It was a Sunday evening, and I was home alone with my 3-year-old, Aspen, who is more or less a wild animal. My wife was doing some work for our church, and my two older children were with my in-laws. My one job was to get her calmed down and to sleep, and while it doesn’t sound like much, getting my daughter to calm down and go to sleep is about as easy as soothing a wild raccoon who recently drank a pot of coffee.
Aspen started by pushing her remaining food off the table. My plan was to get her settled and then clean up the dinner leftovers. But obviously I needed to do it right that second to avoid any more catastrophes, so I cleared it.
While I was doing that, she pulled all the clothes out of her dresser. I cleaned up as best I could and eventually calmed her down by putting on a movie and making a bed on the floor (because floor beds are way better than actual beds when you are a toddler). She wasn’t all that interested in Curious George, even though she insisted that was what she wanted to watch. She was still antsy — and looking for trouble.
What ultimately got her to calm down was me lying next to her. Each time she sat up, I gently pulled her back down and said, “Night-night.”
She laughed and thought it was a game, and after about 30 minutes of this, she finally started to drift off.
As I was lying next to this blonde-headed, bright-eyed little lady, I realized she somehow put a strawberry in my pants.
A strawberry. In my pants.
I’m as confused as you.
We had strawberries at dinner, so it could have been while I was clearing the table, or maybe she snuck it in while I was picking up the mess in her room. All I knew was that I didn’t put it there, and she was the only other person in the house.
The kid is a ninja.
Aspen began to stir, and so I stayed next to her for a moment longer, all the while trying to pull what was left of the strawberry out of my pants and feeling this deep weariness that really only comes when you are the parent of a wild child.
I have to assume that all parents with wild children know this deep, behind-the-eyes, numbing fatigue. It comes after chasing an incredibly curious, always-moving, never-sleeping, constantly screaming or laughing little body all day. Our first two children were pretty active, but Aspen is a whole other thing.
The joke around our house is that if she’d been our first, she’d probably have been our last.
But as I remained beside to this little person, I thought about how much I loved her. I thought about how warm my heart felt when she laughed, and I started to think about everything I’ve learned about myself while raising her.
Much of it was obvious.
I’ve learned that I have more endurance at 35 than I did at 25.
I’ve learned that I have amazing reflexes when it comes to keeping this little curious furniture climber from falling and getting hurt.
I’ve learned that I am incredibly patient and understanding.
This is particularly apparent when I consider that in the past year she’s broken two MacBooks, thrown her grandmother’s iPhone in the toilet, and broken a tablet by hitting it with a kaleidoscope (impressive, right?).
I’ve gained a good amount of upper-body strength from getting her dressed about a million times a day (she’s basically a nudist).
I’ve learned to laugh at things I never thought I’d ever, in a million years, find amusing. Like last week when she scratched a booty itch, then snuck up next to me as I was eating dinner and stuck her hand in my mouth. Yeah, that happened.
In fact, sometimes, with a wild child, all you can do is laugh. You are so tired and burned-out from chasing them, caring for them, trying so hard to keep them alive despite every effort they put forth to undermine your efforts, that you have to laugh. Or you’ll cry.
Laughter is the only way to stay sane with a child like this.
Because of Aspen, I’ve started laughing at everything that’s difficult, at work, with family, or otherwise. That might be the best thing I’ve learned from our wild child. With Aspen, the volume is up all the time — everything she does is at 11. And for some reason, it makes everything else seems less serious.
Mel and I have learned how to better distribute the labor. We take turns handling her. We’ve always been a team, but we’ve never been nearly as in sync as we are now. There are times when neither of us needs to say a thing — we just know that Aspen has gone off the rails, and we need backup. So one or the other pitches in.
I will be the first to admit that having a high-needs wild child has put stress on our relationship. There is no doubt about it. There are times when I call home to check in, and my wife sounds so frazzled from handling our wild daughter that I wonder if the house will be on fire once I get home.
For a long time, I assumed that I needed to fix that. But nothing is going to fix this active 3-year-old outside of time and two parents who are devoted to shaping her into a kind, functioning adult without breaking her spirit.
So instead of giving answers, I just listen. Because of Aspen, I’ve learned to let Mel vent. And once Mel’s done, I can hear her let out a long, stress-reliving breath, and I know that she’s better. She just needed to get it out and have her feelings validated. I can do that.
Finally, the wild one settled into a deep sleep on the floor. I stood up and changed into strawberry-free pants. Then I gingerly carried her to bed. As I laid her down, she kicked a little. I got nervous, wondering if she was about to wake, only to realize that even in her dreams, she was running. I covered her with a blanket. I kissed her blonde head.
And as I shut her bedroom door, I wondered what she’d get into tomorrow, and I wondered what else I will learn from this wild, amazing kid.