It’s the therapy stereotype, right? It’s always your mother’s fault! No wonder then that many of the parents I see come in feeling defensive or feeling guilty.
“Did I do something wrong?” they ask me. “Did I create these issues? Is it all my fault?”
My answer to this is probably going to feel frustrating: I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.
Here’s the deal: different kids need different kinds of parents and sometimes those different kids live in the same family, which means the fool proof technique you had for dealing with one child’s tantrums is not necessarily going to work with dealing with the next child’s tantrums. In fact, it might make things worse. Remember there is no one size fits all parenting.
Let’s take childhood anxiety. Anxiety has at its core a whole lot of nature and a healthy dose of nurture. Parents with anxious temperaments often give birth to children with anxious temperaments. That’s not anyone’s fault; that’s genetics. Also parents who deal with the world in an anxious way inadvertently model that anxious way of dealing with the world for their children. That’s nobody’s fault either anymore than the way parents who read a lot tend to have kids who read a lot. Modeling is powerful.
That said, once the family realizes that their child is struggling with anxiety there is an opportunity to explore the way that parenting choices may be influencing that struggle.
Let me give you an example. Consider bedtime routines. Any parenting expert type out there will tell you that bedtime routines are terrific, right? Do a quick google and you have people promising you that having a routine will make your evenings “battle-free” and “sleep-inducing.” And I agree — having a predictable routine before bed is great sleep hygiene. But if you have a child with an anxiety disorder then that friendly little routine can become a prison where mom or dad has to stand in the doorway and say “Good night” exactly this way with exactly that inflection or the whole routine has to start over again.
Then it may be that changing the parent’s behavior is part of what needs to happen next — the solution may lie in part in the parent’s actions — but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all the mom and dad’s fault for creating a bedtime routine in the first place.
When my son was small I used to fantasize about having a Sims-type game where I could program all of my son’s characteristics into the computer and try out different parenting choices to see which would be the best one. Like, this Sim-baby I could send to preschool and that one I could keep home. This one I could be really stern with and that one I could lean more towards permissive. At the end of the game I’d know exactly the right way to raise my actual baby here in front of me.
Unfortunately we don’t have that. Instead we have a lot of advice and a lot of research, (which is helpful but not definitive) and a lot of books and neighbors and teachers and therapists and then we have our own hopes and dreams and histories and expectations. Then throw in kids with wildly different temperaments, abilities, interests, talents and challenges and well, we end up with a whole mess of confusion.
In short, we’re going to do some things right and we’re going to do some things wrong. Sometimes the wrongs are no big deal and sometimes we’re going to have to course correct. Sometimes a bedtime routine is awesome and sometimes it’s ripe with dysfunction for no other reason than there’s a perfect storm of this parent, this technique and this child and it’s not working.
(This is also why none of us should ever be smug with each other. Show me a parent who has a child who is a shining beacon of perfection and I’ll show you a parent who got lucky. In parenting, like in all things, some of us have it easier than others just because.)
So if you come to me and say, “Is this all my fault?” I’m going to say that I think you’re asking the wrong question. I’m going to encourage you to say, instead, “What can we do now to help things be better?”
You know how Jane Brown famously said that internationally adoptive parents are a fifth best choice? (And I’ll assume that domestic transcultural adoptive parents are a fourth best choice.)
The first, she believes, is for children to remain with their birthparents; second-best is for a child to be adopted by, or remain with, a member of the extended family; third-best is to be raised by people of the same race in the country of one’s birth, and fourth-best is to be raised by members of the same race outside the country of one’s birth.
(quoted from The Pain of Adoption)
What she’s talking about are the levels of adoption loss — the loss of a biological connection and then the loss of a cultural connection. If we adopt transracially/transculturally, our children become biracial/bicultural regardless of their biological roots. A Birth Project wrote about this several years ago.
(Note: I know that it’s hard for adoptive parents to read a quote like Jane’s above and I include it not to make transracially/transculturally adoptive parents feel bad but to galvanize them to confront the unique challenges their children face. Information is power and I believe in empowering parents so that they can make their own best decisions.)
