21 completely subjective rules for raising a toddler boy through divorce

I was so inspired by Cup of Jo’s post about rules for raising teenage girls that I thought I might consider my own personal lessons in parenting.  So here goes!  I have a sweet, smart, sassy, sometimes terrible almost-three-year-old boy, hereafter referred to as “R.” And please let me know about your experience—God knows I hope we’re in this together!

  1. You never figure out sleep.  You just get by.  I dread the day when my son outgrows his stroller (it’s looming ever nearer) because that is my most reliable and painless way to get him to sleep at night.  My advice—put the parenting books away and embrace doing what works for you and your boy. 
  2.  Sleep is just sleep.   I’m terrible at napping.  I’m not good at sleeping in and sometimes I’m not even good at falling asleep.  If you’re lucky enough to have a coparent then you might find yourself bothered that you cannot take advantage of your days off to catch up on sleep.  Just let it go.  Sleep if you can and don’t underestimate the restorative power of quiet rest (aka the poor man’s nap). 
  3. There is SO MUCH physical contact.  This is a two sided coin—actually maybe four sided.  When he’s with you he will either be punching you or hugging you or climbing on you or kissing you.  It’s a lot.  And it’s exhausting.  Then you will have to endure days without any of this contact—which feels equally terrible.  So–two kinds of torture depending on the day. 
  4. He’s going to have a temper.  There are moments where you wonder if this is going to turn into a full blown personality disorder. There are moments when you realize he sounds exactly like what YOU sound like when YOU talk to him.  Forgive yourself for this. Vow to do better.  Listen to your gut about whether he needs more help with this than you can give. He’s only almost-3 after all.
  5. Teach him about his emotions.  I’ve been surprised about my little guy’s ability to verbalize what he is feeling when given the vocabulary.  Men in our culture are socialized from childhood to shut off awareness of their emotions.  Do your son and the world a favor by giving him the vocabulary and safe space to talk about what he’s feeling.
  6. Talk to him about your emotions.  Explain when you are angry or sad or joyful.  R eats this up.  It gives him a way to understand that when I’m sad it’s not always about him.  It also lets him see that it’s okay to have feelings and talk about them.  It’s not uncommon now for him to ask me, “Are you frustrated?”, or “Are you happy?”, as he studies my face.  It’s a good check-in for me to consider what emotion I’m portraying to him and make sure it’s what I want.
  7. Don’t tell him not to cry.  I suppose there are scenarios where the “get it together” speech is necessary for any of us.  But I find myself resorting to it more often than I would like to admit. Boys need to feel.  R is less overtly emotional than his female playmates but it shows up in different ways and I try to stay aware enough to not shut it down when it comes out.
  8. Remember to reward the good behavior.  My BFF is a natural at this and marvel at her ability to notice the good in the midst of the emotional torrent that is toddlerhood. I recently made a mental note to do better at this.
  9. Give him a job to do. I find this works best when I’m trying to get something done and he wants my attention.  If I give him a job to do he feels engaged.  It’s usually a simple one-step request like, “Will you take this to the trash?”  It doesn’t always work but it’s my favorite when it does.
  10. Exercise is so important! See 1 and 2 about sleep.  R needs some good exercise to help him settle down at night.  Finding a setting where this can happen is the easiest way to get it done.  We usually go to the park or the beach.  My favorite is if he finds a kid to run around with so they can really wear each other out.  R is an only child so I appreciate the socialization too.
  11. Let others help you parent your kid.  I think this is a fairly hot topic right now.  Our current culture is very isolating.  We feel we must do so much independently.  I believe it takes a village to raise a child. Part of learning to parent solo has been learning to appreciate and allow others to help me.  I love it when other humans provide R with feedback about his less-than-desireable or good behavior in a respectful way.  This works best when he is doing something directly affecting said human because it models appropriate boundary setting.
  12. He is going to miss you and you are going to miss him.  This is the good thing and the hard thing about shared custody.  I try not to get too sappy at exchanges because I know they are hard for him.  I also try not to take it personally if he wants to see his dad or misses him when he’s with me.  I’ve just decided to trust that he misses me and I miss him and not worry about how that shows up.
  13. Exchanges are hard. There are emotions for everyone involved.  They are often not particularly pleasant.  Keep it brief and as positive as possible.
  14. Trust. Whew! This was a tough lesson.  I mean trust that your kid is going to be ok.  Trust that this is his journey. Trust yourself as an important guide for him as he goes through it.
  15. Take care.  Spend time intentionally doing things that give you confidence, peace and self-love.  Boys need strong moms.  Strong moms fiercely protect their emotional and physical wellbeing. 
  16. Give him lots of different foods. Understand that food is a coping skill for toddlers (the, what I imagine to be, multi-billion-dollar fruit snack and cheese cracker industry thanks them for it).  Don’t get too hung up if their diet isn’t as varied as you want it to be but never stop putting new food in front of them to try.  R surprises me with what he will and won’t eat on a regular basis!  Don’t worry about what he eats at dad’s—we’re all doing our best here.
  17. Potty training is about emotional readiness.  Mostly MY emotional readiness.  Don’t judge yourself if it takes longer or happens later than the book, your friend or family, or even your brain says it should.
  18. YouTube videos of toy demonstrations equal angry toddler.  I’m not sure what is so uniquely concentrated in these seemingly benign videos but they are now banned at my house.  If you don’t know what these are, you’ll know it when you see it and your kid will too because he won’t be able to look away.
  19. Your kid is just another human in the world. My spiritual belief is that we are all children of God.  I used to think that, because I was the mom, or because I was capable, or willing, that my needs and desires should come second to my son and other loved ones.  I’ve now realized that we are all really siblings and equally important.  Yes, his wellbeing is my top priority, but it’s also his responsibility and my co-parent’s responsibility to shoulder the load of this divided family.  I can’t carry it all.  I’ve tried.  Not doing that anymore.  See #14.
  20. Trust your gut (still small voice, knowing, whatever you call it).  The better you get at hearing this part of yourself, the easier it will be to make the million hard decisions that come along in this harried process.  Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that  whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. “  Me too, Maya. An open heart let’s me find the knowing.
  21. We’re all doing our best here.  Sometimes our best is pretty terrible, but it’s our best.  I didn’t always believe this about myself or my ex, but I certainly do now.  Life is messy.  Divorce is hard.  Trusting that we’re all doing our best takes a lot of the drama out of a multitude of issues.

What did I forget? Surely there’s more and I have A LOT left to learn.  Love to all of the parents out there navigating this!

PC: Nick Stone Photography (he’s amazing…check him out)