We are deep in middle times. Mid-March—the Ides—is upon us. (Well, technically, it just passed us.) Theo and Sylvia are in their half-years: 6-and-a-half and 3-and-a-half.
Plutarch’s ancient Roman seer was fairly specific about Caesar’s Ides-of-March assassination, but he apparently didn’t expound on the dicey nature of middle times. He never noted kids’ mid-year craziness, for example. Did soothsayers not notice general trends? Where were the ancient child-development seers? Is it just my children who pass through idus annum (my improvised Latin)?
Since Plutarch failed me as a parent, I consulted the Oracle of Google. Know what shows up there? The trend of celebrating half birthdays! This is an actual trend created by actual parents, complete with Pinterest boards and blog play-by-plays. Notwithstanding the risk of crafty helicopter parents creating a new breed of uber-entitled, self-absorbed children, what parent wants to host birthday parties twice a year?
The ides of birthdays, at least in our house, are not cause for celebration. They are marked by heightened sensitivity, irritability, arguments, tantrums and baby-talk revivals. Sibling torture ramps up and whine quotients blast through the roof.
Theo sucks his fingers more often and dissolves into tears at the slightest provocations. Sometimes he just dissolves into a pile on the floor. When I remove the Lego vehicle I’ve asked him seven times to stop playing with at dinner, he squeals, “You are mean, Mommy!” and dives under the nearest blanket.
Sylvia punctuates her whinging with shrieks, or, in quiet moments, with quasi-verbal grunts. She ricochets between clinginess and crazed fleeing—always in grocery stores. When I say the soup of mulch and dog-bowl water must stay outside, she screams, “You are mean, Mommy!” and throws her shoe at my head.
Want to come over for a party? I’ve cut the birthday candles in half.
It’s not all bad. Theo is wading the magical waters of reading and writing. Math games are fun. His drawings are more detailed, his Lego creations more elaborate, his dress-up games involve more hand-written signs. He appreciates more nuanced humor and carries on surprising conversations. He runs faster and longer. All his pants have become capris.
Sylvia is fully engaged at preschool, befriending everyone, joining and initiating play. At home, she bursts from room to room in song, narrating her dramas with Disney-musical gusto (and the occasional borrowed line). She recognizes some letters. She still insists on wearing swimsuits to school and nothing to bed, but sporting dresses beneath her snowsuit, she’s skiing on her own. She fills Post-it notes blocks with spare scribbles and then suddenly draws a recognizable rainbow-ladybug monster.
Both kids are needy. This means their especially strident demands for toast with ONLY apple butter and cereal with NO yogurt are balanced by their wanting to hold my hand more and cuddle for longer. I make them rephrase: “Please, may I have...” But I’m cool with the spike in cuddling.
Looking back, I see a pattern of rough spots, aligning with growth spurts and preceding the easy employ of new skills that correspond to my kids’ half-years. I’ve noticed this correspondence before, but unfortunately I forget about it each year.
So, instead of being prepared, I pass through a vaguely familiar WTF period every February and hit a vaguely familiar parenting wall in March. Only then do I take a retrospective pause and relearn my kids’ patterns. And then I look at the sky and wonder if there are other planets out there like mine.
Reenter the internet. Amid colorful half-birthday party ideas, a solid half-year childhood-development reference confirms my sanity: The Gesell Institute of Human Development. Dr. Arnold Gesell was a child-development bigwig mid last century. He pioneered filmed research; posited the difference between a child’s developmental age and her chronological age; and not only recognized the half-year phenomenon, but codified it.
Gesell’s cyclical spiral illustrates development through a series of predictable stages. The little-kid stages roughly correlate to half-year increments and fall within one of two behavioral states. Imagine two columns titled “equilibrium” and “disequilibrium”; the “cyclical spiral” spins between them. Between ages 2 and 7, mostly whole-year ages line up in the “equilibrium” column, and half-year ages fall under “disequilibrium.” We are not alone in our awkward middle times!
The Center for Parenting Education summarizes Gesell’s gist: “The equilibrium periods [are] when your child is consolidating learned skills; practicing what he has struggled to master; they are plateaus in development. The disequilibrium periods often occur as the child is entering a new, quick time of growth and development, when he is mastering new tasks and working on new abilities. [T]imes of relative peace, stability and equilibrium [are] followed by […] times of struggle and disequilibrium.”
This is but one perspective on childhood development. Still, I’m grateful to Gesell’s cyclical spiral. I will cling to any reasonable version of order when I’m navigating moody chaos—and not just because I’m desperate, though often I am. I’m learning how to support my kids’ growth with more compassion, and figuring out some structure helps me balance all I don’t understand.
According to Plutarch, Caesar taunts the seer who foretold his death as he heads to where he’ll be killed. “The ides of March have come,” Caesar says, thinking he’s escaped the prophesy. “Aye, Caesar; but not gone,” the seer answers.
I hope our destiny is less dire, but our developmental ides aren’t yet over. Gesell’s cycles keeps spiraling—so I’ll have another chance to remember this pattern next year! Yay, second chances! The spiral is a guide, not an answer, but that’s as good as it gets in Parent Studies, the non-degree program from which no one ever graduates.
Come to think of it, the ancient seers, even Caesar’s, dealt in parables and guides instead of resolutions. So maybe they were parenting experts, after all.