I'm struck again and again by how hard each parent I know tries to do well by his child. We make great efforts, moment by moment and day by day. Once the efforts begin, we never stop caring. We never stop trying. We never stop noticing how we're doing. And we frequently worry about how our children are doing.
Parents seldom stand back and say, “Gee, it's going well! Isn't she going to turn out nicely!” “How strong and loving he is!” “They're bound to turn out just fine!”
Matter of fact, most of us can't say that we're ever really sure that our children are going to be fine. And some of the time, we can't say that we're going to be fine, either. We push forward so often on low energy, little information, not much help, and too little patience, especially for ourselves.
Parenting is hard work
Nurturing our children is wonderful, deeply moving, thoroughly challenging, and difficult. These are just some of the challenges we face.
- We expect ourselves to be naturally good at a job we haven’t been trained, mentored, or prepared to do.
- It takes a lot of attention to stay flexible and patient with a young child for even a couple of hours.
- There are no “second string” players to call in when we are worn or sick or don’t know what to do.
- Children have lots of feelings every day, and very few of us grownups have ever been clued in as to what to do with human emotion. Our only training has been to suppress feelings, and that tactic doesn't work well with children, or with us. Feelings come squirting out anyhow.
- Our children have very high expectations of us and of life in general. We sense those high expectations, meet them as often as we can, and feel badly when we hit a hard patch.
- Most of us didn't receive the quality of attention and generosity that we're trying to give to our children.
And still, parenting is the wonderful sweet center of our lives, and our love. Our children love us deeply, long to be with us, and see how special we are. They beckon us into play and fun that we wouldn't otherwise think to have. They give us permission to be silly, to be sweet, to be tender. They give us permission to love without limit. And we do. They thrive on our love. The relationships we build with them are precious.
Breaking the grip of exhaustion
Here are a few thoughts about what helps the cycle of worry and exhaustion that can weigh us down, and erode our enjoyment of mother- and fatherhood.
- You deserve help. Don't stop working to organize it! Family, friends, and other parents of young children all can provide a welcome break, or a word of encouragement about how your child is doing.
- You don't deserve anyone's criticism. Spoken and unspoken judgment can weigh on our hearts and minds, and wear us down over time. And parents are open targets in a way that would be unheard of for members of groups that have organized to protect their interests as a group. No one would think of going up to a senior citizen who was using a walker, and tell him that he should be doing his walking some other way. But people don’t think twice about giving a disapproving glance or a piece of their mind to a parent whose child is whining in public. You don't have to accept poor treatment. You can set limits with other grownups. You have the right to take the stance that, “This isn't an easy day, and I'm doing the best that I can. If you want to help me, I'll tell you what I'd like you to do. If you are not going to help, then I ask you to keep your thoughts to yourself.”
- You deserve time to debrief. Parenting takes a lot of thought and emotional effort. Someone listening to you, even if all you say is “I’m so tired!” over and over, will help. When our thoughts and feelings are trapped inside our minds, they eat up our energy and keep us concentrated on our troubles. