We’ve all been in that pre-kid era where we’re sure we know what kind of parent we’ll be. Admit it, you’ve taken a note or two in your past when seeing a parent with his or her kid in the store and raised an eyebrow or two. I know I have. The parent I was going to be looked awesome on paper, but I never took into account the emotional impact of having children until I was hit with the reality of my own life playing out.
My late husband and I weren’t “trying” and we weren’t “not trying,” but when we were told at our six-month gender-reveal ultrasound that we were having not one, but two baby boys, that “perfect parent” image in my head slowly dissipated. Truth is I hadn’t spent much time around children up to that point, and now we were going to have two of them right off the bat. Driving home from the hospital with two newborns, I kept thinking, “I’ve never been around babies and now they just send us home with two? We’re not equipped! We’re not prepared!” But deep down, I knew my heart would never be the same. I was introduced to a whole new set of emotions and discovered emotions I never even knew were there. Bringing home those babies (now first graders!) created a major a paradigm shift in me—albeit it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. Not only did I realize (much later) that I was struggling with post-partum depression after my twins were born, I was trying to handle the terminal diagnosis of my young husband. These emotions were real, raw and honest—sometimes more honest than I would have liked them to be. These are the emotions of parenting that we don’t usually talk about amidst the pure joy, love, elation and “happily-ever-after” when baby(ies) comes home:
- Self-doubt: There are so many times I lay awake wondering if I’m making the right choice for my three kids—especially since my older two just went to kindergarten. The mom-on-paper me was going to homeschool and do crafts every day. The real-life-mom me is faced with having to come up with a sole income for my three children and myself. We want the best for our kids, but in this society we are inundated with so many decisions and choices and information when it comes to “the perfect parenting way,” it’s sometimes difficult to sift out what we don’t need in order to find the nuggets of truth—truth that settles our hearts and souls when it comes to our parenting. They are there, the nuggets, and when self-doubt comes swirling around, remember, write them down if you have to, the truths you’ve settled on. They’re different for everyone.
- Mental exhaustion: Pre-kids it was easy to make a space for dreaming about how we were going to parent and the kind of kids we were going to have. Now that they’re here, 99 percent of our brain space is devoted to keeping these people that we are in charge of alive, safe, nurtured and growing. Not only do we have to multi-task for our survival and theirs, to make it through the day, but once kids are in school, juggling our schedules and their activity schedules is downright exhausting—even if all you do is sit in a car and drive around all day or fill out a monthly…weekly…daily…sometimes hourly calendar. I’ve found that giving up an activity to make time for self-care (and sleep!) has been the best way to combat this.
- Pressure to be like our parents—or not be like them: Having children of our own undoubtedly makes us look at our parents and our childhood in a whole new light. Either we are even more grateful for the sacrifices our parents made for us, or we recoil at how we were raised and vow to never raise our children the way we were brought up, and sometimes a mixture of both. All kinds of emotions relative to our parents or ourselves, can rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times—resentment, comparison, anger. Bottom line is that we are the parents we choose to be. We cannot change the way our parents were, but we can take our experiences of our childhood, learn from them and apply them to the way we parent.
- Not feeling joy 100 percent of the time: So many times after my twins were born I heard, “Oh twins! How much fun!” And so many times after my third child was born and my husband died, I heard about how blessed I was that “at least” I had three kids. But if I was honest, being with two, and then three children under three years old at the time and dealing with the whirlwind of emotions that come with post-partum depression and grief of the loss of my husband was anything but fun. Full-blown tantrums, crying throughout the night (sometimes x 3) and the incredible pressure of finding things to do to keep everybody’s minds and bodies busy when all I wanted to do was crawl in bed and sleep didn’t feel like much of a blessing at all. I didn’t feel the joy everyone talked about that comes with having kids and it wasn’t a barrel of fun. These emotions were completely counterintuitive to the fierce and intense love that I had for all of my children the moment I saw them. How could I not want to be around the people that bring me so much love and that I love in return. Bottom line is these feelings have NOTHING to do with your feelings about your children, but everything to do with your circumstance or mental state. Seeking professional help, accountability and someone to talk to honestly and openly can help tremendously.
