I was a crappy parent of toddlers. I was irritated, bored, and reactive. I had no patience for my kids’ efforts to put on their own shoes or zip their own coats. I was always in a rush to get on to the next activity, annoyed by their slowness. I found sitting on the carpet doing puzzles or playing games utterly mind-numbing. I lost my cool literally every time my kids spilled their cups of water across the table. I did basically everything Dr. Becky tells you not to.
When my kids were little, much of my day was spent thinking about the moment I would be done with dinner time/bath time/bedtime so I could zone out watching TV or read a book. I constantly felt like I was faking my enthusiasm for whatever my kids were doing, while underneath the surface seething with a combination of annoyance and exhaustion. Layered on top was my guilt that I was not “savoring every moment,” as every well-meaning septuagenarian in the grocery store checkout line exhorted me to do. As I outwardly smiled and nodded at their well-intentioned advice, my inner voice want to tell them to fuck right off.
So it might not surprise you to learn that I, heavily pregnant with my fourth child while my others were seven and under, found myself in a therapist’s office. I was there because, frankly, I was wondering how the hell I was going to survive the next 40 years. Overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for yet another being who needed their diaper changed, their swing pushed, their tiny teeth brushed, I was consumed with profound shame that I was simply going through the motions of raising my children without a whiff of joyful exuberance.
What the therapist (who looked just like the well-meaning ladies in the grocery store line) told me changed my life forever. “Vanessa, different people are good parents at different stages of their kids’ lives. Some people are wonderful with babies and awful with teenagers. Some people are bored by toddlers but adore adult children. You have to give yourself permission not to love every second or every stage of your kids’ lives.”
It was as if she picked up an unbearable weight from my shoulders and set it down on the ground next to me so I could continue on my long journey. I felt absolved of my parenting sins — my boredom, my impatience, my anger, my irritation — and freed to start over the next day, liberated from my guilt and shame. The therapist offered me a fresh start by giving me permission to reimagine myself as a parent at each stage of my kids’ development.
Here’s the funny thing. I didn’t love parenting toddlers, but I adore parenting tweens and teens. Developmental psychologists will tell you they are similar stages in so many ways — rapid brain development, individuation, tantrums — but since my toddlers didn’t have a lot of language, life was heavy on frustration and light on charming toddler-isms. My teens are expressive and funny as hell, which balances out the harder stuff — mood swings, crappy decision-making, pungent odors.
I recently interviewed Dr. Tina Payne Bryson for The Puberty Podcast and she talked about how “history is not destiny” — an important concept from her book with Dan Siegel, The Power of Showing Up. What she means by that is two-fold. One, that our personal histories, i.e. how we were raised, don’t need to dictate how we care for our own kids. And two, how we parented yesterday or last year doesn’t need to dictate how we parent today or next month. We have a daily opportunity to do things differently (and maybe even better) than we have in the past.
So for those of you, just trying to get through each day, not doing a spectacular job, not loving every second, most definitely not savoring the moment, I offer you the lifeline that was offered to me: your child will move to a new stage and with them, you will have an opportunity for your own reinvention as a parent. At every turn, you have unfulfilled potential to become better, more loving, more patient, more present, than you were before. And when things get dark, just remember: history is not destiny — tomorrow is a new day.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.