“My daughter is two: Published in 1988 after recovering from Joanna’s Terrible Two[indeed] terrible

Joanna Marie Solkoff celebrates her second birthday.

From Potomac Children, April, 1988

Potomac Children, Serving parents and Children in DC…Maryland, Southern Virginia


“Two,” Joanna says, when asked how old she is. “Two.” Joanna cannot say “One”, nor the word “Three”, although it is clear that the concept of One, Two, Three is in her mind. She counts the ducklings in a picture book I took out of the library. She sings the “Sesame Street” counting song, making up the words other than Two. She counts raisins with me, saying “Two” when I get to the second one.

She may understand Two, but I don’t and neither does her mother. “Terrible Two” is the expression Diana uses, over and over, and ours is mixed marriage–I complain; Diana doesn’t. Even so, the difficulties of parenting a two-year old hit Diana before it hit me  causing her to go as close to hopeless frustration as I’ve ever seen her.


Joanna (less than two weeks old), Diana, and me at our home on Capitol Hill (which even in 1981 cost more than $50 a night for a room [have you seen Tom Hanks in the “Money PIt“?]
Photograph by: Donald Moore











It is time to put a new film in this camera called Terrible Two. Joanna and I are running on the grounds of the Capitol–the Senate side. We climb down some stairs to a bubbling fountain surrounded by a circle of stone seats. I sit down, Joanna climbs up to the seat and stands up. There is a grill above her, looking down over a sharp drop of rock garden and water– dangerous for her if she were to get on the other side of the grill. “No,” I say, frighted as she tries to force herself through the grill. Then, I realize the bars are too close together for it to be dangerous. Giving me a mischievous look, she puts her left foot through a narrow opening in the bars. “No,” I say again, although this time there is no fear in my intonation. She laughs, returns her left foot, and then puts her right foot through the opening smiling, waiting for me to say No again. I oblige. Left foot. “No.” Right foot. “No.” It’s a game we both enjoy.












What makes this incident significant–worth the film in the camera? She understands what the word No means. She understands that she is doing something which I don’t want her to do.  She understands that she has tested me and I have given in. She understands that this time the word No does not mean No. It doesn’t have the same meanings as the “No” i say when she is about to cross the street by herself or the “No” she says when she does not want juice.”


Juliet Mae Phillips, sitting on her mother’s lap, awaiting the arrival of her birthday cake with two content candles.









What I am trying to describe is freedom, independence, becoming a person in one’s own right, and all that seems to b e summed up in the word “No.” When Joanna said No for the first time she did not mean it. It was simply a sound–a word she repeated because it was easy to say and before she had heard it with some frequency. When she meant the word no for the first time she had suddenly achieved independence. She was making a statement. No I don’t want juice. She was doing it without crying and without equivocation.. She was saying that as a person who was worth listening to and she was ordering the word around her–her mother–not to give her juice.


Punchbowl: In hoc signo vinces









At the age of two, children use the word No to assert their individuality–their independence–and they do a lot of asserting. That is why parents refer to the age as the “Terrible Twos”: because the idea of one’s baby suddenly being independent is terribly difficult to handle. The psychiatrist Scott Peck describes how some mothers are capable of loving their children only as infants….”They may be ideal mothers until their children reach the age of two…Then, almost overnight, the picture changes. As soon as a child begin to assert its own will–to disobey, to whine, to refuse to play, to occasionally reject being cuddled, to attach itself to other people, to move into the world a little bit on its own–the mothers love ceases. She loses interest in the child…perceives it only as a need be pregnant again, to have another infant, another pet….For her children the ‘terrible twos’ are not only the end of their infancy, they are also the end of the experience of being loved by mother.”


Juliet prepares for her party.








Peck, of course, is describing an extreme. However, it is an extreme to which I am sensitive because when I was two, my parents’ marriage was dissolving and my mother was often not available to me. Watching Joanna leave her infancy at two, I can understand the reason for the extreme Peck describes.

When Joann was born, Diana and I both knew on an intellectual level that we did not own our daughter–in the sense that one owns a car or a house or a pair of shoes. Rather, Diana and I had participated in an indescribable experience which resulted in the creation of life–and clearly Joann was given to our care until she is ready to take care of herself. Whether or not one believes in God, it does not require a leap of faith to know intellectually that one does not own one’s children.

Even so, birth is such an intoxicating experience that it is difficult to bear in mind that this infant I held in my arms two years ago, only one year ago, only six months ago, is not mine. It was difficult for Diana, who is the most level-headed woman and mother I ever met. And it was difficult for me. At two the intoxication ends and reality intercedes. We don’t own Joanna. She says No to us and will continue to do so for the rest of our lives. Sometimes she will be right, sometimes wrong, but it certainly takes getting used to.

On the other hand, there are tremendous advantages to having a two-year old. Tremendous. She is discovering the world, finding excitement and joy in seeing clouds, horses, other children, and in the ability to pour juice from a thermos to a cup, to draw images on paper, to use language, to climb up a ladder, to latch a gate, to fit pieces into a puzzle. She is teaching us about a world we thought we understood and she is introducing herself.

Who is Joanna? I don’t think I am able to answer any more succinctly than I can tell you who her mother is or who I am. However, I can see that in addition to the tremendous glee she takes to discovering her own powers–running with seeming abandon down the sidewalk, squealing with delight–she also is discovering limitations. When she trips and falls, she returns to dependence frustrated and crying and clinging to my neck as I pick her up and hold her. When I make mistakes, I often have the same feelings of frustration–although I don’t express them in the same way. Independence. Dependence. They are alternating parts of the human condition–alternating throughout our lives, without any solution but acceptance that independence and dependence will continue to be part of each of us. At two, Joanna has entered this reality of unchanging change. The strongest lessons she will learn for dealing with independence and dependence will come from her parents–from Diana and me. And where did learn them? From my mother and father–whose imperfections are clear to me, just as mine will be to Joanna.

I’ve also learned lessons from my own experiences, experiences that brought me beyond my parents limitations and taught me limitations of my own. This is the point at which the fear and challenge of becoming a father becomes most apparent. I am now teaching Joanna by the way I handle successes, failures, and the long periods of silence in between. The feeling of being unprepared is both inescapable and irrelevant. She is watching and demonstrating her learning on a daily basis, as she repeats my words, my facial expressions, and the way I hold a spoon and move my body. I watch her with tremendous love, and she watches me watching her. Sometimes she throws her arms around me and gives me a kiss. Sometimes she does not want to have anything at all to do with me. As a father, there is too much to learn and too little time, and that too will not change. Being the father of a two-year old is terrible and wonderful; it is like being a two-year old.


Now, for this changing of the generational guard:Copyright © 2018 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.








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