Ouch. Nothing breaks your heart like feeling rejected by your child. (Unless it’s feeling like you failed your child.) Whether it’s as simple as your baby refusing to nurse, or pushing away food you’ve made, or saying “I hate you!” The 3.5-year horribleness or the 9-year-old tantrums. The eye rolling or the not wanting to be kissed in public anymore.
But as I said yesterday, remember that this is a long, looooooong conversation you have with your child. Not everything is going to be good. Some of it is going to be bad. Some of it will hurt your heart. But as the parent, you owe it to yourself not to get too hurt. Instead of thinking it’s about you, listen to the feeling behind your child’s behavior, and see if you can help your kid get through whatever it is. Refusing to nurse? Could be teething pain, a nursing strike, overtiredness. You can help. Pushing away food? Greater need for independence, so you can start giving two limited choices so your kid feels empowered. Saying “I hate you”? What is your child feeling pushed by that’s making them feel so powerless and defensive.
Yes, it hurts, but the rejection of your child is just the symptom. If you can stay quiet and listen even more closely, you can figure out how to help your child manage their feelings and the situation better. And then you’ll be able to move on to a better part of the long conversation.
You’re doing this.
I’ve written about this before: Parenting is a loooooong conversation with your kid. I touched on it yesterday, that you get years and years to watch your child’s personality unfold. But you also get all those years to communicate.
Everything you do is part of the conversation. Every hug. Every fight. Every time you help your child learn a new skill. Every time you scold your child for not doing something. Every time you discipline your child or teach your child or praise your child. Every heart-to-heart you have. Every time they ask you about sex and you answer (or, unfortunately, don’t answer). It’s all part of this epic conversation that lasts for as many decades as you’re lucky enough to have together.
That means that no one interaction is going to ruin things. Even a long stretch of bad interactions won’t ruin things. As long as you can keep the conversation as loving and supportive as it can be, occasional bad interactions won’t knock things off the track.
Play the long game. Decide what you want the conversation to feel like, for you and for your child. And then keep returning to that whenever you can, even when an interaction goes poorly.
In those early days, when your baby is slowly waking up from being inside the womb for so long and learning to interface with the outside world, you pay attention so carefully. You watch how your child moves, how your child approaches the world and taking in information, and how your child interacts with other people.
Flash forward ten years and your child moves and takes in info and interacts the same way.
Flash forward another ten years, another thirty years, and it’s the same thing.
Parenting your child is about knowing what to facilitate and what to scaffold, what to help manage and what to encourage. But your child is going to be the same essential person forever. That means that as you grow together you get to know and understand each other more and more, and learn what makes each of you bloom.
It’s a big chance to learn to love each other the way you each need to be loved. As the parent, you get to guide that. And it starts by watching carefully, and being open to who this wonderful little person is. And then helping them become even more of that as they grow in skills and ability to communicate.
It’s a wonderful life, this chance to love someone for decades, and to watch how they unfold.
There’s that quote “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” But that makes no sense to me. No one who tries anything is fail-proof. I’d rather ask, “What would you do if you knew you’d fail repeatedly but that failure would lead to success you can’t even imagine now?”
Would you try? Of course you would. Because the results are worth it, even if the shame and guilt of failure stings in the moment. This is life. And this is parenting.
You are going to fail. You’ll fail yourself whenever you aren’t the parent you want to be or think you should be. You’ll fail in your non-parent life and duties because sometimes life is too overwhelming and you have too much on your plate. And you’ll fail your kids sometimes, too.
That’s the one that stings the most. When you fail your kids. The first time your child is in your arms you look at that sweet face and vow never to do anything that will hurt them. But part of being human is being flawed. Making mistakes. Sometimes making mistakes that really hurt someone. But hurting your child doesn’t mean everything’s broken. It means you learn to repair things. It means you take the rubbed spots and that’s where you grow closer. Stronger at the scars.
The only way to avoid failing as a parent is not to be a parent. And you’re a parent, so you’ll fail sometimes. Be gentle with yourself, then rub some dirt on it and hug your kid and get back in there. You’re worth it, and so are your kids.
There’s a whole culture of calling parents who are doing a lot of things “SuperMom!!” or “SuperDad!!” that is meant to praise, but is instead really constricting.
