Quiet Epiphanies

sharing the everyday stirrings of mind, heart, and spirit

Tag: parenthood

Don’t Set Up Moms to Fail

I read a story from a mother the other day that stuck with me because it just felt wrong. “The Day My Son Gave Up on Me” by Lauren Cormier is the story of a mom, like so many moms, who is running herself ragged all throughout the day because from the moment she wakes up in the morning until the kids are in bed at night (and even beyond that) she is thinking about other people’s needs. And so she ends up making a promise to her son that she won’t keep.

All I could think about when I finished reading her story was this: she was set up. 

Cormier was set up by routines and expectations that weren’t working for her. She was set up by an attitude that didn’t recognize and value her needs as much as everyone else’s. She was set up to say “yes” to everyone besides herself first, so that she ended up making promises she couldn’t keep.

After she is finally finished taking care of everyone else, she sits down next to her husband, who decides it is a good time to launch a guilt grenade at her. Yet, the husband has been doing what exactly all this time? It seems like he was already sitting on the couch, not helping. I could be wrong. There could be a lot about what the husband has been doing that has been left out. Regardless, he should see how hard his wife is working and realize that relaying his son’s words to his wife is hurtful and unhelpful in that moment.

This mom feels convicted about her sour attitude and her failure to deliver the attention she promises to her children, but in focusing on the expression of her attitude, she misses the root of it. She feels convicted and resolves, like we all do, to be more patient and attentive next time.  But when she decides to dig deep and simply find more of her weary, over-extended self to give, she reinforces the message that moms setting limits and getting their own rest is wrong. And also that women are the ones who should be endless fonts of energy and generosity, while husbands are observers, couch-sitters, providing testimony to a mom’s every failure.

What’s wrong with this story is not that a mom didn’t spend enough time with her son. What’s wrong isn’t even primarily that a mom didn’t keep her word to her son. Cormier not keeping her word to her son is a byproduct of the family not prioritizing her needs and protecting them with routines that work for her too.

Cormier’s kids’ bedtime routine goes like so many: baths, PJs, teeth, stories, cuddles. But this breaks down because for some reason there is a break between stories and cuddles. She goes downstairs and then is called back upstairs again for more cuddling. Inevitably, as soon as she leaves her children’s room and walks downstairs, she sees the visual chaos of a lived-in house: the dishes in the sink, the toys strewn all over the living room, the baskets of laundry waiting to be folded. And as soon as her foot leaves the last stair, she is aching for rest. Yet she still can’t. The bedtime routine still isn’t over, so now she has at least three competing demands: the kid, the house, and herself.

What if, instead of having to come downstairs, each parent grabbed a glass of water for each boy right after brushing their teeth and took it into the bedroom? Then they could read stories, have cuddles, say goodnight and be done. No calling Mom back into the bedroom, because she didn’t have to leave in the middle of the routine. Her son couldn’t be disappointed, because she doesn’t have to make a promise she can’t follow through on. And what if, during the end of cuddles, Dad was downstairs finishing up dishes and packing up lunch so that by the time Mom gave the last goodnight kiss, all she had to do was sit down on the couch and rest?

I’m tired of reading stories about tired moms who determine that the answer to their feelings of failure is to simply love more, appreciate more, be more.  We are doing the best we can.  We love our children and wish that we had the energy to match our endless love. We expect a lot of ourselves and the world expects a lot from us. But moms need love poured into us as well. That means the solution is prioritizing rejuvenating rest for moms and creating routines and rules that allow rest to happen. That might mean being more intentional about the time we do spend with our kids, creating rituals that aren’t necessarily longer, but are dependable.

I had a meet and greet with a new doctor the other day and she asked me how I was getting time for myself. She said I should take time to read or work on my own project every day, and it didn’t have to be when my son is asleep. “Sit him down next to you with some toys and tell him he can play next to you while you do your thing for the next 30 minutes, or if he throws a fit he can scream in his room where you can’t hear him.” When I thought of leaving my son in his room to scream just because I wanted some “me time,” I thought of all the voices that would tell me I’m a bad mother for “abandoning” my son or “punishing” him for no reason. “It will be good for him to see you taking time out to take care of yourself, so that as he grows up he will know that he can do that, too,” the doctor explained.

