Parenting involves a lot of low-level but constant trauma. Everything from the chronic sleep deprivation to the physical stress to the worry to the isolation. Unless you have a ton of support around you constantly, it’s impossible to escape feeling isolated and stressed (either a little stressed or a lot stressed), pretty much constantly for the first few years of your kid’s life. Add another few years for each kid. And some parents continue to feel a lot of stress for years and years, depending on their family set-up, finances, school situation, childcare situation, etc.
I believe that a lot of parents are carrying around some trauma from our children’s younger years, and may still be immersed in that trauma.
No wonder we’re tired, and carrying around some extra weight, not sleeping well, and feeling like there are days we just can’t get it together. I don’t know how we heal ourselves, but I believe that rest and physical movement and good food and tons of water are key. Along with as much laughter and loving contact as we can find. And a healthy does of cutting ourselves an enormous break.
This is hard. We’re not broken, but we’re scarred. We can do it.
Before you have kids, figuring out the value of something is very straightforward. It’s worth time, or money, or enjoyment, or some combination of the three. You can simplify a lot of things by figuring out if doing something/having something/making something/being something has value to you. If it does, do/have/make/be it. If not, don’t.
But once you become a parent, the whole concept of value changes. You find yourself doing all kinds of things that wouldn’t have been worth anything to you but are worth something for your child. Driving long distances, paying for private schools, spending time on projects you can’t stand, endless rounds of “The Wheels On The Bus,” chaperoning One Direction concerts. Listening to long, elaborate, narratively dubious dreams. Picking the spoon up off the floor again. Showing up at the rink for practice at 7 am on a Saturday. It’s a seemingly endless list of things you would never in a million years have done, but now you do with joy. (A cranky joy, sure, but joy.)
Investors can calculate the Net Present Value of any potential business venture to decide if they should do it or not. The Net Present Value of activities for parents is simple: Does it have value to or for your child? If so, then the NPV is higher than the opportunity cost and you do it. Gladly.
(If you find the topic of value as interesting as I do, join me on my new Twitter feed that only talks about value, in all sorts of contexts: http://twitter.com/valuestan.)
I’ve been saying this one for years, but no one else gets a vote on what you do with your kid unless they’re going to be there to enforce it and deal with the consequences.
All those people who tell you how to get your kid to sleep? If they’re not going to be there with you at 3 am, they don’t have a say. All those people who tell you where you should send your kid to school? If they’re not there to deal with the feelings and homework at 4 pm, they don’t have a say. All those people who want you to do this, that, or the other thing? If they’re not standing next to your child when it all has to happen, just say #nope.
You know what’s best for your kid. You. Not some stranger in the supermarket, or some book author, or your MIL, or me. You. And if you don’t know what works now, you’ll think analytically about what you already know about your kid, and you’ll come up with some things to try until one of them works.
You are doing it.
Sometimes it feels like parenting is all logistical. Washing things, bending over to pick things up, folding things, putting things back where they belong, stuffing things in a bag and carrying them with you, making your kids put things down, kindly requesting that your kids give things to you, buying more of the right kind of things to prevent you from needing to buy more things. It’s exhausting.
In the middle of all that doing, don’t forget about being and feeling. Emotions matter. Your emotions matter. It’s ok to feel irked or gleeful or sad or smug or whatever you’re feeling. Even if feeling what you’re feeling doesn’t change the course of your day. Even if you still have to deal with all those things and all those jobs. You still get to feel what you feel, and you can tell the people who love you, and they will support you in whatever you’re feeling.
The more you accept your own feelings, the easier it will be to accept your kids’ feelings. And kids have some deep, serious, big feelings. The only way they’ll learn to manage those feelings so they can get through life as smoothly as possible is if you help them by accepting their feelings and helping them put them in context. It’s ok to be super-angry about putting on your shoes, but you still have to put on your shoes. Both those things can exist at the same time. You can be happy to be with your friend but scared that your friend is going to want to touch your favorite toy. Learning to navigate through big feelings is important, and it only happens when feelings are accepted.
The more you stay in touch with your feelings and your kids’ feelings, the better you’ll all get at supporting each other. One of you can have a bad day and get comfort from the others, who can be having an even better day because they were able to support someone they love. It all gets better and better, even when you’re not feeling so great.
Pardon the sentimentality of this post. My baby is starting seventh grade tomorrow, and he still looks exactly the same as he did the day he came out of me. Still those adorable huge cheeks. Still those deep watchful eyes. Still the most perfect face I’ve ever seen.
I know the minutes were long when he was a baby, especially the minutes after 1 am when we were both awake instead of asleep and I was pretending not to resent all that time I was missing. I don’t really remember much of the bad times. (I don’t remember many of the good times from his first few years, to be quite honest. Sleep deprivation is real.) All the old ladies told me, “The minutes are long but the years are short,” and they weren’t kidding.
Twelve years, just like that. He’s a fully-formed human, with opinions and ideas and goals and dreams that have nothing to do with me. I bet the next twelve go by just as quickly.
