We’re not worried, because we know he’ll start talking in his own sweet time. In the meantime, he’s really good at communication.
I think I've talked about baby sign language here before, but I just wanted to share again how powerful sign language has been for us and for Theo. At this age, Theo’s main way to communicate is by signing. We started using sign language with Theo around 6 months and it was probably around 9 months when he made his first sign. Now he has a vocabulary of 25 - 30 words, and he is very efficient at communicating his needs and wants. For example, he can tell me he wants to go outside to look for trains (a favorite pastime), by signing 'outside' and 'train.' He can tell me he's hungry, thirsty, wants his bear, or wants to snuggle Kukla (one of our kitties). He even makes up his own signs, and sometimes it takes us a little while to figure out what he means. Sign language has prevented many tears on both of our parts, by giving him a way to communicate until his language skills can catch up with his brain. We found sign language videos really helpful, and you can find classes in many communities.
In case you think we’re living in Wonderland, his strong, independent, curious nature comes with the normal challenges of toddlerhood. Because he still communicates mostly with sign-language, he gets very frustrated when we can’t understand what he wants. So, Elie and I try to be patient and kind when he whines or screams, because we know he’s just trying to tell us what he wants and needs. But, as every parent knows, it's not always easy.
At this stage, he has feelings and opinions about almost everything and he communicates them loudly and clearly. He went through a short phase of ear-piercing screams, which thankfully seems to have mostly passed as quickly as it appeared (fingers crossed). We used many tactics to stop the screaming: distraction and diversion, humor, ignoring the behavior, using a stern voice, walking away (when it’s safe to do so), explaining to him that screaming/whining doesn’t help him get what he wants. Evidently, something worked, but I don’t know which one.
I feel lucky that Elie and I have very similar parenting styles and philosophies, which I would like to write more about in the future. We both believe in teaching him manners and setting limits and helping him start to understand consequences, even at his young age. Theo's smart and he learns quickly. It's important to both Elie and me that we are giving Theo the skills and tools and love and limits to be a good person, to be caring and kind and compassionate and passionate about doing good in the world. We need more of those kinds of people, and we believe that starts now.
Theo is incredibly lucky to have both Elie and me at home with him most of the time, and Mimi (my Mom), living right next door, so he gets lots of one-on-one (or three-on-one) attention. Elie is an amazingly present and playful daddy, which is not surprising to anyone who knows him. He falls into the category of the fun and adventurous parent, letting him ride in the convertible, putting him on the paddle board or helping him climb the highest rock. Elie is really good about letting Theo learn by doing, encouraging him to take affordable risks, and Theo adores being at his Daddy’s side.
As his Mama, I'm the classic nurturer and the lucky recipient of many of the snuggles, especially first thing in the morning. He loves to cuddle in my lap and read book after book, especially when he's tired. He'll take my hand and lead me into the living room to sit on the floor, where he'll plop in my lap to play stickers or blocks. And I know all the good tickle spots to make him squeal with laughter. Sometimes it's hard to be the second-favorite parent and it stings a little when he'd rather have Elie kiss a bruised knee than me. But I know each of us have a role in his life for different needs, and that's okay.There is so much love to go around.
Speaking of love, Theo also adores his Mimi and Saba (Elie's dad), who we see often. And he had an immediate connection with his Papa (my Dad), who came to visit from Mississippi earlier this year. He loves his Uncle Oren, and his cousins. It's always interesting to me how Theo is naturally drawn to some people instantly. Evidently, chemistry is important, even to toddlers, and it can't be forced.
Sometimes I get teary, thinking that I almost didn’t have this life. Around Mother's Day this year, I read several different stories written by other blogger moms, including this one and this one. I relate to many of the struggles they talk about, but I think being an older mom, at least for me, makes me think about the hard times differently. My entire life I dreamed of being a mama, but I had all but given up on that possibility. Having Theo, being his mama, is a miracle, and one I yearned for for years. So, even on the hard, cranky days, I feel lucky. Because the alternative is not getting to experience this beautiful life at all.
Thank you for following along with our journey as parents to our sweet Theo. xo
Photographs by Matthew Land Studios.