This kind of parenting is not popular right now, with the rise of attachment parenting and because of articles like “The Day My Son Gave Up on Me.” But I’ve done co-sleeping, I’ve done babywearing, and I’ve done the middle-of-the-night nursing sessions past when he “needed” them. Although I would do much of it again, I’ve learned that I have limits. I also realized that if this doctor, who knows about child development and who has treated a lot of weary mothers, is telling me that this is not only ok, but necessary, I should listen. She sees the repercussions of mothers who don’t take care of themselves.

Let’s strike a balance. Children need parents who will follow through on their word. But they also need to see us taking care of ourselves and being intentional with our time. Children need to learn that just because their parents’ love for them is limitless, doesn’t mean life is limitless. Other people have needs and there is a time and place for everything. That means Mommy gives you a glass of water, cuddles up and reads a story, says goodnight and doesn’t come back upstairs just because you want her to.

This Is My Favorite Age

When we were at our son’s two week old checkup, our doctor must have noticed the weary, anxious look in our eyes and told us, “Don’t worry. Once he gets to be about six weeks old he’ll start smiling and interacting with you and it will be a lot more fun.”

I looked at her and thought, But I like him now. I was tired, but I didn’t want him to change. To me, there was not a single thing wrong with him staying as he was. My love was stronger than the pain in my body, the circles under my eyes.

I was new-parent weary, but my love for him was so big I couldn’t imagine how it could get any bigger.

Before I became pregnant, I actually couldn’t imagine myself with a newborn. I thought I would be better with an older baby, one with large curious eyes and soft, squishy chub. I didn’t know what to do with squinty-eyed newborns, who seemed so fragile and apparently cried or slept all the time. But as soon as my son was born and lying on my stomach, I saw his beautiful face and all I could think was how perfect he was.

Watching a child grow is like watching a flower bloom. My son started out a tight little bud, and as he gets older he blooms out, revealing the beauty inside. As he blooms, my love stays as strong as that first day, but my appreciation for his loveliness grows.

I have a friend whose baby was born just a couple months before my son. We shared our excitement and fears about pregnancy, and then parenting once our babies were born. When our sons were just a few months old we talked about how we didn’t want them to get bigger, how we loved them so much as they were and we were weepy when they outgrew their clothes. But we discovered as our babies grew how exciting each new milestone was. How just when we snuggled our babies close and smelled their heads and thought, “Don’t grow,” they surprised us with some fascinating new development and we couldn’t tear our eyes away. Suddenly, we were cheering them, saying “Go on! Do it again!”

Nothing can prepare you for the ordinary miracle of your baby doing something for the first time. I’ve thought about why that is. All healthy babies follow the same general pattern of development. Why should it be more exciting when mine learns to roll over or crawl or walk? But as his parent, I’ve been with my son from the beginning. I’ve been on a journey getting to know him since I first saw his heart beating on the ultrasound. As his parent, my every daily activity is done with consideration for this little being that I am responsible to grow. So when suddenly he does something that he’s never done before, it feels like my world is expanding right along with his.

When my son took his first steps, even though I had been expecting it for months, I felt as though something impossible was happening. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he was spoon bending, Matrix style. It was breathtaking that he should stay upright on his own, even for a brief moment. I cried, seeing him walk. Because my baby is almost not a baby anymore. But also because I got him this far. And also because I’m so excited to see all the things he is going to do next.

So if you asked me every month of my son’s life what my favorite age was, I would always say “this one.” It’s true now, as he practices walking while holding a large ball, or uses rudimentary sign language to ask for “help”, or holds his dog’s paw while he watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I hope that no matter how difficult things get, whether I’m losing sleep because of toddler nightmares or teenage escapades, my love continues to be stronger and my appreciation richer.  I hope I can always say, “This is my favorite age,” because he is my favorite boy and I wouldn’t have him any other way.

