When Bad Parenting Happens To Good Moms

by Samantha Parsons
Scary Mommy and CentralITAlliance/Getty

Last night I experienced what can only be described as a parenting fail. I was a complete floundering mess in parental unchartered territory.

My three-year-old has been in swimming lessons for nine weeks. For some reason at the beginning of last night’s class, there was a mix-up and my daughter was momentarily confused about where to go. Her teacher patted her head, attempting to reassure her, but as her class walked over to the showers, I saw her come unglued.

She anxiously scanned the crowd of parents, locked eyes with me and immediately ran my way. She collapsed into my arms, bursting into tears. Though it was out of character for her, I knew what triggered it. I saw the confusion in the beginning of class shake her, but assumed she’d power through.

I was wrong.

I knew the tears and death grip she had on me meant I needed to bust out some masterful negotiating skills, but inside I was panicking. This is not my child. Why is she acting like this?! I tried to stay positive as I pulled out every trick I could think of.

Let’s take deep breaths!

Let’s go for a walk, calm down and come right back!

Let’s just dip your feet in the pool until you’re ready to get in!

She wasn’t budging. In fact, her mood was rapidly deteriorating. Now she was wailing (in front of everyone), “I want to go homeeeeeeee!”

My compassion was dwindling. I was losing control. I reminded myself that the three-year-old does not dictate the schedule. I AM THE PARENT. We were not leaving. I was determined to get her to come around.

I shifted my strategy. Upbeat Mommy wasn’t working. I morphed into Stern Mommy who meant business. Surely she’d sense my tone change and cooperate.

“GET in the pool.”

“You do this every week.”

“Right now. Get in. Get in. Right now.”

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By this point her tears had dried, but she was not backing down. She stared at me, unwavering, standing her ground.

“No. I’m not getting in.”

Stern Mommy had left the aquatic center. Desperate Mommy was now in the building. I stooped to the level of taking things away and making threats. To a three-year-old.

“If you don’t learn to swim now, we can’t go swimming at Nana’s this summer.”

“Good. I don’t want to swim at Nana’s.”

“If you don’t get in we’re not coming back next week.”

“Good. I don’t want to come back.”

“If you don’t get in we’re going home and you’re going to bed without reading ANY books.”

“Good. I don’t want to read.”

With each threat, I was becoming increasingly more desperate. As the words were escaping my lips, I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t let go. I crouched down to her level, cursing my choice of long sleeves in the 9,000 degree aquatic center. My emotional state only added to my rising body temperature and beads of sweat trickled down my back as I pleaded with my daughter.

For 30 minutes we continued this back-and-forth before I finally conceded. I took her by the hand (maybe a little too tightly) and headed to the parking lot, completely mortified. Neither of us spoke on the ride home.

My daughter doesn’t act like this. She’s brave. She’s well behaved. She’s sweet. And if she’s not, she rarely reveals her stubborn side in public. But if I’m being honest, she’s also shy. She takes a while to warm up. If she isn’t comfortable she licks her lips nervously and shifts her weight. She clams up. Often she puts a brave face on, but in times of uncertainty or embarrassment, she’s capable of a breakdown.

Instead of embracing my daughter’s emotions and chalking it up to a bad day, I almost lost my composure. I was embarrassed by her unwillingness to participate and furious with myself for letting her win.

The reality is, neither of us won.

Later, as she was getting ready for bed she was still pouting a bit, but I told her I loved her. I left her bedroom saying, “Let’s not think about swimming lessons anymore for tonight and start over tomorrow.”

Start over tomorrow. Words of wisdom I offered my daughter when I needed to take my own advice.

In my few short years as a parent, I’m learning just how inadequate moments like these can make me feel. They come on quickly, seemingly out of nowhere — and almost always hit when I’m on a smug high of “my kid would never…”

Maybe these moments happen to rein me in and teach me humility. Maybe toddlers are just unpredictable beasts with limited reasoning skills. Whatever the reason, I’ve realized parenting comes with highs and lows just like everything else. I have “good momming days” and bad ones. This was definitely a bad one. I was lost for answers and unsure of my next move. Even in the moment, I knew I wasn’t doing my best. So I gave myself the night to sulk, but was determined to take my own advice.

I’ll start over tomorrow, too.