Because my 3-year-old has turned me into a monster
Children are so hard–so very hard–to take care of and in the last three years, I have realized I am way more selfish than I thought. When we had our first baby, I was so scared of the long nights, the tired days, and the screaming, crying baby. Yes, I was tired and yes and he cried some, but mentally, I could cope. He was cute, he smiled a lot, and he didn’t have a mind of his own–yet. Oh, the baby can’t sleep? Let’s throw him in the stroller and take a refreshing walk.
Now–with baby number two sleeping like an angel and a three-year-old that would rather spend bedtime upside down hanging from the ceiling fan–I know why parents chose to go back to work rather than being a stay-at-home parent.
Our three-year-old’s mind is blooming like a little flower. He’s just starting to learn about the world and I have so many hopes and dreams about what we can do together. He’s curious, smart, and cleverly funny. I can’t wait until we can take trips to the science museum and read Harry Potter. However, nothing makes me feel more like a horrible parent than the emotions this kid brings out of me. I can’t get through a day without wondering why the hell I wanted kids at least once. I have constant “grass is greener” envy of all my single, childless friends, who can basically do whatever they want with their lives. (I know it’s essentially pointless to feel this envy because the reverse is always true and some people can’t have kids for medical reasons. But, hey, my emotions can’t always be reasonable, can they?)
To give some perspective, I have to go back to when our second baby was born at the end of February, two weeks before the state of California declared a shelter-at-home order to curb COVID-19. At the end of 2019, I had been planning to start looking for work after this baby was born, improve my writing skills while the three-year-old was in daycare, and finally get a chance to use my brain–and Masters degree–for something other than weekly menu planning. Then, COVID-19 hit and we had to take our three-year-old out of daycare. Now, he’s home with me and the baby while my husband works from his “office” in the other room. As is apparent on this blog, I haven’t had much time to keep on top of my life goals. It’s just like that saying that we’ve all heard about 3,592 times this year: the days are long and the weeks are short.
Comparatively, we don’t have it that bad–other people are making it work, or not, in much worse conditions. I could be a single parent living below the poverty line with five kids, wondering where our next meal was going to come from and how to do virtual learning without a computer. I’m not complaining that our life is hard. I am processing the emotional challenges that come from being a parent and striving to find a peace of mind that will get me through these challenging early years, or at least through the duration of this coronavirus.
The pressure to raise good kids spurs a lot of stress in parents. We all want our kids to have the best opportunities and to be happy, productive adults and we turn to all sorts of resources to get to that point–good schools, how-to parenting books, and a supportive network of friends and family, to name a few. Despite all this, we find ourselves struggling to stay positive and fully charged. The most challenging part of being a parent is trying to hold it together when you are mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted and all you can think about is when will this end and how are my actions going to affect my child? I think I already know the answers to those questions but I never thought I would have such a hard time with it.
In the last six months, I can’t count the number of times I’ve said something totally juvenile to my three-year-old or vented my frustration by hiding in the closet and screaming into the hanging clothes. (Side note, someone needs to invent something I can smash over and over again without having a mess to clean up.) In moments of desperation, I’ve argued, bargained, guilt-tripped, yelled, begged, and pleaded with my three-year-old on multiple occasions after I’d given up on the “quiet but firm” parenting technique. Basically, I’ve done everything you aren’t supposed to do even though I’ve read all the books on effective parenting and follow all the positive parenting Instagram accounts. I know what I’m supposed to do, but sometimes all I want to do is act like them. Call me selfish, a bad parent, or just plain stupid, but in those times, my faulty brain misfires left and right like a nervous teenager at a high noon showdown.
Where’s dad in all this? Don’t get me wrong, we are good co-parents and he can often handle these situations with much more grace than I can. But, he also has a job that keeps him busy most of the day with zoom calls, to-do lists for never ending projects, and responsibilities to a robust collection of committees. When dad steps in, and takes the reins away from mom, mom collapses into a relieved, but volatile, emotional puddle, much like a bathtub with an electric hair dryer resting perilously on the edge. You see the calming water but an electrifying surge is only one slip away. Not that anyone actually keeps their hair dryer near the bathtub, but you get the idea.
