Monday, October 31, 2011

Things I've Learned as a Parent

Parenting is so challenging, and as any aware mother knows, the physical changes of pregnancy are almost insignificant compared to the changes we discover in ourselves as we move through our journey of life with kids. Parenting is all about changing, be it in reference to diapers or our own minds. This morning as I lay in bed, slowly waking, I was struck with some of the changes I've noticed in my own life. Some are funny, some are more philosophical, but no matter what, one thing is clear: if you are a parent and you haven't changed--somehow or in some way--we need to check you for vital signs.

In no particular order, here are some ways my son has changed me, and some things I've learned over the last four years, for better or worse:

1. I am now the lightest sleeper ever.  My brain has developed some sort of sophisticated sound-cue system which wakes the body whenever certain sounds travel through the environment: the signature 'crack' creak of my son's bedroom door; the croup Strider cough; or the early morning calls of "I'm tired of sleeping, Mama".  This will, however, work in my favor once the Kiddo becomes Teenager and tries to sneak out at night. I am the alarm system in this house.

2. I never knew how much I could love sleep. This love is almost scandalous.  Pre-child, staying up late was a voluntary activity. Now, if I were to ever have an affair, it would be with Sleep, because nothing looks better than the insides of my eyelids. I'd easily pay good money to have an uninterrupted ten hours of sleep.

3. I've come to see that the idea of Parental Authority is--like unicorns and centaurs-- largely the stuff of myth.  Some will disagree with me here, but basically, we have about as much absolute, sovereign authority over our kids as a boss has with their employees--only we can't fire our disgruntled workers. Instead we are required to provide them room, board and health insurance and cute clothes. When we say "jump", we might not get a jump, or a "how high?", we might just get an annoyed stare with a "Why?" which will make us want to fire them for insubordination. My job is far more about persuasion than domination, although I have been known to whip out the weekly-used threat of "If you don't stay in bed, there will be no video time tomorrow" when I am tired, finished with the extended bedtime routine and ready to escape for a well-deserved Beer and a Sitcom. At that point, the Progressive Parenting part of my brain has clocked off, exhausted after a busy day, and is also ready to put up its metaphorical feet and veg out. 6:15 a.m.-7:30 p.m. is a fairly long workday for that part of my brain, and if I time out after 13 hours plus, can you blame me for grabbing the cheap threat and beating a hasty retreat?

3. The best parenting brains are like an Olympic gymnast: flexible and strong and able to change it up. Especially in regard to parenting philosophies. Who gets more advice thrown at them than a parent? How many gajillion parenting philosophies are out there, to both ends of the extreme? I remember adamantly following Attachment /Child-Led Parenting theories--until I was tired of waiting for my three year old to want to wean and sleep in his own bed. Despite all of the hypothetical "Make It Positive for Everyone" parenting philosophies and techniques, sometimes, we are going to have to make our kids do things that don't feel good for anyone. Sometimes you simply can't reason a child into cooperation. Sometimes, they are going to have to go to the doctor and get their shots or go to school when they don't want to simply because "That's the way it is". (Or, as I tell Kiddo sometimes, "We do because we do because we doobie-doobie-doo.") Sometimes empathy is all we have to offer, and their cooperation is pretty much a moot point: some things in life must be done and yeah, it kinda sucks. That said, I've learned that no parenting technique or theory is bulletproof; rather, there are no silver bullets out there that are going to solve any problem permanently. Besides, silver bullets should be reserved for werewolves, not kids. I am still learning, still having my own ideas challenged, and stretching, stretching, stretching every day as a parent.

4. I'm not the parent I thought I'd be. Remember that time in your life as a new parent of a baby, when  you'd see another parent struggling with their misbehaving kid and think to yourself "I'll never do that!" Let me tell it to you straight: Oh, yeah, you will. You will do that, and then some. You will have moments in which you think "I am just about the shittiest parent in the world right now, except the ones who are in jail" and the ones who are in jail will be your sad consolation for the angry stupid thing you said to your kid. I've had those moments myself. I never thought I would threaten my son with punishments, but I have, even if only because I'd run out of the time, patience or energy to pull yet another idea out of the parenting toolbox. We all do this occasionally, and as long as I am not threatening physical punishment or abandonment or something equally scarring, this is a part of myself that I'm going to have to accept. We all make mistakes from time to time (okay, daily), and when your kid is acting like an insane crazy person and you are tired or out of brainpower to effectively parent through the crazy, you will say something stupid. You will disappoint yourself as a parent. I know I have.

5. Make your peace about not being a perfect parent now; talk to your therapist if needed, so that your kid might not need one later on. What I mean here is simply this: if I white-knuckle the ideals and the details, I am going to end up being a pretty unpleasant parent/spouse to live with. I've come to the conclusion that there's no such thing as perfection as a parent, and if we don't mess up from time to time, our kids miss out on the chance to discover what it is to be wholly human-- to make mistakes, to make amends, and to keep loving each other as we all keep growing. Imposing our desire for perfection is pretty much like wrapping your kid in a straitjacket (while the crazy person is on the outside, no less) and can considerably alter how they perceive their childhood in later years.

