I love being the parent of a 3-year-old human child.
There. I wrote that sentence without choking or coughing out laughter, and my nose has stayed the same length. It’s a statement expressed with reservations, asterisks, and prevarication, but I said it, and dammit, I meant it.
Let me explain.
My daughter turned 3 a few weeks ago, so now when people ask how old she is, she clumsily but confidently holds up the right amount of fingers, and says “I’m free yur yolds” [emphasis hers]. On multiple occasions daily, this perplexing specimen of a toddler gets “The Fire”; my wife and I now need only exchange a knowing glance when The Fire is being stoked before frantically implementing preventative (or at least mitigating) action.
When Alice is consumed by The Fire, nothing is safe: We shoo the dog to higher ground, pick up the oblivious, cooing baby brudder, remove throwable objects from her orbit, and brace for landfall. Then for the next 5 to 7 business days (seems that way, at least), Alice exists purely in a demonic vortex of her own devising: hitting, biting, throwing, squeezing, kicking, shrieking, singing the Frozen soundtrack, farting and laughing, crying, and ultimately, settling into a reluctant but calm acceptance that there is nothing sacred left to destroy.
Seems par for the course, no?
But this had been going on for quite some time now, well before she turned free yur yolds, and I’d steadfastly resisted the idea that somehow completing another trip around the sun would transform her into the smoldering volcano I’d been promised. She was already there, wasn’t she? And how arbitrary is that anyway, given how little time these tiny ones have existed, that we’d divide behavioral landmarks into these huge, 12-month-long chunks based on a solar calendar?
It wasn’t until a torturous, brutal no-preschool 36-hour day (it might have been shorter, but there was a sort of Inception-level time warp happening) early on in my paternity leave with my baby son Louis, just after Alice stopped napping and Louis started teething, when the mercury topped 100 in a town that freaks out when things get much above 75, that I began to see the unholy light: My 3-year-old was, in fact, going to end me.
If you have one of these little people right now, or you’ve emerged bloodied but victorious on the other side, you’ll almost certainly have been part of a conversation about how the terrible twos is a comically ill-fitting description of an actually pretty delightful age, and that three is where the real shit is. “They’re assholes,” you’ve heard or even said, describing bloodthirsty gargoyles hell-bent on sowing chaos in their wake and displaying a shocking disdain for normalcy. Threenagers, you’ve remarked, are oversized 2-year-olds with a bigger vocabulary, spiking and crashing emotions on steroids, and a perpetual imperative to do the exact opposite thing that is needed in almost any given moment, with bonus points for when that moment is stressful for the adult(s) involved.
I was maybe a little cocky about it; I can see that now. As she chugged ever closer to 3, my 2-year-old was already feisty, fearless, and imperious and had never met a boundary she didn’t want to test, or at the very least, nudge. She started speaking on the early side and had a lot to say, and she’s never stopped saying it. She likes to talk so much that when she runs out of words or things to say, she simply invents new ones but says them with the cadence of an actual conversation. The linguist in me is like “Oh, fascinating!” but the adult human in me is like “Shut. Up. For. One. Second. Please.”
She checks a lot of challenging boxes for her age: temperamental, manipulative, defiant, demanding, experimentally mean, loud, potty-mouthed. Some recent instances:
– When her baby brother was being fed solid food for the very first time and Mama and Papa were paying her no attention, not happy to have the spotlight off her, she suddenly shrieked “Who wants butter?!” and grabbed a stick of butter from the table, squished it on her hands, and started to eat it.
– She slammed her door behind her during a moment of big feelings and screamed “I am Alice, and you are my family!” before adding the postscript “I am Moaaanaaa!” Not a few days later, when she was getting The Fire, she prodded us with “Come on, guys! I’m your first daughter!”
– She sobbed hysterically when her new puppet friend Pickle the Raccoon (my wife named him) couldn’t accompany her to preschool and now demands we play Puppet every waking minute of her life. I’m actually doing it right now and typing with the other hand.
– She threw an entire bowl of beans that she refused to eat onto the floor, and when we demanded that she pick them up, she got onto her hands and knees and picked up every single bean, encrusted with dog hair and whatever else, and ate them all before belching and spitting on the floor as a sign of victory.
So how have I slowly grown to love this age? Let’s just call it “The Flipside.” We don’t talk much about The Flipside when it comes to 3-year-olds; it’s overshadowed by The Fire. But there are so many moments that make me shake my head in wonder, like when she reminds us to blink during a movie (it took her a few months to learn to remember) or calls me and my wife “you guys,” or “buddy,” or “my people,” or is the only person able to console her crying brother, or tells me “Papa, my poop was so big and you are so proud, right?” or hugs her burrito like it’s her own flesh and blood, tears streaming down her face, speaking to it in soothing, lilting tones. The fierce, intense love for her friends and family, the way she plays hard from sunup to sundown, the ballet and gymnastics she launches into, her fear of driving on “the freezeway,” and the times she says to me, as she’s holding my hand, “You know, Papa? I was tinking. I was tinking today. I was tinking, you know? I love my Papa.”
Yeah. I love The Flipside, and it keeps getting better. And if it balances out The Fire, I think I’ll be okay. Those moments, the butter and the beans and the puppets? They’re recent history, and yet I already love reminiscing about her at her wildest. So I do love having a free-yur-yold.
And finally: Why the terrible twos? Generational changes in parenting and/or toddler behavior? A simple clerical error? It’s catchy? It seems like Occam’s razor would suggest that 2-year-olds are challenging in their own right, and so thus a phrase was born, quite simply, unconcerned with the particular pitfalls of threes. It’s a shortsighted expression, but then again, shortsightedness is a valuable tool in the parental battle for survival. I’m employing it right now.
I love having a 3-year-old. But do check in with me in a few months to see if I’m still kicking.