There’s a strange phenomenon in parenting young children where, if you want to get to a place where you aren’t so perpetually frustrated by every little thing that happens, you learn how to let go of your wants and unmet needs quickly and quietly—without giving up on them entirely. To be frustrated means to have some sort of unmet need, and in parenting, just about everything in your life that you had, held on to, and embraced before having children goes into the category of “unmet needs” after you have children. Time, space, attention, energy, will. It all is (and must be) directed towards your children now.
Yes, we need personal time (you learn how to find it for yourself and/or advocate for it). Yes, we all need personal space (you learn how to create it for yourself and/or advocate for it). Yes, we all need a minute or 60 to put our attention, energy, and will into something other than tending to our children (you learn how to make room for it all and/or advocate for it). But really and truly, we can’t take a permanent break. Some people do, and their children suffer for it. But good parents—the effective ones—they know that they need to figure out how to give their children what they (their children) need while still giving themselves (the parents) what they need, too. Otherwise, it’s an equation that ends in all sorts of stuff that no one wishes to talk about. For good reason. It can get ugly. And fast. But it doesn’t have to be like this forever or even too many times after you learn that the-stuff-we-don’t-talk-about (like debilitating depression and anxiety) exists and is real and will take you down if you don’t consciously work to prevent it.
Here are some quick tips for keeping it real (i.e., being honest with yourself) while you’re keeping it together (or at least trying to).
- You must acknowledge that it is hard.
Yes, this is hard. All sorts of people will try to gaslight you into making you feel like you’re crazy because you’re having a hard time doing simple things day after day after day. We’re having a hard time with it not because the tasks themselves are hard but because it’s hard to do this consistently well while also not having sufficient physical help and/or understanding and/or emotional support. If you have parents, in-laws, siblings, and friends who are not genuinely generous in spirit, then you learn very quickly that you’re truly on your own and that it’s best to not ask people for help who wouldn’t have offered it on their own if you hadn’t asked. So validate your own experiences and feelings by acknowledging to yourself that this is hard.
- You must find a positive catch phrase for every negative thing that enters your mind.
As soon as you find yourself thinking something negative, meet it with something positive. Not something fake and brainwash-y. Something true, something grateful, something hopeful. It isn’t the funnest thing in the world to clean up throw up, for example, so you might have a few negative thoughts that come into your head while you’re doing it (especially if you, yourself, are sick). But you’ve got to get in the habit of recognizing the negative and coming up with a silver lining take on it. It’s gross? It sucks? It’s angering? Yes, yes, and yes. But viruses go away after a few days. You child will be better in no time. Breathe a sigh of relief (well, make sure to turn your head away from the throw up) that they don’t have some kind of terminal illness. (This isn’t to shame you into not feeling what you feel. It’s simply to give perspective on the matter.) Start small. Negative thought: “This is so gross.” Positive though: “Well, at least I’m well enough to clean it up now so it doesn’t have to sit and dry.” You’ll be tempted to stay angry, but try to stay angry for only as long as it’s needed to feel it. Then release it. Open your hands and your heart and let go of it. Anger (and other negative emotions) serve no purpose except to send you messages. Once you have received the message (“I am angered by this.”), then you are able to let it go (“I am not going to stay angry about this.”) and solve the problem (“I’m going to clean this up.”) and then move on (I’m going to see what else my child needs to stay comfortable, and then I’m going to try to go back to sleep.).
- You must get up and try again if you fall.
We will make mistakes, yes we will. But just because we make a mistake doesn’t mean that we’re done for. Pick yourself up, make the amends that need to be made, then try again. If you throw in the towel because you find out that it’s impossible to be perfect, then you’ll get nowhere. And you’ll never experience the joy of having worked hard for something and having received the reward of getting it. You want to have a better relationship with your children? You want to be able to have more patience and self-control? You want to be more effective in your parenting tasks (all of them)? Then it’s going to take a little work. You have to get up when you fall, and you have to realize that you get what you give. It’s going to take a little effort. This is just the way that it is.
- You must keep going.
Some people may make some improvements to the way that they parent and think that they’re done once they’ve accomplished a few goals. Cool and stuff, but we are never done. Our job as parents extends beyond getting our children onto solids or getting them into grade school or getting them through high school or mentoring them until they have their own kids. Our influence covers way more territory than we might assume based on their age (and ours). It doesn’t even matter if our children are receptive to our parenting of them. The hope is that they are (or will become so) and that our mindfulness of their level of responsiveness and our purposeful engagement with them to the extent that they will participate will all come back in overflowing fruit for our labor at some point (because it will and it does because that’s how it works). But even if it seems like it’s all for nothing, we must not quit. There is such thing as the art of quitting (such as how it can be applied to parental divorce—see “If You’ve Been Un-Child-Friendly Parented,” “An Explanation and Declaration of Child-Friendly Parenting,” “On Parental Divorce—Meaning, on Divorcing from Your Parent or Parents,” and “Parental Divorce and Christlikeness—Reconciling the Two,”), but this is not what I’m talking about here. We must not think that we’ve done enough “self-development” once we’ve seen some return for our efforts and then put up our feet for the rest of our life. Lots of people (and parents) do this, but it’s so short-sighted. The point is not to “self-develop” and then be done. A) Self-development has no end point per se and B) There will always be new hurdles and challenges and opportunities for growth in the journey of parenting our children well. So if we stop, then we’ll never get to the better and better places that are out there waiting for us to discover. We can do this. As long as we keep going.
- You must have a vision for how you want things to be eventually.
What this means is that you’ve got to have some idea of what kind of family (e.g., happy and healthy) you want to grow. If it doesn’t matter all that much to you and all you care about is perception, then perhaps vision means little in this context. But if you are serious about investing positively, well, and meaningfully into your children’s lives, then vision is essential. It gives you a picture of what you are aiming for, and it guides your choices in the present moment even when you’d rather not care anymore. Some days, it feels like a mirage or an illusion or a fantasy because it can be so difficult to make it through one day in one piece (and in peace). But keep that picture in your head. Don’t lose sight of it. You want a well-functioning, vibrant, and good-feeling family? You can have this. You can help create this. You can be a part of making this a reality. But you have to know what you’re working towards. You have to see it—and you have to want it badly enough that you will do anything to have the right things in the right ways for the right reasons.
Wishing you well on your journey of child-friendly parenting (which, to keep in mind, is effective in both the long-term and the short-term).