You know what it’s like with two year olds.
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One minute it is all cuteness, smiles, cuddles, and dribbly kisses, and the next, they are apoplectic with rage because the cup that was perfectly acceptable only yesterday is now evil and must be destroyed. They are hilarious and difficult in equal measure; the frenzied see-saw of emotion has dizzying highs and terrifying lows, and they would try the patience of even the calmest of mothers. I am not she.
My most sleepless night happened when my eldest was two.
Now she is almost five, I feel ready to share it.
She wouldn’t sleep. Just didn’t fancy it. The normal routine of bath, milk and bed that had been perfectly satisfactory most nights up until now was sadly lacking, and the world’s most articulate two year old (not bragging, by the way, it’s a curse and a blessing) was not going to skirt around the problems. Her cup was “not pink enough”, her toothbrush tasted funny, her pyjamas featured too many butterflies and not enough unicorns, and all of her books were “rubbish, actually, Mummy”. The nightlight was wrongly positioned, the teddy bears were in the wrong order, and the door open/shut ratio was off kilter, to say the least.
Like a hero, I soldiered on. It may have made bedtime forty minutes later, but I had totally parented like a Boss and only under-my-breath sworn the once, which is practically saintly. She lay down in bed sleepily and I mentally high-fived myself. I crept downstairs to tell the husband of my mothering prowess and claim a celebratory glass of Pinot. But it was not to be.
For a while, she just sang and played. We listened on the monitor and smiled smugly across the living room at one another at what a funny, cute, clever specimen of procreation we’d bagged as ours. Two years old and she knew all the words to The Wheels on the Bus, Wind the Bobbin Up and, rather oddly, the chorus of Madonna’s Material Girl. Isn’t she just a genius? But then it went on, it got tiresome, the singing became manic, the chattering became annoying and even a little sinister. “Don’t tell Mummy, Pooh Bear, but I am not sleepy. I am naughty. I will never stop”.
Wowser. And she meant it, too.
After a few attempts to settle her, the calling out started.
“Mummmeee, I need you” – a phrase we all loathe post-bedtime.
Excuses ranged from the mundane; “I want some water” and ”I need a wee”, to the ridiculous; “I think I saw a goblin go under the drawers” to the creative; “I want to tell you about my unicorn called Doris” and the surreal; “My fingernail thinks it might be sick”.
Each time, the Pinot and dinner were abandoned, the stairs were climbed, the situation dealt with: water, wee, goblin check, Doris story summarised, fingernail vomit probability assessed, and still I remained calm. Ish.
It was only when she was still going when I wanted to go to bed that it became a real problem for me. At that time, I was still a secondary school English teacher, and I was flipping knackered most of the time. I knew I had both a pre-registration pile of marking and a full day of teaching the next day, and knew tomorrow would be hellish if I didn’t get my kip in. I did that fatal thing where you calculate how much sleep you’ll get if you go to sleep that second and stay asleep till your alarm goes off. It was bad maths. It made me sad.
As the night wore on, we tried all the usual things; threats, bribes, cajoling, reasoning. She was having none of it. She remained awake, she remained chirpy, she remained adamant, annoyingly, that only Mummy would do.
By 1:45 I was laying next to her cot-bed stroking her hair and singing a lullaby, to be told I “sounded like a pigeon”.
At 2.57 I was having my own hair manhandled, as it was now “Mummy’s turn to be the naughty awake girl”. (Oh good, being a little shit is now a game”). At 3.27, with the If I Go To Sleep Now statistics standing at three hours and three minutes, I am not ashamed to say I totally lost my shit. I told her we couldn’t keep her, that unless she went to sleep she would have to pack her things and go and live with another family, because I was just too tired to keep staying awake with her.
Yes, I know, it’s an epic parenting fail. But I was very, very, eyeball-achingly tired. I didn’t shout. I didn’t scream. I delivered this monumental parentfail in a manic wobbly voice somewhere between hysteria and insanity. I’m not proud of it, it’s not going to win me any Mum of the Year prizes, but it happened. And for a few blissful minutes, I thought that it had worked. She stopped still and took in the news. She breathed in deeply a few times, as if contemplating the idea. She lay down in bed, pulled the covers over herself and said, “Right. Right, Mummy. I understand” with a hopeful amount of gravitas. I gingerly took myself off to bed, wondering now if a) it is worth going to sleep and b) whether my new case of mum-guilt will allow me to sleep, at any rate. I’ve probably damaged my two year old. And therapy is very expensive....
There’s a rustling from her bedroom. She’s out of bed again? I sigh, and get up again, preparing to placate my no doubt devastated, desolate child and reassure her that of course I am not sending her away and I never should have said so and...Oh. She opens her bedroom door and heads for the stairs. She’s carrying a Peppa Pig rucksack, which later I would discover held a night-time pull-up, a selection of clothes, a spare (and matching!) pair of socks, her Rapunzel dress up dress and her favourite book. She sees me and turns, holds out her hand.
“Okay, Mummy. I’m going. Where are the car keys?”
I lost. I lost to a two year old so badly that I laughed and cried at the same time. At that moment, tired though I was, I felt a lot of things. I wanted to tell her off, laugh at her, cuddle her. I was a bit sad she wasn’t bothered about leaving me, and yet admiring of her confidence and independence, even to the point of (hilariously) thinking she was going to drive herself to her new family. I was incredibly glad that there was no new family, that this funny, creative, clever and beautiful little girl had to stay with me, even though I was clearly a bit rubbish.
I scooped her up, snuggled her in bed with me, and within minutes, we were both asleep.
For two hours and thirty-seven minutes exactly.