You know how people tell you to just hang in there, that these challenging phases our children go through pass quickly? Sometimes, those words don’t help. They might make sense, but they do nothing to soothe our anxiety or lighten the dark moments.
A fundamental challenge of parenting is that the heart and the head sometimes wage war upon one another. You know or think that you know what is best for your child, though that doesn’t always feel right emotionally. And sometimes you take a deep breath and tell yourself, “This phase is going to pass,” or “I’ll get through this tantrum without losing my temper,” and yet still you lose your temper, or at least your heart pounds in your ears and you want to. Logic doesn’t always win the day.
After a particularly difficult Monday in a particularly challenging period where my son Felix just wasn’t that into hanging out with me and showed it in unpleasant words and actions, I wrote about it up here, blowing off some steam. I received a lot of kind words from friends, reminding me how much my son does indeed love me and that this is just a phase. These all helped me feel less alone, sure, but that didn’t make the afternoon hours of, “No, I don’t want to do that, Daddy. When is Mommy coming home?” any easier. I greeted the coming weekend with trepidation, as Felix usually latches on to his mother on Saturdays and Sundays, leaving me feeling like a fifth wheel.
Not this weekend, though. It was as if Felix had read my piece — starting on Friday evening, he was a completely different kid then the one he’d been the past few weeks. “Is Daddy going to watch a movie with us?” “Is Daddy going to go to the park with us?” “I hope Daddy doesn’t have to go out this weekend.” For the first time in a long time we had not just a few good hours, but a couple of full days where our family functioned smoothly. Felix had time on his own, time with Mom and Dad together, and time with each parent individually. There was no super-attachment to his Mom, or tantrums because he couldn’t be with her 24/7, and there were no negativity expressed toward either parent.
It’s possible that in writing about my feelings and then talking them out with friends, I approached Felix differently, but I doubt it. More likely is that the help that he’s now getting in school for his anxiety and behavior issues has made him more self-aware and a little cooler-headed. But it could just be that this is yet another example of how it goes with kids. One minute, they’re deep into some troubling phase, not sleeping well, or throwing tantrums, or peeing their pants, or fighting with their peers. The next minute — poof! — that behavior is gone, as if it never existed.
What’s a parent to do besides repeat “hang in there” over and over again, waiting for your child’s development to take its course? Here’s what I find helps:
1. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, even if those feelings are negative. Don’t judge yourself for how you are reacting, because that’s just going to make you feel guilty and amplify your bad mood. If you’re feeling frustrated, angry, sad, or just pessimistic in general — like “I’ve made a terrible mistake having children!” — don’t bundle it up and bury it deep inside, where it’s just going to fester. Be present with those feelings.
2. Talk about what’s going on with someone you trust. Call a friend, tell your partner, write an email. Find a level-headed, sympathetic ear and spill your guts. If you don’t have a person like that in your life then get one! Just like we need supportive colleagues at work, we also need a support system of parent friends, people who are going to accept you for who you are. Do not share your honest feelings with friends who are going to respond in ways that feed your anxiety.
3. Do something that makes you feel better and helps you get perspective. Instead of making dinner, order in and use the extra time to take a hot shower, or go for a walk. Curl up in bed early and read a book. Ask your partner to step in and help you find a bit of time away from the kids. It’s important to get some space! The life of a parent, especially a stay-at-home parent, can feel very small. Try to get out of the box and you’ll realize, I think, that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
4. Don’t agonize or dwell in the negative. Once you’ve allowed yourself some time to feel down, then move on. Try not to let your mood turn sour, and avoid transforming a rough patch into a major catastrophe. This is where the “It’s just a phase” reminders actually do come in handy.
After writing that piece last week, I felt less burdened with bad feelings, and then bolstered by my friends. I resolved to not be so darn glum as the week went on and lo! Friday came and everything seemed right as rain. Even the frigid weather we’ve been having lifted. You really do need to be more patient than you’ve ever been in your life as a parent, but that doesn’t mean you should be idle. Don’t just hang in there — try to locate a little pleasure and lightness in your life as you do so.