Things I Do and Things I Don’t Do: Determining my priorities

Things I Do and Things I Don't Do: Determining my priorities

Sometimes I need to absolve myself of my guilt for feeding our son a banana and Cheerios for breakfast.

When I was growing up, I ate Cocoa Puffs with non-organic, probably antibiotic and hormone laden 2% milk for breakfast. Do I resent my parents for it? Will I blame my every present and future malady on the fact that I didn’t eat a nutritious breakfast every day of the week when I was a kid? Of course not. But in today’s culture, we are hyper-aware of the nutritional value or danger of foods and every meal is a mark of success or failure as a parent.

There’s something to be said for trying to do better. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a perfectionist I already have voices in my head telling me plainly: DO EVERYTHING BETTER.

Shauna Niequist wrote about this “DO EVERYTHING BETTER” inner voice her lovely, beautiful book Bittersweet. Like so many other women, she became overwhelmed with the pressure to improve in every area of her life and “do it all.” She had lunch with an older, wiser woman one day who said something that stuck with her:

And this is what Denise told me: she said it’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.

So Shauna set about determining her priorities by creating two lists: “Things I Do” and “Things I Don’t Do.”

When I read about her lists, I immediately wanted to create my own. I have always been a perfectionist, but especially since becoming a mother I have been inundated with instructions for how to do things better. Everywhere I turn, there is a simple tip for getting something done, or getting it done better. I collected each one I came across, like a novice builder collecting nuts, bolts, and nails from bulk bins. I had a bunch of pieces, manageable in and of themselves, but putting them together to build a house is an entirely different task.

My lists are a work in progress, and they’re more aspiration than reality at the moment. But I hope by claiming my priorities and embracing my limitations, I will be freed to live a more satisfying life. Here are the beginnings of my two lists.

Things I Do:

  • Keep my body healthy by making eating and drinking as much my priority as taking care of these needs in others. I drink enough water and eat nutritious meals and snacks.
  • Make an effort to get regular exercise, even if it’s just a walk or quick yoga session.
  • Shower every day. If I don’t shower in the morning, my day is going to suck. I will feel like I just need to go back to bed the entire day. I may forget to brush my teeth, but I will never forget to shower.
  • Cook (at least somewhat) healthy meals without feeling like they have to be fancy, and I allow myself a “convenience” food (like frozen pizza) about once a week to give myself a break.
  • Recharge with at least an hour or two a week of quiet alone time, when I don’t have to meet anyone’s needs but my own. I want to use this time to read and write and generally think about things besides taking care of other people’s needs.
  • Go to church on Sunday with my family. I always feel better for it. Always.
  • Play with my son. Sometimes it’s hard not to just plop him in front of some toys and go clean something, but we are both so much happier when I engage him in play or read him a story.  I won’t want to remember the cleaning years from now, I’ll want to remember when he first stacked blocks and drew with crayons and gave his stuffed animals hugs and kisses.
  • Stay in touch with friends, making a point to see people in-person as much as is possible without feeling over-scheduled.
  • Make the bed in the morning. It doesn’t take long and it makes me feel a little less anxious about the overflowing laundry hamper in the room.

