Human pinball. Tornado of destruction. Agent of chaos. Mischievous George. Spiderbaby. These aren’t rejected pro wrestler names; they’re nicknames that my husband and I have given our two-year-old son. He is a human Tasmanian devil, a next-generation Evil Knievel in toddler form.
Every day, I turn corners in our house and gasp audibly, diving into rooms to rescue him from his latest daring feat. I Google “My child ate (fill in the blank)” or “My toddler fell off (insert household furniture here)” at least once a week. I worry that well-meaning people will misinterpret the numerous scrapes, bumps and bruises across his legs as constellations. At other people’s houses, I keep a vigilant eye on him, surveying their living rooms as I would a gladiator-style fighting pit. He could wield that antique statue like a trident. He could impale himself on those fireplace pokers. He could scale that entertainment centre like a rock wall in five seconds flat.
Hardly a day goes by without me swearing that this child will be the death of me. He is highly verbal, but his primary language is a physical one. He smashes, crashes, leaps, stomps, rips, shoves, drags, hurdles and tumbles. Living with him is like enduring an endless series of extreme sports.
I should feel more confident about making it through this phase unscathed—I have parented through the highs and lows of the “terrible twos” twice before. But while both of my older sons were often physically demanding during the toddler years, neither was quite as intense—or motivated by mayhem—as my youngest child. My husband and I watch, awestruck, as our third son clears a path of destruction through our house. We constantly wonder where he came from and what strange combination of DNA created this tiny daredevil with blond hair and hazel eyes. My husband and I aren’t especially adventurous—we aren’t risk takers or thrill seekers. As the oldest children in our own families, we are both cautious, thoughtful and responsible, oriented toward structure and order.
To be faced with parenting a child who is so unlike us is bewildering. But if there is anything I’ve learned in seven years of motherhood, it’s that children are unpredictable little people. No two are alike. You could raise two or 10 children and still have no idea what you’re doing. They are unique, strange and mysterious—and maybe no more so than when they’re two.
It took three children for me to figure this out. When our youngest was born, we assumed he’d fit right into the well-worn grooves of our family of four. We thought we knew how to parent boys. We thought we were seasoned professionals.
Right away, within his first year of life, our son proved us wrong. At eight months old, he hoisted himself up to a standing position with the sheer strength of his core muscles. It was impressive—comical even—to see him stagger around the living room on ridiculously small, wobbly legs. It was also somewhat intimidating: Where was he going with such strength and determination? Since that first intrepid trek across the living room, our son has continued to surprise us with what he can accomplish when he sets his mind and body to it.
Being two, he stubbornly sets his mind and body to an awful lot of things, most of which are totally out of our control. He vaults over every baby gate we install, climbs anything with a foothold, ricochets off walls for entertainment, tears board books apart at the seams and runs literal circles around us when we attempt to wrangle him into his car seat/shoes/diaper/bed. He has tried to escape the house through our first-floor windows twice. He doesn’t walk; he runs, full speed and with gusto, down everything from our hallway to our driveway to the aisles of grocery stores. We are always one step behind him.
It’s beyond exhausting, mentally and physically. My husband and I are always on guard, always on high alert. “Where’s the baby?” is a refrain that echoes repeatedly throughout our house, spoken in various tones of distress and frustration. If we aren’t in the same room as him, we are listening closely from a short distance or asking our other sons to report back on their brother’s activities. It’s hard to find a willing babysitter who understands what he is capable of when no one is looking. And buried somewhere beneath all that fatigue and stress is worry that we won’t be watching when we need to and that he’ll hurt himself and it will be our fault for not being vigilant enough.
To survive, we’ve had to adapt. We have next to nothing in our living room—just a couch, a rug and a bookcase mounted securely to the wall. We keep our basement door and the two outside doors doubly childproofed with chain locks. We’ve emptied our drawers, cleared our shelves and fastened our cabinets. We’ve learned to never say never—we always assume he can and will do that thing we think is impossible.
Still, every time I think I’ve had enough of his relentless determination, my rough-and-tumble son comes up to me and plants a big fat kiss on my face. At two, everything—the good and the bad—seems to come from the same place, as if sourced from the same well. Within my son’s unbridled exuberance is a joie de vivre—one that will not be stamped out, no matter how many childproof locks we install. The same thing that motivates him to wiggle out of his booster seat during dinner also causes him to become ecstatic over bubbles, enthralled by butterflies and delighted with the chocolate sprinkles on his ice cream.
His turbulent nature isn’t malicious; he is simply driven by the same unstoppable joy and fierce curiosity inherent to all two-year-olds, though he does seem to experience these impulses at a heightened level. He isn’t just curious but ambitious. He isn’t simply brave but reckless. And no matter what else, he is not to be underestimated.
And therein lies the fear, at least for me. Today, he jumps off the tall arm of the couch. What might he jump off in 20 years, when I’m not there to stop him?
Perhaps nothing. It’s easy to worry but harder still to remember that none of this may mean anything in the future. Maybe this is just a phase he’ll outgrow, like a hand-me-down pair of shoes. Maybe when he is older, when he has even an ounce of the self-preservation that comes with being four, or six, or 12, he will have learned to channel this electric energy and brute physicality. Or maybe he will always dive headlong off literal and metaphorical cliffs, making us want to double-lock, safety-pad and childproof his entire life, even though we know we can’t.
As parents, few things are scarier than resigning yourself to the fact that you can’t rescue your child from everything, least of all himself. Maybe our son will always remind us of that, even once he has graduated from the terrible twos. With every milestone, every growth spurt, every year that passes, we might have no choice but to buckle up and hang on tight, grit our teeth, hold our breath and hope we all survive.
This article was originally published in December 2017.