I awake to a punch in the face.
Then comes the nails, the gouging of my eyes, the scratching of my cheeks.
This is how my 2-year-old son, Wolfy, often greets me in the morning. I’ve had the bruises to show for his unbounded exuberance – a fat lip, a bloody scab on my ear, scratch marks on every part of my face.
After taking refuge behind a closed door in the bathroom, I am hurried out by my wife, Jess, who has to be at work early, leaving me alone with our little menace. I try to hold Wolfy back as he chases her out the door, grabbing him just as he looks ready for a swan dive down the stairs.
In tears, he begs me to take him to the window to watch mommy drive off. We wave, and he calms down. Then he asks to go potty, even though he has yet to be potty trained. It’s a promising sign. So I comply, well aware of the futility and that it will require another struggle to dress him again.
Wolfy sits on the toilet for a few moments, smirking, taunting me with his big, blue, deeply mischievous eyes. Nothing happens. Then he stands up on the seat and nearly falls in. When I try to brush his teeth, he tosses the toothbrush on the floor. Afterward, he climbs into the bathtub, turns the water on, and demands a bath.
When I finally pull him out — squirming and screaming — he starts running through our apartment, each footfall like an earthquake for our neighbors below, who hate us. Wolfy raises the volume by testing how loud his voice can carry, shrieking in octaves better left to dying animals.
I take a deep breath and try to remember that this is a stage — the Terrible Twos — when toddlers start to assert their independence, their tyrannical possessiveness, their freedom from any hint of parental reason.
After a spate of similar mornings, I call for help. Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and medical editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthychildren.org, reminds me of the best (and maybe only) coping mechanism.
“Laugh at it, and embrace it,” she advises me. “One day you’ll look back on it all and have funny stories to tell.”
My son is acting normally, she promises, noting the madness can start as early as 18 months and last until 3 years old, longer than I had hoped to hear. “Almost every child goes through it,” she reassures me.
Parents have to try to understand their child’s psychology, how everything to a toddler is a game, she says. “The only problem is that as soon as you figure it out, everything changes,” she says.
She offers this consolation: “It gets better as their vocabulary improves. It’s just a phase.”
Wolfy’s vocabulary is expanding every day now, but on this particular morning, he is flaunting the one word he has clearly mastered: “Mine! Mine! Mine!”
He is referring to the spatula he somehow grabbed from the kitchen counter. He likes to use it to reach the light switches and turn them on and off. Or to pound the walls. There’s a brief struggle as I pull it out of his hand.
Then he asks for my iPhone, which he has become adept at snatching, like a frog snapping up a fly. Getting it back requires a deft strategy or forcefulness, especially when he’s scrolling through Elmo videos on YouTube. When I took back my phone the day before, I went to work with a bloodied lip.
Eventually, he gives up on the phone, toddles back into his room, climbs on the couch, and starts tossing all his carefully arranged stuffed animals on the floor. As I pick them up, he laughs, like he’s mocking me. Then he takes a seat in the buff, oddly peaceful for a moment, and flips through one of his books, which has every page torn out or shredded, the product of his destruction.
I notice his breakfast remains untouched, a smoothie my wife made that is some concoction of kale, broccoli, raspberries, and almond milk. He actually often drinks the stuff. When I hand him his sippy cup, he flings it on the floor and the top snaps off.
Another deep breath.
It’s getting late, and Wolfy remains completely naked. So I pick up one of his stuffed animals, which we call Wolfy’s wolf. I fitted it with a diaper, suggesting he let me dress him the same way.
“No, daddy! No, daddy!” he says, smiling. “I don’t like it!”
I rummage through his drawers for options.
“How about this sweatshirt, Wolfy?”
After a few minutes, I’ve rifled through his entire wardrobe. Nothing appeals to his unique sartorial tastes. (He recently insisted on wearing a red T-shirt over a red collared shirt.)
So I resort to a trick. I bring him a picture of his cousins and ask him to name each one. It eases him up, and then he raises his hands, allowing me to slip on a shirt, then a diaper, pants, and socks.
After a struggle to find his shoes — we have a lot of single shoes, as Wolfy often tends to kick them off in random places — we’re at last ready to leave.
But he wants to go out another door. I press him to follow me. He won’t. Then he insists on riding his toy firetruck to day care. As I walk out, hoping he’ll follow, he does. But he comes out speeding into the hall on his truck, veering straight for the staircase. With a quick lunge, I block him from a premature roller-coaster ride.
More deep breaths.
Wolfy agrees to step off the truck when I suggest he help me lock the door, brightening his eyes. Then he insists on walking down the stairs on his own, refusing to hold my hand.
It goes well, with him following me slowly down, until the turn on the next floor. I keep going and he turns around, climbing the steps in the opposite direction.
Holding his lunch, my workbag, and our recycling, I chase him up the stairs, scooping him up with my free arm. Again, he starts screaming.
When we finally make it outside, I set him down so I can dump the recycling. Immediately, he bolts — toward the street. I sprint after him and pick him up in a cradle. We head to my car. With a free pinky, I open the gate and nearly topple down a cement staircase as he struggles to free himself.
I begin to feel woozy, short of breath.
The final battle of the morning promises to be the biggest — getting him into his car seat. When I open the door, as usual, Wolfy refuses to take his seat, climbing over his bulky throne and plopping down on the opposite side. I walk around and open the other door. He flashes his impish grin and scurries the other way.
I plead with him. He smiles back, a dimpled, towheaded devil.
“I’m going to win, Wolfy,” I say. “I always do.”
He dares me with his eyes, and I pounce, snatching him up and muscling him into his seat, mustering all my strength to latch him in. Again, he screams, as if I’m tearing off his limbs.
The deed done, I collapse in the driver’s seat, clenching my eyes while I catch my breath. Work beckons like a vacation.
To calm him, I promise to play one of his favorite songs from a free children’s album we received. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times now and would rather listen to nails on a blackboard. But when the irritating refrain starts to play, he relaxes. He demands I replay it again and again, until we arrive at day care.
In the driveway, Wolfy now refuses to leave his chair. Then he kicks off his shoes.
He shakes his head, a glimmer of a smile in his eyes.
“Don’t you want to see all your friends? Your teachers? You love them.”
I pick up his shoes, grab his lunch, and pull him out of the car, carrying him on my shoulder.
With my long march to day care finally at hand, he seems to gloat as I carry him in, my little wolf living up to his name.
With him safely with his teachers, I walk out, exhale, and know my boy is as much like me when I was a kid as I could have ever feared.
My comeuppance, for sure.