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Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

By Jennifer Berney


This time around two-and-a-half is pushing me so far beyond my comfort zone that I am sometimes frightened. In my darker moments, I wonder: what if I wake up one morning and I just can’t do it anymore?


My son, who is two-and-a-half, has perfected the art of resistance. When I go to change his morning diaper, he snakes behind the sofa cushions and lies there, still and silent. When I give up on waiting for his cooperation, when I remove the cushions and attempt to lift his body, he transforms into a whirlwind of force and motion, every limb wild with fury, kicking and punching at my face. “No change me!” he cries as I carry him to the bathroom. “No change me!”

I can try to imagine why he resists with such force. The morning diaper, I’m sure, is warm and molded to his body. Perhaps he dreads the sudden air on his bottom, followed by the crisp new elastic on the tender flesh of his thigh. But my empathy for my son’s position doesn’t do either of us much good. That diaper still needs to come off.

Yesterday, as I ripped the first adhesive strip from the diaper he shouted to our dog “Save me Wally! Eat Mommy!”

I paused. “Do you really want Wally to eat me?”

A gleam passed through his eyes. “Yeah,” he answered, smiling now. Apparently the thought gave him comfort. When my job was complete, I lifted him from the changing pad, and he leaned into me and held my face. “You my best friend,” he whispered.

This is what two-and-a-half has meant for my son and me. Over the course of five minutes we both may find ourselves embroiled in a physical struggle, then laughing, then holding each other close. We have become, I think, a textbook example of a concept from developmental psychologist Jean Piaget: disequilibrium.

Disequilibrium occurs during a time of rapid development, when the brain is acquiring new skills faster than it can assimilate them. This explains, for instance, why a child might act ornery and sleep terribly in the weeks before she learns to walk. I’m not sure exactly what skills my son is processing at the age of two-and-a-half, but I know that the specialists predict—accurately—that he will test me at every turn. “Two years old is a lovely age,” a parenting coach once told me. “Two-and-a-half is the age that’s terrible.”

I imagine that for my son disequilibrium feels a bit like waking up on a winter morning, snug and warm beneath the blankets, only to have someone suddenly yank those blankets away; it’s a feeling of being moved abruptly from a state of comfort to a state of unease. No wonder my son doesn’t want me to take off his warm diaper. He’s already feeling exposed.

It’s not so hard for me to imagine how disequilibrium feels to my son, because, as his parent during this stage, I feel the same way: shocked into a new reality where I feel constantly at my own edge. I move through my day bracing myself for conflict. My problem isn’t that my son is wildly inconstant. It is that he is relentlessly predictable. It’s not that I can’t see the tantrums coming. It’s that I can, one after the other, in rapid fire, many times in a single day.  

Last week I found myself crying in the car after a particularly hard morning. I had struggled to get my older son to school on time and once I had dropped him off, my two-and-a-half-year-old refused to get in the car. It was nine-thirty already and I needed to get to work. He reached for the doorframe and hung on with his gorilla grip. “Please don’t do this,” I pleaded as I attempted to pry him off. Once I had buckled him in and settled in my own seat, I passed him a cracker, hoping to distract him from his temper. He accepted it, and then threw it. The cracker glanced off my shoulder and landed on the seat beside me. I buried my head in my hands. “Mommy?” my son inquired. “Mommy, I sorry.”

“Mommy’s okay,” I told him, but I spent the ensuing drive to work wondering if my tears would stop or if I would need to call in sick and spend the rest of the morning hiding in my bed. Upon arriving, I was relieved to find that the motion of walking to my office, the sunlight in the trees calmed me.

I’ve been a parent for seven years, and I’ve had my ups-and-downs, but this time around two-and-a-half is pushing me so far beyond my comfort zone that I am sometimes frightened. In my darker moments, I wonder: what if I wake up one morning and I just can’t do it anymore? Addiction and mental illness run deep through my family’s genetic history, and I’ve spent my life wondering if the wrong circumstance might trigger a change in my brain’s chemistry and send me headlong into depression.

In brighter moments I remind myself that there is a better case scenario, that my son and I will make it to the other side of this together, both of us more even, unflappable, upright. Because if disequilibrium is a stage in my child’s growth, it might simply be a catalyst for my own as well, a state that stretches my patience until I become more elastic, more capable of steering towards balance.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

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