When your toddler pulls himself up and takes those first, tentative steps, your life changes forever. Within three minutes you could lose your child down the stairs or a rabbit hole. Close your eyes for two seconds and your toddler could have impaled theirs on the corner of a table, an upturned chair, a door handle, a dollhouse, or a cake tin. Everything becomes a danger.
But, of course, after walking comes running. And this is the story of the day my son, Luca, first found he had gears.
“Luca,” I said. “Luca, where did you go?”
His vocabulary was limited to ‘car, dog, bike and Peppa’, so I didn’t know why I was asking.
Instead, I stood still and listened for the sounds.
Toddlers can run long before their reptilian brain can articulate the inherent danger of their new gift. Nature played a hideous game when she gave movement before speech.
I heard splashing and ran to the toilet. Luca had dragged a bedside lamp and plugged it into the murky water at the bottom of the U-bend. He stood, his mouth on the side of the bowl, stirring the water with the upturned lamp.
It was 5.37 a.m.
He had woken up and decided now was the time, and headed for the toilet – as any self-respecting toddler would – and put his head in it.
The first steps of a toddler are a total body drug. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. The hands flap crazily above their head as they stumble through the turnstiles and into the realms of toddler-hood.
I pulled Luca away from the toilet and he started licking his fingers. I wedged myself against the wall and used my foot to fish the lamp out of the toilet, grabbed Luca with my left arm and used my last remaining arm to keep his fingers out of his mouth.
After that it was just a quick fall into the bathroom. In one fluid motion, I threw him into the bath, turned on the shower, put the lamp down and grabbed the soap.
But he was too quick.
The race was on.
Fitness is one thing, but you need to adapt your spatial awareness to compete with a toddler who has just started running. You need to recalibrate and you need to do it quickly.
I wasn’t ready for the strafing. Luca was off sideways towards the kitchen. I knew I had to intercept him but everything went wrong. Luca misjudged the distance to the door frame, bounced off it and slammed into the opposite wall. He was doing it on purpose, using the walls like NASA using Jupiter to slingshot a satellite to the Sun.
He was moving too quickly. I had sleep in my eyes. What’s happening here?, I thought. ..Why me?… knives on the edge of the table… Was the kettle on? I wasn’t boiling an egg on the ring nearest to the counter edge… Was I?
His arms were above his head as he raced into the living room, his bendy, chubby legs almost buckling under the excitement. God knows what he was shouting about, it was all condensed dribble and pouring down his chin.
His distraction was momentarily grabbed by a fleck of dust dancing in the lamplight. As he stopped to admire it I caught up. But this toddler could run now, and he knew it. He was like a fly: he could feel the air moving before I got close.
How he kept himself up I have no idea, he was wavering like a ship in a hurricane, swaying left and right, waving his hands around, screaming.
I’d come to find the parenting dream and now I was in the vortex I wanted to get off. This was the main nerve, the pumping heart of raising children. This was the running milestone, an epic point in the long journey to adulthood. I would remember this day forever.
I changed tact and raced across the living room in the opposite direction, approaching Luca on his blind-side.
I dived across the carpet which separated me from him. His body buckled under his weight, he did a strange kind of limbo trick, his head bending back to the ground, his knees almost touching the floor in front of him, bent back 180 degrees on his little toes. I lost my balance and went flailing into the bookcase, almost taking my eye out on a hardback edition of The Hungry Caterpillar.
Luca laughed, seeming to understand he had won. He blew a perfect bubble of saliva. I watched it pop in his eye as he breeched the kitchen, the knives and the boiling water glinting in the brightening dawn as the sun rose over the horizon.
There was a pink marble on the bookcase. An escape route. I grabbed it and threw it into the kitchen. It slammed off the wall and smashed into the toaster.
Luca watched it, mesmerized.
“Daddy,” Alice said. “You owe me an ice-cream.”
What the fuck? Two of them?
Alice had been woken up by the splashing in the toilet and seen an opportunity to play wicked games on her younger brother. As we had been juggling in the bathroom she had slipped unnoticed in to the kitchen and taken up her position behind the work surface.
“Where did you come from?” I said, working out the angles and advanced geometry needed to keep them safe.
The marble stopped bouncing and Luca came back to his senses. It had been long enough to reset his calibration. He now had no idea what he was doing in the kitchen and instead ran towards us, like a cannonball.
Alice stuck out her foot and tripped her little brother up. He crashed down onto the floor, unable to steady himself any longer.
The fire alarm went off.
My wife came into the kitchen to admire my parenting skills.
It was 7.12 a.m.
Mark Fielding is a father of two and the author of the Apocalypse Daddy blog, where he writes \stories about raising kids, mindset, philosophy and contemporary culture.