(alternate working title: Perspective Taking: Is Parenting a Chore or a Challenge?)
Let’s talk more about Tuning In and Reading our Children’s Signals. But before we start reading their signals we have to start by hearing our own inner-signals.
What signals do you give yourself? Does your inner-voice tell you that parenting is mostly the experience of being bored, frustrated, and screwing up? Or does your inner-voice broadcast a very different message?
Do you experience parenting as a chore or a challenge, a call to penance or to love and greater fulfillment?
A couple of years back, Shankar Vedantam at Slate Magazine posted a blog entitled:
In it he discusses research that shows, scientifically, just how stressed out most parents are. And asks why people keep on having kids if it is so stressful and expensive to do so. His answer: people are addicted to the highs parents get from child sized cuddles and kisses.
“We have a name for people who
pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social
and professional relationships: addicts.”
Well, Mr. Venantam is sort of right: Kid cuddles make us high, and can take away all of life’s stresses for a while.
For example, our three year old often crawls into bed with us. And then he tosses and turns. He kicks off the blankets. He whines. He makes getting a full night’s sleep next to impossible. And, yes, that can make me cranky.
But I’ll tell you what: when the entirety of my son’s feeted-pyjama-ed body is crushed up against me, when I know that I am in his heart and I am soothing him in his child-sized slumber, my heart almost splits for joy.
Even writing about the beauty of that moment makes me feel terrific.
And, if you are a parent or caregiver yourself, you know that there simply is nothing more fulfilling than feeling the unconditional love of a child. There is no feeling as great as their desire to be with you, to cuddle, play lego, or go tobboganning.
But, despite how good it feels and how many difficulties it presents, parenting isn’t actually addictive.
Firstly, parenting doesn’t actually suck. Parenting is just supercalifragilisticexpialidocioustocally hard to do well.
Parenting is like learning to drive or how to swim in the ocean without getting water up your nose. And then having to re-learn how to do those things repeatedly for your entire life.
It does not suck. It just takes a lot of practice, repetition, and good guidance to do well.
Parenting is hard, terrifically awkward, and people will suffer (including yourself and your child) when you screw up.
And I screw up on a regular basis.
Like the time my wife and I gave our son too much dried milk balls (a common snack in China) on the airplane from Nan Chang to Beijing. That was a mistake: He barfed dried milk snack all over me, his mom, the seat, and a few rows behind us.
So, we goofed by overfeeding him, and I felt sort of bad for that. Sort of. I also felt gross and super vomit covered. But, oddly enough, as I carried our son – our laughing, puke covered son – from our seat to the bathroom at the front of the plane, I felt elated.
I was a proud dad as I carried my regurgitated-dried-milk-ball-covered child to the bathroom, way, way up there at the front of the plane.
It was an “I can do this!” moment for me, as I carried my little treasure past all of the other adoptive parents and newly adopted kids. (And all of the other, unfortunate passangers who didn’t share our new parent glow.)
In that moment, I knew that, yes it sucks for to have a vomit covered airplane. But more than that, I knew that we would get through it.
We would survive!
So, Mr. Vedantam, you’re right about the addictiveness of a child’s cuddles, and wrong to say parenting sucks the rest of the time. Or, rather it can suck, but it doesn’t have to.
Parenting does not have to suck. Parenting is very, very challenging and it requires a lot from us, from our families, and from the communities around us.
It takes courage, it takes a village, and it takes truck loads of grace, to raise a child.
But it does not suck. No more than any act of courage, love, and creation sucks.
So the first step to learning how to tune in and read your child’s signals the same way you tune in and read a pedestrian crossing light is to check your Perspective and your Mindset.
If you believe that all of those boring or frustrating moments you spend with children are worthless, that they are a distraction from the good stuff, then a life devoted to caring for children is going to suck.
If you decide that being woken up in the middle of the night or being vomited on in the airplane is simply a bad thing, well, then you will experience your life as a series of trials and tribulations.
That’s your call.
That’s your choice.
I’ve made that call, that choice, from time to time. These days, though I wear those “parenting is a chore” goggles less and less.
After all, my wife and I didn’t adopt our son in order to get high. We weren’t addicted to him before we held him. That came shortly after. And that addiction to his affection is just a lovely side benefit of being his mom and dad.
We became parents because we knew that we are not animals, created to simply feed our most basic drives and instincts.
We became parents because we knew that love multiplies
when it has something worth all of its brightness, courage, and warmth.
My child (and my wife) are my personal love multipliers. They are the Cindy Loo-hoos to my Grinchy side (aka Driving Man).
I am a brighter, and braver, and warmer person for knowing and beholding them in good times as well as in challenging times.
I am grateful for my wife’s love and tenderness at those times when I fail to put her first, when Driving Man appears, and I am cranky and impatient. I don’t always take my son’s tantrums with grace. But her support makes it easier and easier.
It’s quite the thing to learn how to be with a tantruming toddler with love and grace. Or to hold my sobbing child and to know that his sadness will pass, and my wife and I will help make everything ok.
Personally, I wouldn’t know how to do that if I didn’t have so many good parenting role models, like my wife, my parents, grandparents and others. I am heartened by the fact that they, too, are perfectly imperfect.
But, mostly, I wouldn’t know how to be a tuned-in Dad if it wasn’t so hard sometimes; if he didn’t make me learn how to be there for him.
So allow the children around you to force you to rise above your boredom and frustration and desire for immediate gratification.
Allow them to make you a better person.
And please do not to go it alone!
Reach out to whomever you know who can support you in this. Who can be there for you? Who helps you be a courageous and creative parent (or other care-provider)?
After all, parenting might not suck, but it is very, very hard to do well.
And remember this: There is nothing more soul-satisfying than putting aside instant gratification for long term awesomeness. That’s even better than kisses and cuddles (though we need those too!).
Stay tuned. Next post will move from Tuning into Ourselves and Shifting Perspective to Tuning into the Children in our lives