Because it assumes that we a) want to be doing all this stuff, and b) should be doing all this stuff, and c) aren’t being negatively affect by all this stress. It assumes the busier is better. That doing it alone with no help is somehow honorable. That “making it look easy” is praise-worthy.
But the truth is that we’re tired and stressed and sometimes lonely. We’re doing too much, because we have to. And sometimes because in order to do the things that we love, we have to add them on to all the stuff that just has to get done. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything particularly valiant or morally superior or even extra-strength about us. It just means we’re making it, one day at a time.
If you are making it, one day at a time, good for you. If you’re making it look easy because you don’t express stress externally, that’s great. If you’re making it because you ask for help, that’s great. If you’re making it because you complain through it, that’s great. Whatever gets you through the crucible of being a parent along with everything else you have to do. Try to give yourself breaks, and don’t worry about making sure all your self-care is organic and hand-picked and healthy. Sometimes you just want to sit alone in your car and listen to The Low-End Theory all the way through while eating Red Vines. And that’s ok.
You are a person. Who has kids and a bunch of other stuff to take care of. And sometimes you keep all the balls in the air and sometimes you don’t. But you’re still you, and you’re still worthy, even if you don’t have a cape or a smile on your face.
Unless your kids are 40, it’s still really early in your parenting career. And a lot is going to change.
It can feel pretty bleak when you’re going through sleepless nights with a baby, or the willfulness of a two-year-old, or any minute of every day of having a 3.5-year-old. And you may be wondering if it’s ever going to get better. But those kids are still so little, and it’s all going to change. Even when your kids are 7, or 12, or 16, it still all changes all the time.
You are having a long conversation with your child, and it’s going to last the rest of your lives. This tough part at the beginning feels so high stakes but it’s actually such a small little preliminary chat in comparison to the deep emotional discussions you’ll have later.
Pace yourself. There’s a lot more (and a lot more fun) still to come. It changes, and gets easier, and then harder, and then easier, and then harder. But it always changes.
You are doing it.
This one can be hard to process, especially if you were raised not to acknowledge or express anger. Parenting can tap into a lot of anger, even serious rage, at all kinds of people and situations. It’s a combination of the parenting hormones (which parents develop from contact with their kids, so parents who didn’t give birth to their kids also develop these hormones) and the intensity of the love and stress of caring for kids. Suddenly you see things with new eyes, and you’re more attuned to vulnerability and injustice, to power imbalances and to cruelty of all sorts. All that can tap into anger you never knew you had (or had already worked to balance or overcome).
It can be scary, this anger. You may not feel anger at your actual child until they’re older than baby age (or maybe you do–that’s ok, too), but the feeling of rage at the injustices in the world and how little control you have over things can wash over you when you least expect it and feel least equipped to deal with it. It comes in waves, and tends to crest whenever your child is entering a new phase that requires new skills or focus from you. And then once you get your feet under you again it’ll subside.
It’s all normal and ok, unless the anger feels like it’s taking over your emotions completely and preventing you from engaging or enjoying things. If the anger feels like it’s bigger than it should be, talk to someone. This is a symptom of hormonal imbalance or PPD (men and mothers who didn’t give birth also get PPD), and you need to talk your way through it with someone who knows how to help you deal with it and get it back to its proper, manageable mass in your life.
(Don’t forget Day 1: You can do it. You can do it and you are doing it.)
August is always a really cranky month on the internet, so I thought this year I’d just post one truth about parenting every day for the whole month. I’m choosing random things that I know are true (12 years into this gig).
You can do it
Yes, this should maybe be the finale of the month, but it’s really the most important of all the true things about parenting. You can do it. Even when things get really tough. Even when you’re so exhausted and wish you hadn’t had your kids, or wish you could just hand them to someone else to be responsible for for a few days, or want to run away completely. Even when you’re doing really well and are the parent you want to be and are worried that things are going to fall apart any minute. Even when you think you’re going to break.
You can do it.
And you will do it. You’ll keep waking up, and showing up, and being there for your kids. Even when you’re not making all the right choices and being as focused and shiny as you want to be. Even when you think everything you touch turns to utter shit. Even when you’re singing a lullaby with your mouth but your brain is somewhere else, back when you were still the old you.
You will do it.
When your baby is six months, and three years, and nine years, and sixteen years. You will do it as the challenges change and become more high-stakes. You will do it as your children start to leave you while they still need you. You will do it forever, because you are you, and you are love.