For me, being a parent has been both the most natural thing in the world, and the most bewildering. One moment, everything makes sense, relationships are simple, yet complex, utterly charming and meaningful, fulfilling even, and the next moment, I wonder how on earth I’m going to make it through the rest of the day without completely losing my grip on those values upon which I base my whole parenting approach, let alone losing my mind. Sometimes my thoughts go something like this:
“I have no idea what I’m doing”
“My relationship with my children couldn’t get any better”
“My kids are going to grow up hating me”
“This is what family is all about!”
Sometimes I have each of those thoughts in a 15 minute span. Sometimes the conversation in my head goes like this:
“I’m screwing up my children”
“It’s OK to screw up your children, everybody screws up their children”
“But I don’t want to screw up my children”
“Yeah. Nobody wants to screw up their children.”
I’ll ignore the fact that I’m talking to myself and calling myself names. Moving right along – here is a text I sent Jessica earlier today:
The context? We have a 12 year old. Some parents fear teenagers. Some fear newborns. Some fear nothing until they fall flat on their faces. The age Jessica and I dread the most? 9-12. Bless all those Middle School teachers, I don’t know how they do it. We happen to have 2 children in that range. We thank God that we now have a 14 yr old to prove to us that the challenges we fear and face with that hellish age bracket will eventually pass. They will outgrow it.
What I mean by “it’s not about me” is a reminder that not all the challenges I face with my children are about me at all. Sometimes they are, but most often they’re about something or someone else entirely; like the fight they just had with their sister, or their need for more sleep, or their desire to get out of our tiny house, or any number of other things. And when these conflicts turn into not wanting to help set the table, or freaking out at me, or being impatient with me, or in general being in a terrible mood, these things are not about me. “It’s not about me” helps me to not get defensive or reactionary; to not yell back, but rather to take a deep breath and recognize that the way they’re treating me has nothing to do with me.
With my younger children it sounds more like “How old are you? Right. You’re 3.” It often helps to remember that the way my children are acting, as frustrating and hair-pulling as it feels, may just be my children acting their age. If I tried the age thing on my 12 year old, it would probably be with a sneer: “Right. You’re twelve.” Probably not the best. So instead I just say that it’s not about me. Just like when I’m stressed from my struggle to find time to work and that anxiety translates into being impatient with my children, it’s not actually about them. I’m just as prone at letting my stress loose on innocent bystanders as they are. And sadly, I do. This gives me the perfect opportunity to model how to own my failures and vulnerably apologize for them. Not that it excuses me losing it. It doesn’t. But just like everyone, I am not perfect; and as I have previously mentioned: “Failure isn’t an option; it’s a reality.” (apparently I quote myself; maybe it is all about me!) When you’re parenting multiple children, each with their own personality and sensitivities, and each in their own stage of development, how could you not fail from time to time? Or even most of the time?
Jessica recently wrote a post on the challenges of parenting here. It’s interesting how much of what I’m writing here complements what she wrote there.
We’re all learning from each other. That’s the beauty of the family dynamic. The most obvious reality is that our children learn from us as their parents. At first, that is all you’re aware of. You have welcomed them into the world with open arms and you’re ready to teach them about everything. Of course. It’s so natural. But you’re also learning from your child as soon as they’re born (I daresay it even starts sooner than that). You’re learning from and adapting to your baby’s needs. And before you know it, you’ve learned how to sway or walk or bounce your baby to sleep. Next thing you know, you have a 14 yr old who is teaching you about holding tight to your dreams and going after them, and a 12 yr old who is teaching you about… ok, about patience but also about the struggle between what you want and what’s good for you, and a 10 yr old who is also teaching you about patience (so much patience) but also about not growing up (or old) too quickly, and a 5 yr old who is teaching you about how at such a young age you can love as deeply as any 37 yr old, and a 3 yr old who is teaching you about the delights of imagination and a 1 yr old who is teaching you that there is still so much to learn.
You start off thinking you have so much to teach your children, and you end up learning so much from them, hoping you’re modeling healthy life-skills, and not screwing them up too much. At least, that’s my story, and although I often feel overwhelmed and unqualified, more often than not I am blown away by my children, awed by them and learning from them, becoming a better person because of them, and enjoying the unpredictable and beautiful ride, less as their guide than as a fellow wide-eyed traveller.