Being a parent is a joy. It is a also a blessing. Parenting is fun. It is mechanical, and creative. It is demanding and exhilarating.
Being a parent means you are always on the clock. There are no days off, no working hours, and definitely no job description.
Being a mom is a whole different league. It is natural to many, difficult for all. Being a mom (and sometimes being a dad too), means that you have to be omniscient: you must know it all! You are a 24 hours caregiver, a cook, a cleaner, a storyteller, a nurse, a magician, an entertainer, a teacher, a driver, a policewoman, a judge, a coach, a love blanket, a problem solver, a listener, a worrier and a warrior…
All these skills come with the job. You either have “The Instinct”, read books, or learn as you go. We will be better in some skills, and worse in others. We will prefer some skills, and loath others. We will all eventually feel our way through the years and manage to our raise children into becoming independent beings with adequate skills to survive.
Yet, parenting doesn’t end there. Think of all the previous time consuming, physically demanding, repetitive and thankless tasks as basically the fun half of your job as a mother, as a father…
Parenting beyond immediate need fulfilment
So what now? My child eats alone, bathes alone, cleans his room, and studies alone. They don’t depend on me to drive them everywhere. I don’t wrestle them to go to bed, or to comb their hair. No more purées, teething, or boogie man under the bed. No more fighting over toys or sippy cups. No more diapers or wet sheets to change in the middle of the night. No more small feet to kiss. No more sweet baby smells. No more good night kisses. What could be more needed? Why isn’t my job complete?
Yes, I had forgotten to mention that a parent perhaps needs to be a psychic too!
I used to ask myself over and over again: are my children happy? Are they fulfilled? Content? How will they be as adults? Are they resourceful? Grateful? Resilient? How much can I teach them? What shortcuts can I offer them? How can I sooth them? What can I promise them? What problems will I be able to solve for them? What can I do to make them happy? How are my actions influencing the way the think, act and dream? What mistakes should I tell them to avoid?
The second part of parenting, doesn’t demand immediate attention. It is ongoing, endless, evasive, and intentional. It is about ensuring the psychological well-being of our offspring. How much nature and how much nurture is at stake here! Is a child inherently good? Born happy? What parts am I really screwing up? Can I fix it?
You got it. There is no straight answer to any of the above.
It is quite difficult to assess whether our children are happy, traumatized, anxious or fulfilled. What behaviors they will outgrow, and what will remain as a personality trait. We can’t know their future coping mechanisms, their resilience, empathy or whether they will grow to love themselves. Dwelling on these questions alone didn’t serve me much.
Parenting and mental illness
One not so beautiful wintry day, mama fell very ill. Mama could not even do the one percent of the chores of basic parenting. No more cooked meals, drop offs, help with homework, or bath time. Mama was in bed or in the hospital – almost always crying and in her pjs.
They weren’t the best times.
Years later, and without much details, and with a lot of effort and luck I got better. So much better that I could start thinking of the effect of my mental illness on my children. For more details on this journey you can refer to previous blog posts.
I was ridden with guilt, shame and of course fear. If I was scared before my illness of how “well” I was raising our children, now you can imagine how I felt. I knew that what they saw, what they lived cannot be forgotten.
I found myself taking a whole different perspective now that the “harm” was done.
We cannot undo events. They already happened. The question is, do we let all this pain pass without learning?
I still don’t know how to answer all of the above. Yet, children might as well be better adults now that they have witnessed within their family mental illness. I have to highlight though that despite how ill I was, I tried within my capacity at the time to shield them as humanly as I could from how I was feeling. But children are very smart at detecting and feeling things even if unspoken.
Parenting and transcending challenges
We talked with my daughter (as her brother was just a toddler at the time) and explained things to her. We told her about my illness in child-friendly words. We talked about depression, anxiety, and mood swings. We talked about neurotransmitters and the side effects of the medications I was taking. We answered her questions. We listened. We tried to make it more human and less scary.
I didn’t think it was enough, or that it would be useful. Like I said, this type of growth is not linear. Yet, one day my 10 year old comes back from school telling me her friend had a panic attack and that she helped her through it.
You can imagine how I felt at the time. How can she know what a panic attack is, how can she help another 10 year old breathe! How can she handle this with such a grace and à savoir faire that doesn’t match her age?
Although this singular event does not mean much in the grand scheme of things, it helped me put things into perspective.
Kids have a level of resiliency that is far higher than what we assume. They internalize negative emotions and it will show on a whole different set of behaviors. They could have trouble at school, night terrors, or start losing stuff. It will show on them in a way or another.
The key here is not to forget why they are “acting” this way suddenly. Connect the dots and don’t feel guilty. It won’t help. Don’t scold and punish. It won’t help. Understand and explain. This is a much better approach.
Work on yourself first as you are a priority. Yes, you are the sun and moon to them, and everything in between. You won’t help them if you don’t help yourself. There are good days and bad days. Try to achieve normality and mundanity as much as you can.
Show them glimpses of what used to be before. Explain again. Tell them you love them and always will. Make their existence a reason to live for. Never forget how much you love them or how much they love you. Tell them they are not the reason you are feeling this way. Tell them you will win this fight. You will do it just for them.
Believe in the power of love. Hugs can go a long way, without much words needed. With love and care they will feel safe again. They cannot be ignored or assumed too little to understand. It is better to say the truth, even partially, than leave it to their assumptions.
Parenting without a crystal ball
So yes, we won’t know if our kids will be happy when they grow up.
- Know that life works in mysterious ways: what could seem like a huge ordeal now and a real impasse, is in fact a hidden real opportunity for growth.
- Guilt and shame will make everything worse. Don’t feel guilty, and please whatever you do make sure your kids don’t feel it either.
- Build empathy during your interactions with your children. You need to show understanding,
- Perhaps the most powerful thing I have done with my daughter is telling her that each new experience gives her a new tool in her toolbox. Whenever she faces a challenge, she has to look in this toolbox for something that will help her navigate the situation. She has really good tools now that she uses regularly.
- Accept that your offsprings’ mental health and happiness is also beyond your control. You can’t be “responsible” for each single aspect. You role is to help, and not to control.
- Let them do their own mistakes. Many things are learned by doing and not by preaching, just like falling in love.
- Be there for your children no matter what. Say this out loud, repeat it, and then say it again. They have to know this on an organic level. They know you will be there to pick up the pieces. We all need someone to do that sometimes.
- Be the first one to cheer and root for them. Tell them you are and always be their number one fan.
- Understand that no matter how you look alike, they are independent and different human beings. They will have their own dreams and make their own mistakes. You won’t make an apple tree an orange tree. The sooner you realize this, the sooner everyone will be happy. Listen to their dreams and dream with them.
- Forgive and love yourself. Work on yourself. Be the better version. Learn from your mistakes and aspire for more. This is a precious life-long action that your children will see you do. Basically, let them learn by watching.
In short, we all tiptoe through parenting. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. The world wasn’t created in one day. Take a breath and make the best out of today instead of worrying about things you cannot control. Remember that each day brings new opportunities for learning and for healing. Enjoy the process, it is actually fun.