This past Saturday, Em and I helped celebrate the 4th birthday of one of our favorite pint-sized family friends. The party took place at a local kid-oriented art space. Em had a fabulous time hanging with all the four year-olds, engaging (with my help and guidance) in activities like painting, playing party games, and drawing with chalk on the chalkboard walls (part of me SO wants to make one of Em’s bedroom walls into a chalkboard surface, while the other part of me knows that this would likely result in EVERY wall in our house being covered with chalk). Sure, she may have tried eating the paint on her paper plate palette one or two times, and she didn’t quite get the concept of “pass the paintbrush” (a creative spin on the “hot potato” classic). Sure, it was a little unpleasant when she decided to throw the entire contents of the bucket of chalk across the floor. But for a full afternoon, Em got to kind of be one of the big kids, and got to kind of participate in big kid activities. I could tell even "kind of" being a big kid made Em over-the-moon happy.
Later in the evening, we joined the family of the birthday girl and several of our friends (both grown up and not-so-grown-up) for dinner at the birthday girl’s house. I treasure these moments with friends so much, especially since they are so few and far between these days. The dynamic of our get-togethers has changed pretty drastically in the past few years. Whereas we all used to get together at a local dive bar for an evening of karaoke and greasy fries, many of us now have young kiddos, and have had to curtail our Saturday night plans. Sure, we still have a great time together, but it’s hard to collectively let our hair down when there are always diapers to be changed, hungry little mouths to feed, and children asleep on our shoulders.
While I tried my best to focus on catching up with my friends, I found myself constantly distracted. I was busy observing the way Emmy was interacting with all the other kids in the house. Em’s tenuous toddler status put her in a somewhat awkward Goldilocks situation, where she was too big to hang with the babies, and too little to join the big kids.
Two of our close friends have babies around the 5 – 6 month age range. Em looked at them like they were aliens who had just invaded our planet. She approached them warily, as if she wasn’t sure whether they came in peace, or were about to shoot lethal laser beams out of their eyes. When it was my turn to hold a baby, Em watched me, seeming to wonder why on earth I was making friends with one of the space invaders. But rather than immediately walking over and peeing on my leg as a means of marking her territory, Em hung back and managed to stifle her jealousy for at least a few minutes. I was quite proud of her.
By the end of the evening, Em seemed to have warmed up to the "weird baby creatures", even touching one of their hands and trying to talk to one of the baby girls as she sat in a baby bouncer. To be honest, I am pretty sure Em was trying to convince the baby to get out so she could take a turn in the bouncer. But Em’s got a kind and naturally nurturing soul, and was gentle and friendly with the little ones. It made me think that Em will make a wonderful older sister, if we are blessed with another child some day.
Em also tried hanging with the big kids (ages 4, 5, and 7) but that didn’t really go over so well. It was obvious that Em felt like she was “one of the gang,” but the gang didn’t exactly share her feelings. When the big kids ran around the house, from living room to bedroom and back again, Em waddled after them, hanging out on the periphery of wherever they were playing. On a few occasions, I saw her trying to communicate with the big kids in her made-up “toddlerish,” but they just kinda looked at her like “ummmm, what are you trying to say, baby?” and continued with their activities.
Watching Em try unsuccessfully to fit in with the older crowd was a little hard on my heart, actually, and I got a little emotional. Being a card-carrying member of the overly-sensitive mama club (I should really run for president), I ignored the lump that was forming at the back of my throat and told myself not to interfere. I knew I couldn’t force the big kids to play with Em, and I also realized that I probably cared a heck of a lot more than Em did about her not being included.
This Goldilocks stage of toddlerhood is tough to navigate. Em is quickly outgrowing many of her baby behaviors, which of course makes me sentimental for the days when I could just carry her around in the Ergo carrier, with her little body close to my heart at all times. Em is also not quite ready for the big leagues, and still depends on me for an interpretation of her needs (and an occasional breastfeeding). But of course, even though she is too big to be considered a baby, and too small to be considered a big kid, to me Emmy is always “just right”.