After four months with two children under two years old, I have come to the unassailable conclusion that the inventor of cocktail hour must have been a new mother.
Arsenic hour, the witching hour, cluster feeding. We give it different names, but each of these terms describes the same phenomenon, the predictable time of day around 5 pm when normally sane children turn into demonic beasts, intent on the total destruction of your home and sanity.
Or at least it can feel that way when you’re trying to simultaneously nurse a baby and throw food at a screaming, pasta covered 1-year-old while she slams her cutlery onto the table, prisoner in the mess hall style.
Evenings are hard no matter how many kids you have, but when you have a toddler and an infant, it can feel like every night you are trying to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.
Someone is always screaming. Someone else is covered in food. Things reliably fall apart, often in spectacular fashion.
I’ve learned there is no fighting the chaos of the witching hour. Until my children are old enough to fetch mama a cocktail (which has to be at least five right?), I will have to simply survive. But there are certain strategies that can help.
1. Never run out of wine.
I’m certainly won’t advocate binge-drinking when in charge of children, but let’s be honest, on the nights when your child throws your thoughtfully prepared dinner immediately to the dog or goes to the bathroom in the tub or uses a tub of Vaseline as a hair product, you really need that glass of wine.
2. Make your own dinner ahead of time.
The last thing you want to add to the mix of arsenic hour is cooking an elaborate dinner for the grownups. If you’ve never attempted to cook with a toddler and infant before, just imagine cooking in the middle of a pack of ravenous, aggressive meerkats.
There is nothing practical or safe about operating an oven or chopping vegetables when you have a 30-pound toddler hanging off your leg or an infant in a sling. Make dinner in the Crockpot when your kids are napping and take comfort in the knowledge that at least one thing is crossed off the list.
3. Keep your kids’ dinners simple.
There is a time and place for elaborate, labor-intensive meals for small children. And that time is before you have your first child, and the place is Pinterest. In real life, it just doesn’t work to make little Timmy an organic, gluten and casein free version of boeuf bourguignon.
First of all, no kid likes that, and it will end up on the floor. Second, your child will find a way to tear your house apart if you spend that much time cooking in the evenings. There are healthy and fresh meals that are also easy and simple. There are also premade fruit and vegetable purees that come in pouch form. Stick with those, and everyone will be happier.
4. Stock your freezer with popsicles.
You know those healthy popsicles that are made with real fruits and vegetables, the ones with minimal added sugar and with about 15 calories per serving? To your toddler, there is no distinction between one of those and a cupcake. Hand a 2-year-old a popsicle and you will be guaranteed a solid 5-10 minutes of quiet time, which in the evenings is worth its weight in gold.
5. Bathtubs are a marvelous way of containing a hyperactive toddler.
Toddlers will literally run in mad, furious circles in the evening, typically creating a path of destruction in their wake. There are times when you just need them to stop moving for five seconds. Baths are a wonderful way to accomplish this. Fill your tub up with toys or bath crayons and let your kid go nuts in a contained environment.
6. Accept that someone is going to cry.
If you have more than one child, there will come a point almost every evening where someone is going to be neglected and cry. Don’t beat yourself up if the baby has to fuss while you get the toddler to bed or if the toddler whines while you feed the baby.
You are only one person and can only do so much. Plus, it will teach them self-reliance and that they’re not the center of the universe. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves to assuage our mom guilt.
7. Take advantage of the fact that little kids can’t read clocks.
A regular, set bedtime is important, but it’s also important that your children have a mother who isn’t catatonic from stress. That means that some nights “7 pm” might need to happen a little earlier than usual. Take advantage of the ability to do this before your child learns how to tell time or question why it’s so much lighter outside than normal.
8. Occasional screen time before bed is not going to kill anyone.
We’ve all read the studies. We know the headlines. Blue light/screen time before bed will wreck your child’s sleep, disrupt their circadian rhythms, and turn them into a communist. But some nights, when the baby wants to nurse every 15 minutes, and everyone is exhausted and irritable from a long day, Peppa Pig may be the glue that holds your family together. And that’s okay.
9. Have a backup dinner.
You may have made a nice Crockpot meal earlier in the day. You may have it right there waiting for you after you put your oldest kids in bed. But you what they say about best-laid plans? It is almost guaranteed that the very second one of your kids goes to bed, the other one will start to scream hysterically. It’s almost like they plan it (Did they plan it? Are they capable of that kind of subterfuge?)
Chances are you’re going to need something you can eat while feeding baby #2 (or 3, or 6, depending on the size of your family). So, keep some meal bars or non-scalding snack foods handy. At least you can save your dinner for leftovers tomorrow.
10. If all else fails, throw them in the car and grab some fast food.
Some nights, no matter what you do, no matter how well you do it, it is just all going to fall apart. Everyone will be overly cranky and tired. Whatever you make for dinner will be thrown away in disgust. The entire family will be on the brink of hysterical tears, including the adults.
On these nights, it’s okay to put your kids in pajamas, head to the nearest drive-through, toss some nuggets and fries in the backseat, and then drink an embarrassingly large milkshake while you drive around the neighborhood.
It’s okay your kids won’t get bathed or eat a single vegetable. You tried your best. We all need a night off every once in a while.