The transracially adoptive parent’s goal can’t be to do “as good a job” at nurturing her child’s birth culture in in the same way that a parent who shares that birth culture could because that would be an impossible goal. We can’t understand the nuances of that culture the way we could if we had grown up there. We can read, we can visit (as an observer, as a tourist) but we can’t live it.
It’s kind of the same thing when people say that doing a white child’s hair is as difficult or as important as doing a black child’s hair. No, it isn’t. Even if the two children have the exact same hair texture, if one child has pink skin and one has brown, the state of their hair has different cultural connotations. There’s an extra layer to the discussion. We can exchange hair tips, talk conditioner, and trade beads and baubles but when we send our kids out into the world, they bear a different weight in their curls.
There are a lot of challenges in being a transcultural parent (and I include bio parents who are transculturally parenting — especially if they do not have a co-parent who reps the culture of the child) and one challenge is trying to make sense of when our values are more or less important than the values of the child’s birth culture.
This is ongoing work and it will look different for different families and different at different time in our children’s lives.
This post originally appeared on my old this woman’s work personal blog. I’m adding it to the site because I saw some people clicking an old link to it on a parenting forum and getting the 404 message that it was missing. I’ve now been parenting for more than one and a half decades and my toddler is now a tween, my tween is now a teen. Basically the message I have is the same: It’s OK. You’re doing OK. Go easy on yourself.
Since my kids are so far apart in age (seven years) I find myself with a whole new cohort of parenting peers. Instead of moving on to parenting a school-ager while having a preschooler like most spaced-sibling families, I’ve got a school-ager and a toddler. Unless my friends have more than two kids (kinda rare), I’m hanging with a new set of people at baby gym class, etc.
In my daughter’s rec center classes, most of the parents have kids that are younger than my oldest (not all but most) and for many of them, the toddler tumbling around is their oldest and so they are fairly new parents. Listening to them really brings it all back to me — the worry, the fretting, the rigidity, the belief that there’s one way to get it right. I remember. But in ten years of parenting and watching my friends parent their kids, I realize that all the things that used to get us worked up just aren’t as important as we thought they were. I hear them discussing the things we discussed with the same earnest conviction and it makes me … tired. I don’t want to live those debates again and I also no longer care whether or not people I like are doing things the way that I think they ought to be done. (In other words, when a woman leans across the child in her lap to speak urgently about the dangers of television I neither feel defensive nor passionate in agreement. I simply don’t care about anyone else’s television choices and I don’t care what they think about mine.)
I also have found (horrors!) that I am very much one of those women who tries not to say, “Wait and see” when someone is telling me that their child will never play computer games/eat fast food/own a Barbie. I try not to be but I can’t help it. (Never say never should be the theme song to parenthood.) I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when a passionate new parent swears s/he will never send their child to school or let them eat refined sugar. Or when they lecture another parent (as I was so happy to lecture) about the proper way to get a child to sleep through the night or learn to pick up his toys.
I hate to say it, but parenting the baby/toddler/preschooler? It’s easy. Well, easier. Why? Because their domain is so totally in your control. Yes, it’s exhausting and physically tedious and certainly a huge challenge but they get bigger and not only do they become more themselves (and less amenable) but also the rest of the world intervenes and suddenly you’re not dealing just with your inlaws, who totally don’t get this whole no refined sugar thing you’ve got going on, but with the birthday parties of friends or the Bratz fad that’s infiltrating the neighborhood. (Note from Dawn of the future. Bratz have fallen by the wayside. It’s all about Monster High these days.) I mean, when they’re preschoolers, you can keep them ignorant or else you can just come down hard and fast. Preschoolers mostly listen because what do they know? But bigger kids? They’ve got opinions and sometimes their opinions are absolutely at odds with yours.