6. Keep in mind the core of what's important, and let that guide your family's journey together through life.  My usual mantra fits here: balance is everything.  Frankly, some things aren't negotiable, but we should try to keep that list relatively short and cut down to essentials. What exactly are one's family values? If it can be a short, specific list, that helps. In our house, it boils down to respecting ourselves and others and the Earth, which can encompass a lot of areas: eating well, being careful and kind to others in our actions and words, good stewardship of the planet, and taking care of one's self-care responsibilities. (This is on par for my four year old. Parents of children of different ages will have a different list, I'm certain.) Non-violent media and eating healthy are going to be two struggles we'll have to face down the line because of all the other messages our culture sends, and we're going to have to grow with our son in understanding what he needs, socially and psychologically, as he matures. I know I will be challenged throughout my son's life as to how to impart values without them becoming something he resents, and so we try to weigh our preferences as parents against what the consequences of not-allowing might be: feeling left out; being considered too "other" by peers; and Kiddo's own genuine preferences, etc. The parents who reserve "NO" for the important, serious stuff may end up having kids who feel more confident  and make better decisions because the little choices have been allowed to them and there's less to rebel against. They've learned that when their parents say "no", it is more often a meaningful "no" instead of a rote one. Better for everyone.

7. Just when one area of parenting gets better, another becomes more challenging. Parenting will mess with your mind, no doubt about it. Children seem like shapeshifters some days, moving through phases with alarming speed and unpredictability. Kids do return to unresolved issues to work through them in their own way, and just when we think we've conquered a specific beast, it might come back days, weeks, months or even years later. My theory is this: kids have to learn "X" amount of stuff before we send them off on their way as young adults, and they can really only focus on a couple areas at a time. I'm not talking academic lessons either, but life's larger lessons in belonging, security, self-regulation, self-expression, assertion of one's personality while conforming to the needs of the larger group. These lessons go on forever, and we are still learning them as adults, however, we adults usually have the intellectual capacity and perspective to approach  life with more objectivity than our children, who have such a sense of being in the present that objectivity is impossible for them.

8. My friends won't parent the same way I will, and that's fine. When my son was wee tiny, I so desired a cocoon of like-minded persons surrounding us, parenting in ways that supported each other. What I've learned is that I can enjoy other women and not make the same choices as they do and admire them and be fine with it all at once. This is about my own peace in my decisions and acceptance with who I am, and I think those two factors allow people to be comfortable and confident while spending time with people who do things very differently. I am lucky in that there is something in each of my friends which I admire in some way, be it because they homeschool or because they stay active in their communities or chosen professions and have figured out a way to do what makes them feel best as a parent and as a person. So often, we get busy judging ourselves and because we feel 'less than', we judge others. None of my friends parent the same way I do, 100% across the board, and that's why we all have our own kids. As long as we are all respectful about it and up front about what we want, things usually work out.

In thinking on these points, I want to say that the last one has been key to my happiness as a mom. So often much is made of friends whose relationships change drastically after a baby comes into the picture. In my life, I've met like-minded people who had similar parenting views as I did, but we might not have had much else in common. The core of the relationship has to be larger than what we do with our kids. I've discovered that some of my staunch "never gonna have kids" friends really enjoy my son in ways that most of my friends with kids don't. Perhaps it's novelty, who knows? Nonetheless, it's this broad, patchwork sense of community that lifts me up when I need it and helps me feel connected on days when I feel stuck in what is sometimes a very insular job. In earlier years, I was more comfortable keeping to myself; since Kiddo, I've expanded my friendships because of him. He is an ambassador in some ways, pushing me to get myself out there and fascinated to learn more about these new people in my life, the new friends we make as a family. That's keeping me flexible too~ stepping outside my comfort zone.

In fact, so much of changing as parents is precisely about doing what we are uncomfortable with, whether you are a brand new parent trying to get used to poopy diapers or someone like me, who had tamed that beast a long time ago but still struggles with a sometimes-paralyzing social anxiety around the large groups of people that parenting sometimes requires us to be a part of. Throughout our lives, we will be meeting new caregivers, teachers, the families of our child's friends, and new situations each and every day. We will learn that sometimes, our comfort zone is going to get squashed by someone else's comfort zone because they are perhaps older, or less flexible, or less tolerant of kids than we are. And then, we have to find a way to navigate through that, and resolve to ourselves to be more comfortable or assertive the next time that situation arises, to do what needs to be done or say what needs to be said without feeling bad about ourselves for it.

Balance and flexibility: parenting is gymnastics in so many ways. I'm going to keep working at it, though, keep trying to stay limber and learn new tricks. I might even go to bed early tonight so I can keep at it tomorrow, learning through every day, changing in so many ways.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I was just thinking the other day that it is an interesting cultural/sociological development that each family has a unique philosophy and methods when it comes to raising kids. I know that some families still raise their kids just like they were raised or raise their kids like the community (tribe, church, geographical area) does, but today in my little slice of America, every family crafts their own methodology (or crafts and then re-crafts and then tweaks, etc.). It's wild and complicated and beautiful all at once . . . thanks for sharing some of your family's way of moving through the world, Mama.