Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do. —Benjamin Spock
This one is a tough one to write. Most of you reading this are, like me, a Parent in the Time of Oversharing. You know what I mean; the joyful status updates about your child’s last day of school, the filtered Instagram photo of you and your family at the beach, your Tweet about the funniest thing your toddler said this week. Even some of the less than ideal moments make it out there to the world, usually with a humorous twist; a picture of your family with the one scowling kid, your status update about how your child went streaking through the neighborhood, your description of your night being akin to living in a vomitorium. And to that I say, kudos to you for turning the negative into a positive. I won’t even correct you about the real definition of what a vomitorium actually was (hint: it was not a place to which people went in order to vomit). People enjoy parenting fail stories, except for when they are true failures. Those moments we don’t hear about much, unless the fail was so horrific that it makes headlines. But I’m not going quite to that dark place.
The not-quite-totally-dark place I’m talking about is where the real struggles happen, the moments that test your patience and fortitude beyond their boundaries. When you hope that your kids are resilient enough to overcome and forgive your periodic failings as a parent. The rewinding and replaying of a recent meltdown in your head while you’re locked in the bathroom, weeping.
Do you know those moments I’m speaking of? When you question everything you think you know about things like discipline, patience, or “normal” child behavior? When you’re brought to your knees with how really freaking tough this parenting gig is, and how unsure you are that you’re cut out for it? And you wonder, why does everyone else seem to have it together? Why does everyone else seem able to navigate the work of child rearing calmly and confidently? Why doesn’t real life work like an episode of “Parenthood” or “Modern Family,” where there’s so much funny stuff and so much wisdom learned and everything ties up so neatly within a 30-minute time frame or a television season?
That can be a very, very lonely place to be. But what I know now is that I’m not alone. Allow me to tell you how I know.
I was at the gym several weeks ago for a group workout with a trainer; two of the scheduled three people were there, so we started our workout. About 15 minutes in, the third person showed up, smiling and apologizing, and jumped into the workout. Within the next 5 minutes, she broke down, started sobbing, and left.
The next time I saw her, I asked her what had happened that night and if she was okay. What followed was a lengthy discussion about how she was struggling with her toddler: his meltdowns when she was getting ready to leave for the gym, her guilt about leaving him for an hour when she only gets to be with him on either side of her workday, her constant exhaustion, and the way she yelled back at him that particular night before storming out of the house. I listened, I told her that I understood how she was feeling, I shared a few brief stories of my own kids’ meltdowns, but, mostly, I listened. By the end of our conversation, she said to me, “I had no idea anyone else felt this way. I thought it was just me. Why don’t people talk about this more?” I didn’t have much of an answer for her, since I don’t really know myself. I just know it doesn’t fit in with the happy, successful model of being a Parent in the Age of Oversharing.
Lest you think for a moment that I am hiding behind an example of another parent, I’ll share a story of my own parenting failure this summer, which is the moment that prompted this writing. I was out to dinner with two other families: six adults and six children between the ages of 5 and 9. We had all been outside all day biking, playing at the beach, swimming at the pool and otherwise coping with some extreme heat and humidity. Along with some minor sunburns and bug bites, there was definitely an element of fatigue that had crept over everyone in our group. After a 40-minute wait in the restaurant lobby, during which we all were working to keep the kids happy and occupied, we were seated.
Once seated in this very busy, very loud restaurant, there seemed to be a lot of lag time between server stops at our table. None of the adults were particularly peevish about this, but there was some concern since it was well after 7 p.m. and the kids were hungry and tired. Then it started. My younger daughter, who was seated next to me, began tapping on my shoulder every minute or so with some vague and whiny complaint: “Mama, I want chocolate milk. Mama, I have to go potty. Mama, I want to draw another picture. Mama, I feel like I’m going to throw up. Mama, when is our food going to be here? Mama, I don’t like the way this bread tastes.”
You get the picture.
I was trying to deal with the stream-of-consciousness complaints and demands as calmly and quickly as possible, doing everything in my power to head off what I already knew was the inevitable. Then came the little push over the edge. The drink she ordered was not the drink that got delivered. I saw it, the tears welled up in her eyes and her voice started to rise as she said, “MAMA! This is NOT what I WANT!” I pleaded with her to calm down and tried to reassure her that Mama would fix it, but as she shook her head furiously, I heard my other, older daughter let out an exasperated sigh, and say, “Really!? Why does she have to do this? Why is she such a brat? I just wish she’d be quiet.”
I snapped. I pointed my finger at her face, and, way louder than I intended, I yelled, “YOU! Stop it! NOW!”
I not only startled my kid, but all of the other kids and adults in the vicinity, even beyond our table. I startled myself with the volume and tone of my own voice. I saw several pairs of wide eyes looking at me. I wanted to slide underneath the table and stay there as the slow realization of how badly I just screwed up took hold. There I was, me being completely mean to my child. In public. My brain just started spinning with how to get past this and save face and get my kids to both stop being upset, leaving me feeling like the meanest, most awful parent that ever walked the planet, and asking myself why does the little one have to whine so much and why does her sister have to be so mean sometimes—does she get this from me? After all, I just yelled in her face and I’m just so sorry.
That’s when I got “the look.” In the midst of my mental tsunami, I looked up met the eyes of one of the other parents at the table and she gave me the half smile and nod that said, “You’re okay. They’re okay. We’re all okay.” And even though my kids were still pouting and I still felt horrible, I apologized for speaking that way, and we moved on. Without the canned sitcom laughter or touching monologues. We just moved on.
You see, even though we generally do our best to put our best, smartest, proudest, funniest selves out there, we all have our not-so-great moments as parents. There are just some times when a sense of humor might not help as much as a time machine that would allow for a do-over of the previous five minutes. But we just don’t have access to either of them. So what should we do in those moments? I don’t have a concrete answer for that. But what I do know is that talking helps. Empathy helps. Being honest helps. We’re all in this, and we can struggle alone, or we can reach out to our village and be in this together.