I am an imperfect mom. I get it wrong
sometimes a lot of times. There are moments (days) when I’m not consistent, times when I’m too exhausted to follow through on a consequence. Instances when I realize that I haven’t listened very well to what my son is trying to tell me, or when I’ve gotten too involved in his problems and placed them on my own shoulders.
The one thing people don’t tell you before you have kids: This is really hard. I mean, This. Is. Really. Hard. It’s hard not to get pulled into a power struggle, it’s hard (if not impossible, at least in my case) to be present every moment of the day, it’s hard to step away from an argument, it’s hard to be consistent and follow through all the time. Truth is, my son is 10 and I’m still learning — and still screwing up sometimes.
A quote I read by Harvey MacKay perfectly describes how I feel about parenting: “Nobody said it would be easy, they just promised it would most likely be worth it.”
A few months ago I wrote about 10 things I want to teach my son before he turns 18, and as Mother’s Day rolls around again I started thinking, “Okay, but what would I like to learn how to do as a parent before he grows up? What would I like to give up doing…and what could I do a little better?”
So here it is — my list of the top five things I’d like to learn as a parent before my son grows up.
1. Stop “attending the fight.” My son is an expert at pulling us into an argument with him. He’s one of those stubborn “little lawyers” we talk about here on Empowering Parents — which means he always has to have the last word, and rarely will admit he’s wrong. (Or that someone else is right!) At the most, I’ll get a sly, “You were right…and I was less right.” He loves to argue and I seem to fall for it every time, as if there’s a trap door opening up under me — whether it’s a fight about bed time, homework, or whether chocolate is better than strawberry. (C’mon, is that even a question??) Lately I’ve been trying to catch myself when I’m sliding down that slippery chute into an argument with him, and remind myself that “I don’t have to attend every fight I’m invited to,” as James and Janet Lehman advise. When I realize what’s happening I take a deep breath and say, “You know what? I’m not going to argue with you about this,” and walk away. (The best part about this? It works!)
2. Step Back. I’ll admit it — I want to rush in and fix things when my son is angry or upset, especially when he’s struggling with social issues with other kids. I know that taking on his problems isn’t effective, but sometime I can’t help myself. I’ve come to realize, though, that as parents, we need to step back a little and let our kids figure things out on their own more often. I don’t mean we should stop helping, listening or paying attention to our kids (far from it!), but instead, we need to let them sit in their own discomfort and disappointment when they’ve done something wrong, or allow them try to come up with ways to deal with a fight or disagreement with a friend on their own. My new slogan is, “I’m here to help my child — not to do it for him.”
Here’s an example: Lately, the kids at school have been teasing my son about his interest in reptiles and amphibians. (I know — it’s crazy. Kids will find a way to tease each other about just about anything!) He gets very upset when this happens (which of course, just fuels the other kids’ enjoyment) and emotions run high. My son’s solution is to fight back, call them names and tell them that their hobbies and pets are stupid. In other words, his knee-jerk reaction right now is to hurt them back. My husband and I have empathized, lectured and preached until we’re both blue in the face, but I finally realized that it’s time for us to lean out and step back, as hard as it is. I’m working on acknowledging that yes, this is unfair and the kids are being unkind, but “an eye for an eye” doesn’t work and won’t get him where he wants to be. (His goal is to open a zoo some day and educate people about wildlife, especially reptiles.) We are there for him, but we need to let our son figure out how to handle disagreements (without losing his cool) on his own.
3. As Bonnie Franklin said, “One Day at a Time.” Do you ever think things like, “Phew! my kid has finally figured that out! She’s stopped picking her nose/interrupting/breaking things. We’re on our way.” Or, “I’ve finally got this parenting thing down,”–only to have everything change (or a new phase of difficult behavior start) the very next day? For years I expected that one day, everything would just fall into place — I would know how to respond perfectly as a parent every time, and my son would behave, work hard in school, have a great social life, and be fun and pleasant to be around all the time. (This sounds like the fairy tale of parenting. Not sure where I got this idea from, to be honest!) Silly as it sounds to me even as I write these words, I think that for all this time I’ve been waiting for that magical moment to happen. But that’s not the way life works. Our kids are constantly changing, and so are we. I’m finally starting to understand that I need to take it one day at a time with my son and not assume anything. Some days will be good and some will be just plain awful, but it’s important to acknowledge that this parenting thing is a roller coaster ride with a lot of joy and some heartbreak along the way.
4. Let go of worry and regret and just be. (I know. This is a hard one.) It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the details of life: the dinner that burns, the project that’s due, the argument you had with your spouse this morning, the fact that your child’s room resembles that trash compactor scene from Star Wars. There’s also the blame and guilt I often feel — that I handled something poorly, snapped at my child or my husband because I was stressed, or slacked off on a consequence. The “what-ifs” also enter into this kind of thinking — what if that was the wrong decision? What if I made a bad parenting choice that will affect my child for the rest of his life? There are moments when I get caught up in the swirl of it all (heck, there are moments when I am the swirl) and forget that I am human and can only try my best — and that I need to focus on what’s happening now and just be. My son reminds me of this when he stops to examine a bug on the sidewalk (and demands that I do the same) or when his eyes light up when he’s telling a story about what he and his friends did at recess. Whenever I get pulled out of myself, he is there to remind me to come back and be in that moment with him, right now, Mom! That is one of the greatest gifts our kids give us — if we are able to stop long enough to receive it. (I’m not always able to do that, but I’m working on it.)
5. Remember what you’re doing right. One final note this Mother’s Day: As parents, we also forget what we’re doing right. We are imperfect, yes; we make mistakes (often, in my case)…but we get up and try again. That is the very best we can do, and that is the essence of being a “good enough” parent. Sometimes I think a big part of “getting it right” is accepting the fact that we’ll get it wrong sometimes, but we will still keep going.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the beautiful, strong, inspiring moms out there, who are trying every day to raise their kids the best way they know how.
What about you? Anything you’re trying to do better as a parent? What are you getting right?
Elisabeth Wilkins is the Editor of Empowering Parents and the imperfect mother of one son. She and her family live in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.