I used to feel–and sort of unconsciously believe–that to be a successful parent was to be so in tune, so attentive, so on top of the perfect planning and management that my kids would never get too upset, too hungry, too tired, too frustrated, too overwhelmed on any level. That if I was a good parent I would be able to prevent massive fights, blow ups, or any other kind of meltdown by anticipating each child’s needs managing it for them before any falling apart happened. So any big emotions that were overwhelming were my fault. I thought that any difficult dynamics that escalated to the point of bad behaviour were because I had been selfish and not met that child’s needs appropriately in time (maybe I kept reading the end of the chapter of a book instead of getting snacks served up). It’s not that they weren’t supposed to experience negative emotions but more (as I, then mistakenly held it) that they shouldn’t ever be in a position of TOO much. Or not enough either. And it was my job to prevent anything that went too far off either end of the spectrum.
One of the problems with this outlook was that I was constantly failing, and that is exhausting. More troubling was that I had a sense that my failure was because I was selfishly putting my own needs first, that I was stubbornly unwilling to exert just a little more energy and a little more focus, but that I could fix things if only I could push myself a little harder. Circularly my failure to prevent the distress for my kids and my feeling that I could have if only I’d given my time and energy more freely (and somehow had no needs of my own) added fuel to the fire of negative self perception. And it allowed us to develop unhelpful boundaries. In a sense I was enabling their behaviour in that I wasn’t helping them to develop the skills they needed to self assess what was happening within and around them, and allow them to better manage the same situation when it arose another time.
Slowly, little by little, I have been unlearning these ideas. I still think that it’s important to be involved and supportive and helpful and not just walk away and leave my kids to figure it all out on their own. But I also don’t think that blanket rigid punishments and restrictions are a useful means of preventing certain behaviours, or encouraging others. Instilling fear of a harsh punishment gets results, but it feels too easy for kids to adjust their behavior out of fear rather than understanding the actual reason their behaviour needs adjusting – and too easy for me to accidentally control my kids through punishment rather than work with them to sort through the problems.
But with help recently I was able to see that my job as their mom isn’t to prevent too much or not enough, my job is to help them learn how to cope. How to cope when they aren’t getting the attention they want. How to cope when they are overwhelmed because the demands on their time are too much. What to do when there isn’t enough support to go around and they have unmet needs. What to do when they want too many things but they can’t do it all. How to cope with the excitement, despair, frustration and resentment that can build as they navigate these choices.
My scale of success isn’t about keeping them from upset, bad experiences or challenges that push them to the edge of their mental, emotional, or physical abilities. Rather, success lies in finding ways to develop their skills — some of which I don’t even have! – so that no matter how many times they’re flooded with too many things, and no matter how many times they hit rock bottom as they feel ignored, unseen or undervalued yet another time, they know how to pull themselves back into equilibrium.
One of the things I was pondering with these ideas is the power that comes from having a deep well of meaningful stories. The stories I know and love from the Bible powerfully connect me to a source of more for my times of not enough – and goodness knows there are many of those while striving to parent 4 young kids. There are so many amazing stories of temptation, of emptiness, or exhaustion, sickness, and struggle – and time and time again people are met where they are: food is provided, water is found, healing comes suddenly. And in these stories I am reminded that through prayer, community, and reflection I, too, can come back to deep wells of peace, love and connection. I am inspired, again, to take on the work of caring, loving, supporting and challenging my small charges as they work to know how to find enough when they are empty, how to find peace when the world is too much.