Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Toddling Toward Community: A Review of Toddler: Real-life Stories of those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love

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Edited by Jennifer Margulis (Seal Press, 2003; $14.95)

As a mother of two toddlers I don't have gobs of downtime and reading often falls far down on my list of priorities, somewhere between "floss" and "learn to program VCR." But I was intrigued by the new anthology from Seal Press entitled Toddler.

I snuggled into bed with the review copy moments before my three-and-a-half-year-old son scampered into my bedroom informing me that there was a volcano spewing hot lava in his closet. The next afternoon I curled up on the couch with the book and a mug of tea, just as my 18-month-old daughter -- awake an hour too early -- thumped on her crib demanding "BABA BABA!" another bottle, with the ferocity of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium.

The likely audience for Toddler are parents of preschoolers -- the people least able to find a spare twenty-three minutes to enjoy it. And that's too bad, because there are some delightful, moving, scary, and raging moments in this collection of essays edited by Jennifer Margulis. It's not a preachy how-to or a dewy gathering of blissful parenting nostalgia. The reflections offered in these essays deliver honest, funny, instructive glimpses into the push-me-pull-you land of toddlerhood.

Many of the anthology's contributors are the dignitaries of parenthood: Jennifer Niesslein of Brain, Child Magazine, anthropologist and baby guru Margaret Small, columnist Joyce Maynard, and Ayun Halliday, author of The Big Rumpus, to name just a few. All the essays in Toddler are written by people who have traveled the rocky, twisting path of parenthood. They have scaled the steep curves of learning and icy crevasses of fear. And like all of us, they have experienced moments of jaw-dropping awe and the bittersweet rewards that come from raising children.

Parenting toddlers is, as Vicki Iovine says, like trying to put a collar on a bumblebee. It's absurd, chaotic, frustrating, and a job we simply must do, and do well. I rarely take the time to process what parenting is like because I'm so mired in it, but sharing stories is one way to connect, feel less alone and learn. Toddler captures the wide and diverse terrain of parenting, and I caught glimpses of myself (and my kids) reflected in the tales presented.

Toddler tells it like it is. There are a few cutie pie kid stories but most of the writing is real, sometimes raw, as in Kerry Herlihy's "Snapshot Daddy," about a mostly-single mom's struggle with the "Daddy gap;" and sometimes it's hilarious, as in Geoff Griffin's "Pretender to the Throne," about the impossibility of getting a few minutes of privacy in the bathroom when there's a two-year-old around.

Margulis has chosen a healthy mix of voices and issues. In "Under My Skin," a mother reflects on her own racial baggage. Leanna James' "Queen of the World" explores the not-so-benign impact of simple childhood games. Even religion gets some airtime in Toddler. "Mommy, I need some water to get that salvation out of my mouth," says one child after receiving communion in Elisabeth Rose Gruner's "Fix Me."

Toddler shines brightest when its contributors delve into the darker side of raising children. No one is a "good parent" every minute. When we explode in anger, are disgusted with our poopy-diapered kids, or simply have had enough, there's little in the world of parenting literature to comfort us, let us know we're not hideous creatures, and help us fill our dried reservoir. Toddler offers a sip of nourishment, by letting us know we're not the only ones who are less-than-perfect and less-than-ecstatic about some aspects of parenting.

Brett Paesel writes in "Slow to Warm," "I don't do crafts with dried pasta and glue on rainy days. Talking to other mommies makes me want to bite them." In "Stinky Face," Mary Jane Beaufrand examines her own bullying behavior as her daughter changes from ringlet-clad angelic baby into NO NO NO defiant toddler. "With each of Sofia's ugly transformations, I too had changed into something bigger and stinkier." Ayun Halliday writes of the sleep-deprived insanity of her life, nursing her toddler every few hours. "I'd stumbled in here like a much abused indentured servant, the one the masters are working into an early grave." It's just this sort of brutal honesty that makes for good parenting, and great writing.

Even some of the cute kid stuff is fresh. "I have to close my butt!" is the opening line of "Pantless Superheroes and Chocolate Donuts" by Sachin Waikar. And Joyce Maynard artfully describes what all toddlers' folks have witnessed (perhaps less appreciatively): "He pulls ingredients off the shelves, he makes Cheerios mountains and pours olive oil on his head."

Some of the new mama lit makes me feel like I'm not quite alternative enough. I have piercings only in my ears, I didn't give birth in my own bathtub, and I haven't tossed our TV out the window. But Toddler has something for everybody; soccer mom, stay-at-home dad, hip mamas, and the people like me who cherry pick from the wide field of parenting methods to craft our very own mama-style. Margulis has harvested stories that can create a sense of community, by reaching out to parents in what can be an emotionally isolating time and telling the truth. Toddler dishes up the reality of childraising in all its imperfect glory.

Margulis writes that her toddler hated to let go of the day, the time too short. "Day," she would whisper at bedtime, "more day." It's what those vexing and marvelous little people want, and I do, too. I want more time to drink in my children, to sit quietly by myself, to pursue my work, to sleep, to squoosh my hands in the mud with them, to read just one more story. If you can find a little "more day" in your day, pick up Toddler. It's a pleasant romp through a stage that seems long while our kids are in it, wistfully short once they're past it.

Suzanne LaFetra’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and more than a dozen anthologies. She lives far too close to Cafe Gratitude and has wandered waist-deep into a novel of her own.

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