There is nothing like being 3,000 miles from home, stressed and jet-lagged, with two screaming, rambunctious kids to make you seriously doubt whether you’re cut out for this parenting thing.
But that’s the predicament I’ve been in for the past week as I “vacation” with my kids in California, visiting friends and family. It has taken almost a full week for my two-year-old to transition to the new time zone, and mornings and evenings have involved multiple whiny, crying fits. He’s constantly wondering how and when we’ll ever go home (me too, buddy!). And my picky eight-year-old has eaten nothing all week but cereal and chips.
Every single morning, as we venture downstairs to the continental breakfast, the kids are arguing. Arguing with each other: “Stop touching me! Stop sitting in my chair! Stop saying my name!” Arguing with us: “But you said we could have chocolate in the morning!” Arguing about the food: my eight-year-old claims that California milk tastes completely different than New York milk; my two-year-old says the pancakes aren’t round enough.
And they are loud. Painfully loud. They keep talking and talking and talking—in their high-pitched, squeaky, ridiculous voices. As they talk, they stand on chairs, crouch under tables, make elaborate kingdoms out of their toast and waffles, pour salt on each other’s heads.
Heads turn. A woman looks up from her mountain of Wonder Bread and glares. One son has strawberry jam smeared across his nose. The other has his hand down his pants. They are noisy and disheveled—terribly uncivilized.
We shush them, and they sort of listen. Yes, we slip them out of the room if they get too out of hand, but there’s no getting away from the fact that they are acting just plain wild.
When I was a younger, newer mother, that woman’s glaring eyes would have pierced me to the core. Worse than that, I would have glared into my own soul and questioned whether I should be allowed to call myself a mother.
My inner dialogue would have gone something like this:
Why are my children the loudest kids in here? Look at that family next to us eating breakfast in silence, cutting their waffles into perfect squares. Even the baby is obediently opening his mouth as his mother spoons in the green mush.
Why won’t my children follow basic instructions? These are the only kids I’ve ever met who don’t give a damn about the authority of their parents.
Everyone else’s kids know that chairs are for sitting on, spoons are for eating with and that it’s not okay to open all the sugar packets and pour them in snowflake patterns on the table.
Other parents have a plan for how to make it work better. They read the discipline books, implement the sticker systems. That’s it—stickers! Gotta try the stickers. That will do the trick.
I will tell you that I still had many of these thoughts during our vacation, moving about in public with our cranky children. I have felt like my kids and my parenting are on display—not just in the hotel breakfast room, but as I’ve spent time with family and friends, people I haven’t seen in years, and whose opinions I value.
Feeling self-conscious about your children in those moments when they are misbehaving—wondering if you are doing everything terribly wrong—is like being in middle school again. Your cheeks flush red. Your heart beats faster. You feel rage boiling up inside. It’s fear that makes you want to run into the girls’ bathroom, lock yourself in a stall and cry.
But you can’t escape. You can’t hand off your kids to someone else in that moment. It’s you. You are there and in charge. You with your kids, no shortcuts, no way out.
However, there is one saving grace, one thing I have gotten better at remembering over the years, and what I have been telling myself these past few days to lessen the sting: I am not alone.
And you aren’t alone either.
I actually kind of hate when people tell struggling parents that they are not alone. Because in that moment when things are falling apart, yes—you are entirely alone. That is what makes it so freaking hard.
But you can still know, somewhere in the back of your head, that every single parent feels like they don’t know what the hell they are doing every single day—especially when they are out of their comfort zone and it feels like the eyes of the world are on them.
So, to all of the parents out and about with their cranky, wild children:
Your kids are not the only ones who wail in public, even when you’ve done your best to get them adequate sleep and rest and have prepared for their venture out.
Your kids aren’t the only ones who don’t seem to give a crap about cleanliness and civility.
You’re not the only parents whose kids take “spirited” to a new level—dancing on tables, singing their faces off, crying for candy at 7 a.m., and showing their belly buttons to perfect strangers.
And you are not the only parent who has no idea what to do. You are not the only parent who is making it up as you go along.
Here’s the thing: What the public sees (and what you see in those moments) is just a snapshot of your life with your kids. It’s a life amplified when voices are raised and stress levels peak. More people need to understand that, and stop judging parents on the five minutes they see.
The truth is that your kids actually do rock, even when they’re acting crazy. They rock at being kids. It’s normal for kids to have trouble transitioning to new environments. It’s normal for siblings to fight incessantly. It’s normal for kids to get messy, loud and unhinged. It’s normal for kids to test their boundaries with you (it’s a sign of trust and love, really). It’s normal for kids to be entirely imperfect and horribly annoying, especially at the least appropriate times.
You know that the rowdiest, craziest kids are often the smartest, most creative ones, right? The nuttiest kids are the ones who surprise you by suddenly learning how to swim in the span of three days. They are the ones who make up elaborate superhero/Froot Loop/Taylor Swift dance routines (don’t ask) at 5 a.m. while you were pretending to sleep.
Your kids are really good at being totally themselves, and you are not alone in feeling like it’s too much. You are not alone in feeling like you’re losing your mind. You’re not alone in feeling entirely alone.
Because you’re not. At the very moment that you’re certain you’re failing, someone else is feeling the same way. It might even be me.