Grandma is also a huge help–both of us parents get some time off-duty and our kids get more playtime attention–but nothing brings out your inner teenager as much as your mom. I am so relieved when she comes to visit but sometimes that additional variable just brings out another stressor to a somewhat balanced house. Plus, the withdrawals after grandma leaves can be pretty awful for us and the kids. Our son gets used to playing with someone all day long and when mom and dad are the only ones around, we just can’t fulfill that role. I think a better solution would be to have a grandma that doesn’t live 2,000 miles away.
When my mom talks about me and my brother as kids, she makes it sound like we were such good kids. I can’t remember my mom losing it when I was a kid so she was either a much better parent than I am or my brother and I were truly easy kids. Maybe we were awful but we just don’t remember our parents flipping out because things get drastically better after the age of four, when our brain starts to remember our life, and my mom has conveniently forgotten the bad parts. Either way, I’m pretty sure my mom never dropped the f-bomb in front of us and I’ve done that about 13 times in the last week.
For my birthday this year, one of my best friends, who also has a toddler right now, gave me the book Toddlers are Assholes: It’s Not Your Fault by Bunmi Laditan and I find so much of that book to be the honest truth. We can all relate to the horror of taking a 2-year-old to a restaurant or trying to get them in the car in the morning. Their behavior tends towards the unreasonable because the part of their brain that controls executive function hasn’t developed yet. Reasoning with them is like reasoning with our current president. No matter what logic you use, you can’t win the argument.
These types of books provide a reassurance that we aren’t alone and that all parents go through this. We can laugh all we want–and I’m sure I’ll be laughing more in about fifteen years when I reflect back on these early years–but I still find myself grasping for a helpline that humor and self-pity can’t provide. All I really want is for someone to tell me that everything will get easier but all I hear is “it does, but…”. I know teenagers come with their own drama and challenges, but at least they can tie their shoes and put themselves to bed.
I’ve also read a lot about using firm parenting, which is when you let the kid have control over the decisions they make but you never give them an open-ended option. This way, they feel like they are in control but they aren’t. You, the parent, will always lay the ground rules. It’s also about gently, but firmly, setting boundaries so that kids learn when they can and cannot do certain things, like not having popsicles for breakfast. Firm parenting is not “do you want to get dressed?” but “do you want to wear shorts or pants today?” And, yes, this works, to a certain extent. But our kid sees through this after a while. He knows he isn’t really being given a choice and he still wants to exert his mighty preschooler power. Getting dressed isn’t a challenge. It’s a full-on battle of the wills. The other day, when I was unsuccessfully trying to put him down for a nap he told me “you have a choice, mom, you can stay here or you can’t leave.” Well, touché, young Skywalker.
In these long days, I’ve been searching for the forest that I can’t see. I can’t even see the trees right now. All I can see are little sapplings, scrawny and flimsy. They are looking for light and water and they are doing their best to grow but they aren’t the trees and they sure as hell aren’t the forest. They need good parents so they can grow up to be solid, strong trees. Are we good parents? We are sure trying but more often than not, I know I say the wrong thing, push my kid the wrong way, and throw in the towel too quickly. My husband has his own struggles and I can’t speak for him. He has to deal with work and parenting simultaneously and while I see his ability to shut the door to his “office” and sit in front of a computer for hours on end as a blessing, I know he has to deal with the challenge of balancing work and fatherhood in his head all the time.
My words here are not meant to induce pity or chastisement. All I want to reiterate is that a lot of mental and emotional pressure is placed on parents, especially on mothers or whichever parent fills that role in a relationship, and even with the full support of the collective village helping to raise our children, we all need encouragement. I don’t mean a “you’re doing good, mama,” because that doesn’t give me any hope. I want someone to say, “this will all get much better soon and it will pay off in the end,” even if it’s false hope.