One day, after watching me chase my toddler son around all day long, my mom looked at me and said,
"You and all your friends are completely nuts. Why in God's names don't you put that kid in a playpen? "
I patronizingly explained to my mom (who had successfully raised twins) why I couldn't possibly put my baby in a playpen. A friend, who was older and more experienced as a mom, had recently set me straight on the evils of playpens:
"The child's job is to explore. How is his brain going to grow and develop when he is jailed in a a playpen? We would never have one of those at my house! "
Oh, crap! I thought to myself. I had been thinking the playpen was the greatest invention ever--but I was not about to limit my child's brain development by locking him in a cage! I shoved the Pack n' Play back in the closet and resolved to let my son have free range in the house so that he could develop normally.
Ha, ha, ha. As it turned out, we were pretty lucky our free-range toddler did not a) Burn down the house, b) Destroy any major appliances, c) Injure himself or others, or, d) Send his mother screaming into a psych ward.
As soon as Palmer started crawling at the age of eight months, there was nothing he couldn't figure out how to get his hands on. One time, I came out of the bathroom to find him actually swinging from the chandelier over the kitchen table (years before Sia came up with the idea)! Soon after that, he twisted himself completely up in the curtains on the sliding glass doors, got stuck, and managed to pull down the whole fixture--curtains, curtain rods, brackets, and bolts--before I even knew where he had gone.
People kept telling me to child-proof the house. We tried, but there was no such thing as Palmer proof. (Safety Kids and Graco should have thrown all their devices into our living room and paid us to test them--like the bears who test trash cans at Yellowstone National Park!) First, I bought a safety catch for the stove. Palmer watched me install it, examined it for about two seconds, swiftly ripped it off the stove, and snapped it in half. Then he looked at me in disgust like, What do you take me for, lady??
Another time I was lamenting to my neighbor that it was impossible to cook dinner with Palmer in the kitchen. My neighbor looked at me in pity and said, "Don't you have the refrigerator magnets? The alphabet? That's what you need. Those keep my kids busy for hours."
I looked at her in amazement. Of course I had refrigerator magnets--not only the alphabet, but an entire fleet of construction equipment and a whole set of gears with moving parts. These had kept Palmer busy for exactly four seconds--then he was off to empty the cabinets and throw all the pots and pans down the basement stairs.
When I told other moms about the things Palmer managed to do, they all looked at me like I was insane--and the worst mom on the planet. I did not realize, at the time, that we just had an extremely unusual baby. No one else's one-year-old pulled up vent covers and filled the ducts with Thomas trains, or figured out how to unlock bolts, or filled the dryer with tomatoes. My mother in law, who had seven children and a dozen grandchildren when Palmer was born, looked at me once and said, "He's as active as they come!"
The one place we had to actually lock Palmer out of was the bathroom: after finding him, at about nine months, crawling for the hot water faucet (he adored baths) and another day, about to drop a round wooden block into the toilet (it would have exactly blocked the pipes!)--we installed a latch high on the outside of the door. Palmer would sit and stare up at that latch, a look of grim determination on his face. He was in diapers, had no hair and couldn't talk--but by God, he was going to figure out how to get that door open! Soon after that, I found him standing on top of the cat trying to reach it. I realized that he had seen the cat jump up onto the counter-- he was hoping he cat could give him a ride all the way to the top of the door. (The cat was was not harmed in this incident!)
One day, I could not take it any more--possibly it was the day Palmer ate something out of the litter box while I was one the phone (I then called my husband, screaming). I retrieved the Pack and Play, set it up, and deposited Palmer in it with about four thousand books and toys. The look on his face was pure, indignant rage--What in God's name do you think you're doing, lady?? After about twelve minutes, I couldn't take the unholy screaming---and he was back out. He would have figured out how to get out of the playpen pretty soon anyway--since the cat hadn't worked out, he was already trying to drag chairs to the bathroom door.
As soon as Palmer was a little older I just tried to get him out of the house as much as possible. Since we lived in North Dakota at the time, this took a lot of effort, involving snow suits which made my child the approximate size of a llama, getting gas when it was ten below zero, and actually plugging in the car so it didn't freeze (to makes things even more exciting, my husband spent nearly all of that year deployed in the Middle East!) Every Tuesday I hauled Palmer to Kindermusik, which went over about as well as the refrigerator magnets. While the other kids were obediently doing the feather dance, Palmer was running down the stairs and out of the building screaming "NO MORE 'PEEP SQUIRREL!'" (My sister said later, "You're lucky he didn't kill someone after having to sing Peep Squirrel four times!")
After snatching Palmer out of the traffic in the howling snow (I could barely run because not only was the parking lot sheer ice, I also pregnant), I thought, there has to be a better way. A few days later, over coffee, I told my anti-playpen friend that I was thinking about putting Palmer in a toddler class a few mornings a week to try to regain my sanity and perhaps even go to the bathroom by myself a few times before the baby came. She looked at me with pity:
"I would never send my child to one of those-- programs. I want him with me."
I sighed. Her child was sitting quietly in his stroller, turning the pages of a board book. My child had unbuckled from his stroller, disappeared behind the counter at Starbucks, and was headed for the mop bucket. As I chased him down and grabbed him from out of the path if a startled barista, the guilt overwhelmed me again: of course I wanted my child with me. Only a bad mom would want to sent a two year old away. Right?
Wrong. When I had my second child, I got lucky: the first moms I met in our new neighborhood urged me to park my little tornado in preschool, pronto, and come along to Starbucks before I completely lost my sh*t! Which I was obviously losing by the second!!
And that has made all the difference.
This blog is dedicated to Teresa Degenhart, Mary McCafferty, and Karen Abney.