This seemed like the logical follow-up to my last post about the realities of marriage. In the online universe, there is an abundance of writers who share their experiences, who proclaim the right way to do things, who offer judgment along with that so-called advice. Much like the marriage posts that seem to be all the rage, most of them hardly scratch the surface of what life is really like.
Instead, they sugarcoat, they oversimplify, they spin.
I don't sugarcoat anything. I don't bother trying to oversimplify because life is usually just too damned complicated. I don't spin things, at least not intentionally. I have my biases, sure...everyone does, but I do the best I can to present things clearly.
As with the marriage posts, I laugh heartily when a blogger who's oldest child is a toddler tries to tell the world that they are some kind of parenting expert. I've been a parent now for 12 1/2 years, though my journey with parenthood really began a while before then when I was pregnant with my first child. Even still, I won't for one second try and tell you that I know what I'm doing.
I will, however, tell you what I've learned.
- Parenthood is exhausting. Babies are physically draining. Sleep deprivation is rough. Having someone wholly dependent on your for survival 24 hours a day is hard. If you think that it gets easier, though, I have some news for you. It doesn't get easier, it just gets different. In many ways, it gets harder. You may not have as many physical demands placed on you as your kids get older, but they are gradually replaced with other needs. Parenthood is 3am trips to the ER and days of vomiting and being pooped on and eating cold food. We are all tired. Really freaking tired. Promise.
- You will make mistakes. We all do. Parenting really is something done by trial and error. None of us know what the hell we are doing. We do the best we can, we make choices based on the information we have, and sometimes we screw it up. Own those mistakes, don't wave them off as insignificant. Learn from them. If your mistake resulted in a child being disappointed for some reason, apologize to them. Saying you are sorry isn't a sign of weakness as a parent, it's quite the opposite because you'll be teaching them that everyone makes mistakes and that taking responsibility is more important than your ego.
- No one is an expert on your child and you know them better than anyone else does. You could read every parenting book on the market, talk to every child psychologist and get nowhere. None of them lives in your house, none of them has to deal with your family dynamics, none of them knows your past. You are the best equipped person in the world to be an expert on your child. Don't doubt that.
- Trust your instincts. Far too often, we ignore our intuition about other people, about illnesses, about relationship dynamics. If something feels wrong, pay attention to it. Even the most subtle things can and will set off your radar, and you need to listen. Don't rationalize everything, don't try and explain it all. If something feels off, it usually is.
- You can't choose who your children are friends with, who their enemies are, who they love or who they hate. Maybe you can do this when they are little, but once they are in the land of middle school, you quite literally have no control over this, nor should you. It gets complicated when you are friends (or enemies) of the parents of the other kids in their lives, but you have to respect that and let them choose who to associate with and who not to.
- A diagnosis doesn't define a child anymore than it defines an adult. Say you have depression or PTSD...do you want everyone to treat you differently because of it? Do you want to wear it like a label on your shirt pocket for the world to see? Of course not. Neither do your kids. It doesn't matter what they are contending with - it could be something physical, it could be a disability, it could be that they are on the spectrum somewhere, it could be that they have ADHD, it could be that they have mental health issues....it doesn't matter what it is. It is just a piece of who they are. Don't let them define themselves with it, don't let anyone limit them because of it - and to do that, it means that you can't either.
- It's your job to be their advocate. Sometimes you will have no choice but to fight for your child. Do it. Your most important job as a parent is to stand up for your kid. Fail to do that and nothing else will matter. Sometimes that means admitting things you don't want to admit. Too bad. Suck it up and do your job. You aren't protecting them by refusing to admit something is wrong.
- Every kid is different, what works for one won't work for another. You can't treat them the same because they are different people with different hopes, fears, dreams, ways of processing things. The mechanics of parenting don't look much different from one child to the next, but the application absolutely must. Don't compare your kids to each other or to other people. They are all unique and individual. To some degree, you are absolutely required to re-invent the wheel with each child.
- You have to be a safe place to land. This one is hard. REALLY HARD. Being the parent of two kids with ADHD who work tremendously hard to reign it in during school, I have to take the brunt of their explosions when the bell rings at the end of the day. They can let it out with me because I am the safe place. It hurts and it sucks and I hate it, but it is what it is. I am mom, I will love them even when they rage...so they take it out around me, with me, at me. It is very common for kids to act out more at home because they know you'll love them anyway. They can't do it at school because they'll be weird, made fun of, alienated by friends. At home, that can't happen. Or it shouldn't. This is the hard part. Letting them, helping them recognize when reactions are inappropriate, having them scream that they hate you and that you are ruining your life, and not flinching.