Things I Don’t Do:

  • As my opening line suggests, I do not make complicated breakfasts. It takes me a while to wake up and I don’t have the energy and brain capacity to cook well in the morning.
  • Worry about the ever-present baskets of unfolded or half-folded laundry in my living room. I despise folding and putting away laundry. Probably because I need to go through our closet and drawers and get rid of all the clothes we no longer wear or pack away what’s out of season. Ugh, I do not want to spend time doing that.
  • Extreme fitness, like running a marathon or crossfit or climbing a mountain. I’m too competitive and placing high expectations on myself only creates an “all or nothing” mentality and sets me up for either anxiety and pride or failure and depression. I’m learning to be gentle with myself and accept small victories.
  • Clean all the time. I could spend all my time cleaning so that everything was to my satisfaction, but I would miss out on a lot of Things I Do. So, yes, there are toys strewn around the living room most of the time. The kitchen sink usually has dirty dishes in it. Usually the only cleaning my bathroom sinks get is a quick once-over with a disinfecting wipe. When I finally do get around to scrubbing the bathtub, I spend extra time in the bathroom just admiring how shiny it is.
  • Thrill-seeking adventures. Skydiving, traveling to foreign remote locations and scuba diving all sound very unappealing to me.
  • Work out with groups of people. No Zuma. No hot yoga. Aside from a 5k or 10k run, I don’t like jiggling or sweating around other people. I’ll fire up a DVD or YouTube and do that in the privacy of my own living room.

What about your life? Are there things that you feel pressured to do or be better at that you want to put on your “Things I Don’t Do” list?

Joy In Trying: A lesson from a boy learning to walk

Joy In Trying: A lesson from a boy learning to walkMy son just learned to walk. His methodology for learning fascinated me. One day he stood at the rail of his crib and started dramatically falling forward onto the mattress. He reached his hands out and caught himself, giggled and looked up at me with a cheesy grin before doing it again. And again. And again. He kept climbing up to the rail, facing inward toward the mattress, then falling forward and laughing.

He became more and more focused on his task, holding his breath for a moment then huffing and puffing, like he had to remember to breathe because his brain was working so hard on other things. He stood in the corner of his crib like a boxer on the ropes, eyes narrowed, staring down the center of the mattress as though it was his opponent. With a huff, he raised both of his arms straight above his head and took two shaky steps forward before falling onto the mattress in exactly the way he had been doing repeatedly. After a brief fit of giggles, he was up and ready to do it again.

It was at this moment I realized: at one year old, he knows he needs to practice.

My son learned to walk in his crib. Although it seems more difficult to learn to walk on the unsteady surface of a mattress, he needed the security of a soft landing to give him the confidence to try. When we tried to get him to walk independently on hard surfaces, he would go floppy and fall to the floor or cry in panic and cling to our pant legs. He walked only in his crib until he could walk all the way across the crib, from rail to rail, with a sure step.

When I see my son’s methodical nature in moments like this, it takes my breath away. Where did he learn to think ahead to prevent himself from getting hurt? He’s methodical. That’s his personality coming through.

I’m the same way. I want to see several steps ahead before I take that first step. I want to make sure I have a soft landing. I don’t take a risk unless I can see how it might play out. And while that can be a very useful trait, it can also be stifling. It can mean missing out on a fun time because I was afraid of wasting my time. It can mean settling for something that’s “good enough” rather than pursuing something that seems too good to be true.

Sometimes you can’t see ahead. Sometimes all you have is a gut feeling that something needs to change. Or sometimes the change just happens and you’re forced to take some risks in finding your way to a new normal. How do I prepare my son for those moments? How do I prepare myself?

A voice whispers in my ear: let go of fear. But how? It’s always there, like the ground beneath my feet staring me down, waiting for me to fall.

When my son falls, I cheer him on. I realized through him that we all need to know that people we love are watching us, cheering us on, even if we fall. We need people there when we fail to say, “You’re doing great! Keep at it!” We need to know from the beginning that we are loved whether or not we “succeed.”

How do I let go of fear? Instead of looking what I have to lose, I must start looking at what I have to gain. How can I live a life of joy without some spontaneity? How can I truly love others if I’m not willing to risk heartbreak? How can I embrace my passions if I’m holding on too tightly to stability?

My son laughed after falling onto the mattress. What if I found joy after each of my failed attempts? What if I looked at life like a practice session, knowing that each little fall would help me figure out how to walk? Maybe if I place my value in how hard I try instead of how little I fail, I would have more of a child-like joy.

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