Parenthood is overwhelming at times. It has an amazing ability to help reveal all our flaws as a person and as a parent — the flaws that as a solo-unattached-carefree-childless-person seemed not to matter. Happy flaws, these may have been. Inconsequential flaws that affected no one. Flaws that likely weren’t noticed, or if they were, could be put on a shelf, out of mind.
But as a parent, all the flaws that I chose to ignore seem to creep up and rear themselves unexpectedly. They are larger, they are more exaggerated, they are screaming to be noticed, and they have an effect on my parenting style and on my children. If I’m not careful, those flaws that seemed minor can do a lot of damage.
My flaws, I fear, are to repeat the mistakes and patterns of my mother. Is it true that we become our parents someday, as we parent our own children? Is it true that we repeat their behaviours, repeat their parenting styles, repeat their triumphs and also their mistakes?
I can easily recall in my own childhood the many times that I recognized the personhood of my own mother—the moments in which I learned that she was flawed. Children think the very best of their parents. They want to see their parents through rose-coloured glasses, as absolute heroes in the narrative of their lives. The moment in which one realizes the flaws of one’s parents is disquieting and unsettling. It introduces a new element into one’s life narrative. It introduces new perspectives and new things to deal with. It is unsettling to learn that your parents are not perfect. Certainly it may be a part of growing up, but it doesn’t come without much self-reflection. It can lead to closer, more honest relationships between child and parent. Or, it can interrupt a relationship and cause a chasm that takes time to repair.
Learning our own mistakes
Parenting is difficult. As I recently told one of my children as we discussed my own parenting mistakes, “No one is born knowing how to parent. We make mistakes sometimes, and we have to learn from those mistakes so that we stop making them.”
I am quickly learning my own mistakes. In the last several weeks, different stages of childhood have been exhausting to try to parent. There are outbursts, there is yelling. There is mess-making and there is screaming. There is throwing things and there is feet-stomping.
Guess what? Some of this is from the kids. Some of this has been from the frustrated-can’t-cope-can’t-figure-out-how-to-deal parent.
And this creates obvious bad examples for the kids. My two-year old in the last number of weeks has learned to articulate “Mad. Me mad. Grrrr!” as he stomps his feet and yells. I know that he is imitating some of the frustrations that he’s witnessed. Some might say that at two years old, it’s great that he’s articulating what anger is. He is learning to say that he’s frustrated as well, as we talk about “mommy frustrated. Me frustrated sometimes too.” Yes, that might be an unexpected perk to this recent backstep in parenting. But I am the first to admit that I’ve had parenting fails lately.
Dealing with our imperfections
How do we deal with our own parenting shortcomings—our anger, our emotions? I am quickly learning that my parenting flaw is frustration and anger. Anger I witnessed in my own mother, and anger that I likely have pent up and held back over numerous years. There is frustration at not knowing how to handle a parenting situation. There is frustration and anger when something is not going as expected. And of course, it’s not the child’s fault. But it’s easy to misdirect our own anger unintentionally—and of course this has the most negative of consequences.
Unconditional parenting. We say it, we feel it, we think we are giving it… but then our child spills a cup, or dumps the cat’s food in the cat’s water for the third time today, or starts screaming at the other sibling. And boom: we might lash out, ourselves. It’s hard, but oh so incredibly important to take a step back. Take a deep breath if need be. Do some yoga maybe, meditation, take time out with friends for coffee, tea, wine, whatever. Go spend some time without the kids. Go for a walk in the woods. Do something to decompress, before we get to that point where we lash out.
We have to be sure that our actions, our intentions, our voices, our words, match what is in our hearts. Because our children can’t see inside us.
Because then our kids learn to lash out further. They’re also unintentionally learning that our love comes with conditions. I’ll love you if you don’t throw the dishes. I’ll love you if you don’t hit your sister. I’ll love you if you stop yelling.
What they should be learning, what they should be feeling, is this: I’ll love you no matter if you yell at your sibling. I’ll love you no matter if you break a glass. I’ll love you no matter if you dump the garbage again. I’ll love you no matter what you do. I will just love you.
Our hearts might always be well-intending, our hearts may still be loving, but our actions speak something entirely different. We have to be sure that our actions, our intentions, our voices, our words, match what is in our hearts. Because our children can’t see inside us. Every word, every action is taken in, and often matched. They’re sponge-y little children, soaking it all in.
Just as we soaked in our own parents’ actions and words, our children are apt to repeat what we do.
I’m not ready for my children to learn all of my flaws and shortcomings. Certainly I know that day will come. But I want to be their hero. I want to be their role model. I want to learn from my mother’s mistakes, as opposed to repeating them. It’s all easier said than done.
But it’s so important to try.