- Guilt: This is the top of the list of negative emotions I believe trouble parents. We have self-imposed or externally imposed guilt about so many things when it comes to parenting. Guilt about having the TV on too much, guilt about what and how you’re feeding them, guilt about which school they attend and which toys or sports activities you cannot afford to buy. Guilt about working and not being home enough, guilt about not working and not contributing to the home financially…the list goes on and on. Guilt is when you’ve done something wrong and you know it. Shame, on the other hand, is disguised by guilt, and is when you yourself or your feelings are wrong. Do I feel guilty about my parenting because I really could improve on some things or do I feel shame about the way I parent because I’m just not a good parent? That negative self-talk and putting shame on yourself about doing things that are the best you can do at the time is so detrimental. Change the things that you know need to be changed and that you have control to change. For example, if you yell and are impatient with your children that’s a behavior and response that can be changed and improved on. But don’t feel unnecessary shame and guilt if you had to feed your baby a bottle instead of breastfeed or put your child into public school instead of private because of circumstances beyond your control.
In our optimistic, positive, happy-shiny society, it’s hard to admit negative emotions as a parent and it’s doubly hard to address them and deal with them. I’ll never forget the line from the movie “Room,” when the mother apologizes to her son for not being a good mom and her son replies, “but you’re my mom.” We can’t choose the circumstances we find ourselves in and sometimes we can’t choose the feelings that come up with those circumstances, but we can acknowledge them, fight against them if necessary, and push through to the truth that we are to live out as parents: be the best parents we can be with what we’re given and what we know. We need to always be willing to learn more and recognize that, even though sometimes the circumstance cannot be changed, being willing to change our emotions and perspectives accordingly are the best things we can do for our children.
*Previously published in “Multiplicity Magazine”, by Nicole Hastings
This is a society where moms are inundated with the pressure to create gourmet meals, and cute crafts and activities for our kids, but when you’re mothering in mayhem, looking like a put-together woman seems like a far and distant world. Tackling the overwhelming and incredibly taxing responsibility to try your best to maintain any sense of “normal” for your kids when everything is crumbling around you is no easy feat. But there are a few things I’ve learned in my experience of caring for my dying husband and three children under 3. So here you go, from one mother in mayhem to another:
- The small victories: You might not remember even the last minute, but trust your mothering instinct. I don’t remember a lot of the day-to-day when I was the caregiver, at age 28, for my 34-year-old husband who was dying of cancer. I’ve heard the comment: “I don’t know how you did it…” to which I usually respond, “I don’t either!” It’s strange how I can remember some of the finest details of the chaos that ensued around my family the last few weeks of my husband’s life, but the basics seemed to just happen on autopilot…I think.. I still can’t remember how everyone got fed, bathed and the twins off to daycare, manage tantrums and the surge of drugs and dosages that my husband needed to remember to take, but couldn’t; not to mention that small detail of keeping a newborn alive by nursing all hours of the night, pumping and storing milk, and changing diapers and clothes—over and over. This juggling of all the other people I was responsible for, while trying to recover from delivery (strong emphasis on trying…well, there was no trying actually, I just didn’t “recover” from delivery and post-partum, my body just patched itself together and survived it). There were people who tried to help, but didn’t know how, so the majority of responsibility still landed on my shoulders. I managed…I probably didn’t do a stand-up job, but I did it! There’s not enough time to treasure every moment with your kids when you’re just trying to survive, to fight through another day, to keep yourself, your spouse and your kids alive. Pat yourself on the back and celebrate the small victories—when my husband was alive and in home-hospice, those victories included: nobody getting tangled in his oxygen cords; keeping the liquid morphine out of my twin toddlers reach when my husband would forget and accidentally leave it on the nightstand; and the nights when none of the kids woke up while I was carrying my husband to the shower and back—those were victorious nights! After my husband died, my toddlers may have watched countless hours of television and eaten pizza or frozen lasagna for three days in a row, but they were fed, the baby was fed, happy, dry and still getting tummy-time, and at the end of the day, we’re all still alive and somewhat sane—that’s a victory not to be overlooked.
- Realize you don’t need to be supermom and go it alone: In our society, independence is revered and treasured, but mayhem, crisis and trauma reveals a deeper human need—connectedness and community, both of which require asking for help and revealing vulnerability that you can’t, and shouldn’t try to go it alone. The “zen” part of your mayhem is simply asking for help and humbly receiving it. That knowing, in your mayhem, you have people in your corner and if you don’t, ask for it. When you are tackling your kryptonite, whatever that may be: lack of sleep, grief, illness, etc., that someone can help bear the load, there’s always someone who can help—they can’t take it away for you, but they can help. Many people who help in small ways add up. When we ask for help there is a peace and humility in knowing we’re not supposed to be alone in this life, and we’re especially not supposed to mother alone.