Take pictures. Tell stories of what your kids do. Because you may not remember, and the next thing you know they’ll be hugging you at eye level and tying neckties and cracking really sophisticated jokes.
You don’t have to jump off a bridge just because your friends do. And you don’t have to not jump just because your friends are glued to the railing. You know what’s best for your kids and your family, and that’s what you should do.
There are stages in parenting in which making different decisions from your friends can make it hard to be around each other. In the beginning, everything seems high-stakes. So if you’re struggling with a decision or with having to carry through the decision you made, it might be difficult for you to be around someone who’s made a different decision because it’s too raw. (This is why sometimes it’s hard for moms who breastfeed and moms who formula feed to hang out when their kids are teeny–the decision [such as it is] can feel too raw for either and both of you.) But once the decision loses some of the emotional power, you can be around each other, living out your different choices, with no problems. (This is why moms of 8-year-olds rarely know and certainly don’t care how the other moms fed their kids when they were infants.)
It can also be hard to be around your friends and their kids if they make decisions about teaching boundaries and limits that are very different from your own and you feel like their children aren’t behaving in a way that you can be relaxed about. As you tell your kids, different families have different rules. If you need to take a break from spending time with a family that stresses you out, just take a break. Try to spend time with your friend away from the children so you aren’t bothered by the parenting differences.
All these decisions we make–pacifier or no, where our kids sleep, bedtimes, babysitters, schooling, technology use, discipline, expectations, friends, family time–are all so important to us at the time. But that doesn’t mean that there are absolutes in all categories, or that the same things have the same results with all kids (even with kids in the same families). So it’s good to observe what your friends are doing, but then assess what results you’ll have with your own kids, and make your decision based on that instead of what “everyone else” does.
My 9-year-old just told me he wished he had a cupcake. So we looked up a mug cake recipe on the internet, he wrote it down, and now he’s making it all by himself.
A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old was complaining about something and it turned into a rant breakdown of the difference between personal and systematic racism.
Your kids are going to get there.
Every day, you’re putting in all this really hard work. From the physical labor to the emotional work, from showing them how to tie their shoes to potty training them to helping them practice reading to talking about current events and helping them interpret the big themes. It feels endless, like you’re throwing it all into a bottomless pit. But you aren’t. It’s all going into them, and even when you don’t see it having any effect, it is. They’ll flip it back to you when you least expect it. And you’ll be amazed at how thoughtful and competent and fully-formed your rainbow-pooping kids are.
You matter. The things you do and say matter every day, all the time. And your kids are soaking those up, and when they’re ready, they’ll shoot it all back at you, with mastery and swagger, and you’ll see what excellent people they are.
Worry is one of the jobs of parenting. Stuff that you never thought about for yourself–how often you poop, whether you should eat honey or not, how many inches you’ve grown in the last six months, whether your teacher likes you or not–becomes of paramount importance when it’s about your kid.
That’s all normal. I think it’s biologically wired–if early people didn’t worry and keep their infants close, those infants would be stolen by dingoes. We’re still human, so it’s still hardcoded in us to keep kids close and to worry about them. Thinking through the possibilities and how we’d deal with them helps us with mental flexibility and keeps us prepared for the inevitable crisis situations.
If your worry becomes so big that it takes over other parts of your life, and prevents you from having other emotions about your child and the other things you do, that’s a sign that your hormones are out of whack and you need help. Tell your partner or a friend and they’ll help you tell your doctor, and your doctor will get it straightened out. Overwhelming worry is treatable.
But normal worry, worry that’s just one occasional emotion mixed in with all the other emotions, is part of being a parent. As your kids get older and more competent your worries will grow with them. But you’ll be able to meet each stage, prepared.
I hear people apologizing for saying nice things about their kids all the time, and I don’t get it. Why would you feel bad about thinking your kid is great? You’re your kid’s parent–it’s your job to think your kid poops rainbows.
If you don’t, who will? Of course you don’t always think they’re amazing, or even like them in the moment, but for the most part you probably think they’re amazing. And everyone deserves to be loved completely, even with their faults. If you don’t think your kid is fanfreakingtastic, they’ll have a much harder time later on accepting completely love from someone else as an adult. By being the president of your kid’s fan club now, you set them up for happy relationships later.
Obviously you’re still enforcing boundaries and teaching them how to interact responsibly with others and the world. But all with love, and not holding back the sense of wonder that this amazing person is your kid! So enjoy every interesting, weird, funny, excellent, magical thing about your kid, and feel good about enjoying it.
Boundaries are amazingly important. But so is having fun and being joyful with your kids. Say “yes” as often as you can.
Say “yes” to being silly, to ice cream for dinner, to dance-offs, to leaving the kids with a babysitter so you can go out with your friends. Say “yes” to going on day trips together, to finding fairy doors, to making play dough, to playing soccer in the yard in the summer and the basement in the winter. Say “yes” to putting your toes in the sand, to running through the sprinkler, to catching lightning bugs.
Say “yes” to things that feed your spirit and nourish you, alone and with your kids.
You spend so much time making sure they have everything they need. Spend some time making sure you all do the things you want, too.
“Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”