Caleb was not an easy toddler to handle. He slept very little and hardly ate.
He also had a steely will, so it took an extraordinary amount of effort to get him to do the simplest things. I was sleep-deprived, frustrated and felt like a failure in parenting.
Turning to books that promised strategies for a happy baby and rested mummy, a few experts offered several classifications to help identify my toddler’s personality type and the corresponding techniques to manage him.
There was also a recommended “cry it out” method, where your child could learn to self-soothe and eventually be conditioned to sleep through the night.
I knew quite instinctively that the “cry it out” sleep-training wouldn’t work on Caleb.
I recalled one afternoon when I left him in the crib to self-soothe while I showered. When I came out five minutes later, he had already cried himself completely hoarse. He also had one leg over the crib and was in the midst of climbing out.
I also went through great pains with Caleb’s eating, or should I say, not eating.
I borrowed cookbooks from friends and spent inordinate amounts of time persuading my toddler to eat, without much success.
Photos taken in collaboration with Deborah Quek, featuring one of our ParentWise families
Soon, I learnt that any recipes offered with the opening words: “Your child will love this”, were guaranteed to be rejected by my fussy toddler.
One evening, after failing to get Caleb to eat dinner, I decided to ignore him completely. He slinked around me for some time and finally said, “Mummy is angry. Caleb wants to eat so Mummy will be happy.”
By then, I had cleared his dinner. So, I rummaged through the food cupboard and handed him a box of milo pops. He munched on it and said, “Caleb is eating. Mummy is happy now? Mummy, eat one milo pop, then Caleb is happy.”
I was torn between smiling and sighing.
It didn’t help that, around me, some parents seemed to handle these things with little effort. I recall a mum whom I met as I was waiting to pick Caleb from a class in church.
“It must be a lot of work for you,” I said when I learnt that she had four young kids.
“At this age, they only eat and sleep,” she said breezily. “It’s so easy.”
And there I was, exhausted from parenting one toddler. I felt like a kid with red marks all over my report card.
Parenting is a life-long learning journey, not a fixed syllabus one can ace.
One “lightbulb moment” for me as a parent came from a book that a friend gave me.
In The New Strong-Willed Child by psychologist and family counsellor Dr James Dobson, he used the example of a supermarket trolley to illustrate the personality of a strong-willed child.
To paraphrase his illustration, there are supermarket trolleys that we can push in the direction we want with ease and minimal effort, which makes grocery shopping an easy task. These trolleys are the ones with straight and well-oiled wheels. This represents the compliant child.
But there are also trolleys that won’t go the direction we want them to go, no matter what we do. The person who is pushing a trolley like this ends up expending several times the energy to make it move.
This was exactly how I felt with my strong-willed toddler.
Over time, I’m learning to stop giving myself poor grades as a parent. After all, parenting is a life-long learning journey, not a fixed syllabus one can ace.
When Caleb was two, I also had a glimpse of how much he has a mind of his own.
“Caleb, do you look like mummy?” I asked one day.
“No,” he replied.
“Do you look like Papa?” My husband asked.
“No,” he replied. “Caleb looks like Caleb.”
I’m reminded, from that conversation, that my kid is his own person. He has his own strong traits and developmental milestones that will differ from other kids.
As I learn to read my child better, it helps me to parent him better. And if I stumble through a lousy parenting day, I cut myself some slack. Tomorrow is a brand new day to start over.
Emily Lim-Leh is a proud mum to one spirited child and an award-winning author of 35 children’s picture books. She also blogs about books and parenting.
This article was first published on ParentWise. Developed by Temasek Foundation in partnership with SEED Institute (subsidiary of NTUC First Campus), ParentWise is a programme that offers curated evidence-based learning programmes and resources that parents and caregivers need to support their children. For more parenting tips and resources, please visit ParentWise at https://parentwise.sg/.