“Kids don’t come with an instruction manual.” It’s what everyone tells us and what many of us tell ourselves as we struggle with the brain-busting enigma that is raising a very individual little being. But in many ways, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, part of the problem is that, especially in the digital era, there are so many conflicting “manuals,” all of which somehow make us feel entirely inadequate.
For eons, the manual has come in various oral forms, readily excerpted by family members, friends, coworkers, random observers on the street. Enter the printing press, and a multitude of experts and “experts” from Dr. Spock to Jenny McCarthy and beyond provided baby bibles, some complete with very detailed charts and diagrams, ranging from the clinical to the farcical. Hell, there is even a Your Baby’s First Year for Dummies book. Now, with the Internet, there are exponential sources all claiming to have the answers, to be able to provide us with the “best” ways to raise our kids.
Fantastic!, you might say. With such a wealth of information, we should be so much better equipped to transform those primitive, screaming, squirming creatures into eloquent, well-behaved adults. So why is it that somehow the more I read, the more I feel like a complete and utter failure as a parent?
Granted, I own the fact that I live for overanalyzing, but, the reality is that as with any self-reflective parent, it’s almost impossible not to. The nature of parenting lends itself so readily to rampant overanalysis, particularly as your child is still developing his or her language skills and you seem to be continually engaged in a high stakes game of charades.
I read somewhere recently that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions a day. That number can only be significantly higher for parents, particularly stay-at-home parents. Yes, many of those decisions are very small, seemingly insignificant ones, but that’s just it. As a parent, especially considering how many “manuals” tell us how every choice we make for our children will completely alter their existences, it seems as if no decision is insignificant, and we – It’s not just me, is it? Please say yes. – are left to continually second-guess ourselves.
Why didn’t he eat much at dinner? Why won’t he at least try what I put in front of him; he used to eat everything? Am I making him mac-n-cheese too often? Is he missing out on key nutrients? What will this mean for his physical and cognitive development? After all, “they” do say how important X-Y-Z are for his brain. Should I have attacked him with veggies with more force? Did I not offer him enough variety? After all, “they” do say that providing variety early on is crucial to proactively battling picky eating.
God forbid, we watched an extra episode of Elmo’s World today. Did I just condemn my child to suffering from ADHD? Am I playing enough of the “right” games with them? Should I be doing more pretend play? Should we stay outside longer? Should I have kept them out of the sun? Did I put enough sunblock on? Did I buy the right sunblock? Is that what caused Big Boy’s rash? The boys are playing well together on their own. Am I a bad parent if I leave them be and check my e-mail? Am I fostering independence or being selfish?
Dimples is not nearly the talker that his brother is. Am I partially to blame? Big Boy frequently engages us in conversation. Have I not initiated Dimples enough? Should I make more of a point to grow his vocabulary?
The boys have begun the battle for control and independence and could win Oscars for some of their tantrums. Dimples has always been particularly adept at pouring on the waterworks at the drop of a hat. Big Boy, meanwhile, can turn virtually every shade of red in the Crayola box of 64 and then some. Should I walk away? Some say not to provide an audience. Should I comfort them? Some say never to walk away because they’ll feel abandoned. If I offer a compromise, at what point does it become giving in?
I swear, one of the reasons I’m so ready to collapse at the end of the day is because I’m exhausted by the relentless battle my brain wages against itself. Did I yell too much? Did I reprimand them enough? Did I show enough overt affection? Did I show too much? Did I foster ample development or hinder my children’s growth?
I think over the last 21 months, I have felt like a failure more often than not. Though, in truth, I know that some of this derives from a different place. I know that overall, my children are thriving. While Dimples may eat only a handful of main dishes, he eats enough for three kids and is a very healthy, active boy. I know that just because Big Boy’s verbal skills are advanced doesn’t mean his brother’s are behind. I know that overall they’re very happy, goofy boys. (Not that any of these acknowledgements will stop my obsessive self-reflections and anxiety-ridden reservations.)
Part of my feeling of failure comes from my admitting to myself that I sometimes wish I were doing something else. I read an article a while back in which a mom took issue with a stranger’s statement about how that stranger cherished every moment with her kids. The writer/mom very earnestly said that in her case, and likely most other moms’, this was a bit of an overstatement. There are many, many moments in raising kids that are far more about survival than savoring.
There are moments that I wish I could have someone magically appear in my house to watch the boys, freeing me to escape for a bit. There are days when I particularly anxiously look forward to naptime or bedtime. There are days when as soon as my husband comes home, I find something that needs to be done in some other part of the house. There are many a days when I fantasize about spending a night away, alone.
Being a parent is arguably the most challenging, most frustrating task one can undertake. There is little to savor about living on three hours of broken sleep, or walking in to a crib full of diarrhea, or watching helplessly as your child bites someone else’s, or wracking your brain as to why your child might scream both when you put him in the swing and take him out. (Turns out Dimples only likes to be swung one particular way. Seriously?)
These moments do make many other moments that much sweeter. Watching the boys giggle maniacally as they chase each other around the house. Having Dimples turn his face up for a kiss before I put him down to sleep. Snuggling with Big Boy, as well as with the two blankets and three stuffed animals he brought with him from his crib, as he sips his milk after waking from a nap. Observing them discover the wonderfully gushy texture of mud for the first time. And I cherish these moments. I do, locking them away forever in a precious corner of my memory. Though, sometimes these blissful moments seem slightly sullied by my guilt, as their simple beauty only makes my selfish moments appear that much uglier.
I know I need to let it go. I will make mistakes, many, I’m sure, but I will not ruin my children’s futures. I may cause them pain at some point, but it will not be with anything but loving intent. I need to accept my own human failings and to accept that it’s OK to also want to take care of myself. I need to acknowledge that I’m also allowed to feel angry and frustrated and that in some instances, that will be harder to mask than others. And I need to forgive myself for those moments. I need to remember that there will be a lot of times that I will not like what they do, but just because I’m angry with their behavior, I’m not any less in love with them. I may just need a brief moment of time and space to reconnect with that.
I must somehow come to truly accept that this process will be messy and imperfect for all parties but that that mess will somehow hopefully translate into two vibrant, productive, and animated additions to our society. I’m still working on the letting go. It’s a daunting task for a type A control freak such as myself. Perhaps a beer and a little trashy TV will help. After all, there’s no more Calgon to take me away.