I have a three year old. An exuberant, charismatic, chatty three year old who is wondrously curious about everything. But not long ago, I had a tiny newborn in my arms and I was learning all about motherhood for the first time. Not long ago, conversations pivoted around questions like ‘how old is she?’, ‘how is she sleeping?’, and ‘are you breastfeeding?’. General appreciative compliments abounded, and support was extensive when it came to physical matters like weighing your baby or consulting lactation experts or starting on solids. In a couple of years, questions will no doubt be posed at my daughter directly - ‘how old are you?’, ‘do you like school?’, ‘what’s your favourite subject?’. But for now, I have a three year old. Which means a few things. I am experiencing the indeterminate, ‘in between’ phase of early childhood, when my daughter is no longer a toddler, but is not yet in school. People tend to compliment her on what she looks like or what she’s wearing rather than have conversations with her (because she is three, maybe, there is not much expectation of her ability to converse). Motherhood is more ‘new’ feeling and intense and demanding than ever before, but there is much less conversation about it - and much less interest in me and my child overall (I don’t mean this melodramatically; simply that we, as a duo, are not novelties anymore). I may still be dealing with ‘toddler matters’ like weening and potty training, but suddenly these are not such acceptable topics to be discussing openly in the way I could before. Even between friends, questions around challenges are often shared in lowered tones, tinged with shame or guilt - ‘is your little one having a lot of tantrums too?’, ‘is she still wearing a nappy at night?’. And speaking of questions - they are rarely asked by others at all in this phase; there is simply a calm assumption that I am not ‘new at this’ anymore and that I must now know what I am doing.
The thing is, I would know what I was doing by now - pretty well - if my daughter had remained a newborn. With my second child, who is eight months old, that early phase was indeed quite straightforward and intuitive. But as my firstborn grows into each new stage, it is a whole new learning curve for me too. Never before have I had to be so vigilant about my own thinking and behaviour, so attentive to the crucial, formative needs of another, so reflective on my own daily actions and words, so searching for ways to do the best for this little person, so tested in patience and every virtue, so overwhelmed with wonder, and so conscious of every little decision I make. And now that I have a three year old who hears everything I say to other adults, doesn’t have afternoon naps, and asks a thousand questions - I am no longer able to read up on all these matters and chat on the phone to friends whenever I need, as in those early days. This - all this and more - is what makes having a three year old so very ‘new’ and compelling that it is hard to believe that society is not more interested!
It seems that it is easier, socially, to project to the next stage in life than dwell too deeply on the current one. This has become a cliché in adulthood - asking a teen about their next set of exams/university; a twenty something if they’ve ‘found the one’; newly weds if they’re going to have a baby soon; young parents if they’re going to have another one. When you have a child it is similar. So many people - including strangers - have asked me when my (then two year old) daughter is starting school. As if the next milestone is all that matters, and as if asking about parenting itself - the day to day reality of so many right now - is a taboo subject. Perhaps parenting is too personal to chat about casually - like a divorce or ill health. Perhaps no one really knows what questions to ask. But there she is - my three year old daughter - in the splendour of her absorbent mind, searching questions, and scientific investigations, and yet mostly everyone is interested in what school I am considering, and the sleeping patterns of my younger baby.
Truthfully, these three years have flown by in a blur of constant change and emotion. It has been a period of humongous growth for everyone - like a trip around the world in our very own home. I feel that I am reeling from it all, and slightly shocked that I am not considered a ‘new mother’ anymore. It really is true that the days are long but the years are short. But the thing is, I am still a new mother: I have a three year old, not a thirty year old. My child needs me more intensely than ever, and my range of learning is widening exponentially, not lessening. I am not projecting to when she is five years old and I don’t have full days with her anymore; I am trying to do my best now, so that she can be her best now. And in my opinion, this is one of the most meaningful conversations we can be having!