- Be present, be engaged and listen. We're all busy. Everyone is. Work, other family obligations, friends, hobbies, etc. There aren't enough hours in the day. Yada, yada, yada. I get it, really I do. But, you have to find time for the kids and you have to make it count. I'm not going to spin some tale about quality time. It's bullshit. Just don't be home and distracted, don't wave them off, don't nod and say uh-huh when they try to tell you what happened at school today because if you keep doing that, they will stop trying to talk to you. That's a promise. Make the most of the time you have. Be fully engaged. With littler kids, get down to their level, literally. With tweens and older kids, put the phone down and turn off the tv and just listen. It drives you nuts when they don't listen to you, have headphones on, are texting, right? Goes both ways.
- Boundaries are your job, testing them is theirs. It's your job to make the rules, and it's theirs to break them. To stretch the limits of the freedoms. To test the waters. To take a mile when you give an inch. They don't do it to make you mad, they do it because it is a completely normal and healthy part of growing up. Sometimes you have to trust them when they don't deserve it. Sometimes you've got to lengthen the leash when they don't give you a reason to. Let them be responsible. Let them make choices. Let them make mistakes. Just be there when they do.
- Letting go is the hardest part. Every step they take away from you is heartache. I won't lie about this one, I won't sugarcoat it at all. It's hard. But you absolutely have to let it happen. You worry more, yes, but that's part of life. Let them live. Let them go out with friends, let them go to dances, let them date, let them drive. Gah. (Told you this one sucks)
- What you say and do matters. If you are a do as I say but not as I do parent, I can just about guarantee failure. Your words have meaning, but your actions have much more...and they are watching even when you don't think they are. They remember everything. If you don't want them to lie, you can't do it. If you don't want them to be lazy, you can't be. If you don't want them to be irresponsible, you can't be. Insert any other things you don't want them to be, and repeat.
- Make fun of yourself. Be ridiculous. Teach them to make fun of themselves, that way no one else can. This is huge. Teach them to laugh at themselves. To not take life too seriously. If you can do this, you strip anyone else of the power of ever using this stuff against them. If they are quirky or weird or goofy or a klutz or short or tall or a spaz....teach them to LOVE that about themselves. Embrace your weird. Own it. Love it. Make it an asset.
- Embrace who they are and what they love, even if you don't understand it. Is your kid a gamer, a drama queen, an artist or musician? Do they want to code computers all day or play soccer 24 hours a day? Whatever they love, let them love it, even if you don't get it. Support the things they love, don't make fun of them because of it or steer them away.
- Teach them to be kind and giving. The world would be a much better place if there were fewer assholes in it. Teach them when they are very young to care about other people. Volunteer, donate time, energy and things. Help those who need help.
- Do not sacrifice who you are for them. Stay who you are, teach them to do the same. As with in the marriage post, don't give up the things you love because you have kids. If you love to run marathons or climb mountains, keep doing it. If you love to scrapbook, keep on keeping on (but seriously, hide the good scissors...don't ask). If you love music, keep going to shows. Share the things you love with them in whatever way you can, and keep doing them.
- We all hide in the bathroom sometimes. True story. We ALL want to run away sometimes. We all want to give up sometimes. We all are convinced we are completely ruining our kids lives sometimes. We all hide in the bathroom at times. I may be guilty of sneaking a beer in the basement at 9am once.
- If you think you're doing it right, you're missing something. This goes along with the last one. If you're totally convinced you are doing it right, I'm going to just assume that you're in denial, blissfully unaware of something huge or heavily medicated. We all have aspects of parenting that we kick ass at, sure...but none of us are doing everything perfectly. If you think you are....
- Apple trees are real. It is hard to admit sometimes that they are who they are because you are who you are. I have a couple kids with ADHD. Which makes sense given that I am their mother and their father is their father. That one was hard enough....having a kid with anxiety, depression and a penchant for eating disorders....WAY harder to accept. The power of genetics is pretty strong with this stuff, and it's hard to process when a child struggles the same way you have. Instead of seeing it in a negative light, think of it this way: you are far more equipped to understand and help them than anyone else is because of your shared conditions.
- Break your own rules sometimes. Let them stay up late watching bad movies and eating popcorn. Take mental health days from school and do something fun. Those "don't tell mom" commercials crack me up...not the hiding things from the other parent, but the whole idea of structured rule breaking. Live a little. Teach them to do it too.
- It's okay to complain. Just take time to savor the good times too. I'm not going to tell you that you have to adore your kids all the time. I'm not going to tell you that you are being selfish if you want a break. I'm not going to tell you to quit whining. I'm sure as hell not going to say you are ungrateful. Being a parent sucks ass quite frequently. In between the monotony and conflict, though, there are the moments worth engraving in your memory banks forever. Don't be so caught up in being tired and frustrated that you miss those moments. Days last freaking forever, but the years fly by.
- There are other people who will be like parents to your children, be grateful for them. The teachers, the coaches, the aunts and uncles, the grandparents, the friends, the scout leaders, the volunteers at school. They love your kids. They can give you insight. They see things you don't. They can help you, they are already helping your children. Thank them.
If you have another lesson you've learned about parenting, please feel free to share it. Life is short, this shit is hard, and we'd all be better off if we helped one another get through it instead of judging.
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