- Self-care is not selfish: In caring for my husband and children, I honestly forgot about myself—even the basic needs. When the helpers in my home took more showers and wore clean clothing more than I did, that’s a sign that self-care went out the window. I mentally was not able to take care of myself at that time. You know how the mom-thing goes—everyone else is taken care of first. When I came home with a newborn and realized absolutely none of the nursing clothing I had fit, it took me three or four days of wearing oversized t-shirts and wrapping my chest in a towel when my breastmilk came in to finally ask a friend to go shopping for me. I couldn’t even fathom leaving the house to go shopping for myself, if I did, it would have been a scene from “Night of the Living Dead,” I’m sure of it. After my husband died, the self-care situation didn’t get better until recently, when I finally started giving myself permission to take care of myself and convince myself that it isn’t selfish to do. I did myself a huge disservice and made it much harder on myself trying to take on the “I’m strong, I can just carry on” attitude for the better part of three years. And the best part, to the joy of my frugal self, is that self-care doesn’t equal expensive. When I started to look at baths, showers, naps, walks, reading for a few hours in a coffee shop, or even finding a really good deal on a hotel room for a night as therapy, it was easier for me to wrap my head around investing in those things, even if it meant paying for a sitter to make it happen, to spend a little time on myself.
- Permission to retreat: Taking time away from the mayhem may not be an option, but eventually, if you find a small sliver of time, take it and don’t feel bad. Even if it means locking yourself in the bathroom to pray or meditate (which might include not doing or saying anything at all and just being quiet). I didn’t want to leave my house for long periods of time when my husband was still alive, but I did use the bathroom as a sanctuary. I didn’t have any privacy as my make-shift bedroom was in the living room and people were ALWAYS around, so the bathroom with a lock was the best bet for alone time. I remember just sitting on the floor for even just 10 minutes to escape helped to gain enough strength to handle whatever was going on outside that door. I didn’t have a lot of mental energy to pray, but I know my spirit was crying out even when I was silent. Leaning into the silence and retreating to a sacred space only my spirit could access was finding tiny eyes in the storm. After my husband’s death, showers became my retreat. Now , I have gained enough strength (and the kids are in school for a few hours a day) walks or just sitting in nature to be with myself and God have become my retreat. It only takes a little peace to make a big difference, but you have to fight to search for it sometimes. It’s worth the effort, I promise.
Ultimately, it took me a long time and many trials to realize that I can’t throw a proverbial life preserver to anyone else, including my children, if I myself am drowning. Someone I respect once told me: There is peace in the waves of crisis. If we stop treading water and fighting for the shore, just hang on and let the waves bring us to shore instead. I’m praying for you, whomever you may be, going through the mayhem. You can do this. You can hang on. You can reach the shore.
It really bothers me when people complain about their age, like getting older is a sad thing, like the future is never going to hold what the days of their youth used to hold. Several months ago this year, I turned 30—I was eagerly awaiting 30 and not dreading it. I wince if I hear someone gripe about turning another year older as if age is this terrible thing we just have to “deal” with because I know there are people who would have given everything to celebrate another birthday, another year.
When my 34-year-old husband was dying of cancer, I remember being so bitter and angry when I’d see elderly couples holding hands or sitting across from each other at dinner or one pushing the other in a wheelchair as I pushed my husband in his wheelchair thinking, “That was supposed to be us “Someday,” not now.” The bitterness clung on when he died and it seemed like everyone around me got to celebrate another birthday, another new year, but my husband didn’t. The bittersweet reminder of the gift of age followed me into my grief journey into the many grief support groups I encountered where it always seemed like I was the youngest person, holding onto dear life to the four years I got with my husband, while others talked about the 50 years they got with their spouse. It didn’t seem fair, but now my heart celebrates that I even got those four years to begin with, just as my heart eagerly awaits each new year now, without him, not because I want to be without him, but because for some reason, I still have the privilege to get out of bed every day, the privilege to take another breath, the privilege to be walking on this earth. Aware of this privilege that I did nothing to earn, I do not mourn my three children’s birthdays in sadness for how quickly they grow, I do not mourn mine for how quickly I age because I was painfully allowed a glimpse into the gift of age and time.
I challenge you for 2016 to eagerly await your birthday and to celebrate it. Be in awe of and learn from the seconds, hours, days, months and years you had before this very moment. Rather than mourn the years piling up on one another, celebrate the moments that lead to this new year as a precious gift; even the really bad, really messy years, even the years we made mistakes, the painful years, the years that are full of regrets. Regrets are only wasted if we don’t change.