Then there’s this other thing — people with a good kid think they’ve got the key to good parenting. I know this because I thought it myself. My oldest is a pretty good listening kid, a kid who wants to please his parents and who craves structure and I thought that was our superior parenting but the truth is, it’s him. He had and has his challenges — not sleeping through the night for the first 3.5 years, an inability to process change well or easily, a tendency to the dramatics — but he’s a pretty easy kid. We’ve parented our youngest exactly the same (mostly) and she’s a fireball of loophole seeking and arguments (but also slept through the night much earlier — go figure). We never had to childproof with him because one stern shake of the head and he’d immediately back off from whatever it was that held potential danger but our youngest has gone out of her way to find the most deadly things in our house and try ’em on for size. A “no” to her is simply a sign to wait until her parent’s back is turned and then try harder.
I love new parents. I love their shell-shocked pride and out-sized concern. I love their myopic devotion. I so remember how important every decision felt. Me and my friends, we were such intense devotees of motherhood. Oh the debates about flaxseed oil! About kindergarten curriculum! About toothbrushing and fluoride and non-punitive discipline! Oh the discussions about the right way to give compliments and the proper way to put a child to bed! And as it turns out? The choices are less important than the values that drive them. When they’re ten, no one can know that you used sun-bleached organic diapers or disposable. You can’t even tell the breastfed babies from the ones who got bottles. The homebirthed babies who ate nothing but organic for their first years are standing by the soda machine jingling their change. The daughters of feminists are putting on lipgloss; the baby boys who nursed their trucks are wrestling on the gym mat. It’s not that our choices have no impact, it’s just that the impact isn’t always what we expect.
I say this not to be discouraging but to be reassuring. It’s OK to let go of some rigidity — your good kids will be good kids even if you “slip” and let them eat jarred baby food instead of painstakingly steaming that organic potato before you run it through the food grinder. It’s the big picture stuff that matters, not so much the tiny decisions that we fret about. I’m just not all that convinced that baby signs or Ferberizing or infant toilet training are going to matter all that much by the time our kids hit their twenties. It’s more about why we do those things.
So I guess I’d say that in ten years of parenting I’ve learned that you do the things you need to do to get through the day with love and hopefully some laughter, you trust your kids (and yourself), and you let yourself have fun along the way.
I read this article, The Power of Negative Thinking, over at 99.u with great interest because I have a knee-jerk reaction against unbridled optimism and break out at hives if I’m seated at a dinner party next to someone who is relentlessly positive.
It’s not that I’m a pessimist; I’m an optimist who worries.
Article author Christian Jarrett notes, “By thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, it helps us pick challenges that we’re likely to win and avoid wasting time.”
It also helps us stay on track, ensuring we’re not derailed by inevitable setbacks since we’re prepared to overcome them.
The problem is when our pessimism is so strong that we don’t even make the effort. Remember what I said before about just showing up? Well, the pessimist doesn’t show up. The optimist who worries shows up but has a Plan B.
The pessimist is so sure of failure that she doesn’t try. The optimist who worries tries but plans for failure just in case.
I know that The Secret says otherwise but negative thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In small doses it can make you more effective, more efficient and better prepared for success.
Just remember that a little worry goes a long way.
Your healing doesn’t have to happen on somebody else’s timeline. Nobody else gets to decide what your process should look like, what order you should go in and when you need to cross the finish line. This is your experience and you get to be the boss of how you live it.
People will say, “You ought to be over it by now.” People will tell you, “If you don’t resolve this soon then you’ll always … or you’ll never …”
But this isn’t true.
Here’s the thing about life — life keeps on happening. Life itself is a process where you run away, start back up, face things down, and then meet them back up again. You’ll make good choice, you’ll make bad choices and you’ll get better at being you the more you live with yourself. You’ll realize where you can make change and where you can practice acceptance and that will keep on happening for as long as you live
Every challenge is an opportunity to get better at meeting challenges. If you screw up somehow, don’t kick yourself. Learn from the mistake and trust you’ll have another chance to do it right. Maybe not in the exact same situation but probably in one an awful lot like it.
You don’t have to be over it before you’re over it. You don’t have to resolve things by a deadline. Every day is a step towards resolution if you look for it. Even when you feel like you’re standing still, if you’re looking for the way out then know you are getting closer to it.
And if you need help finding the way, you know what I’m going to say — a therapist can be a big help with that. You don’t have to struggle alone.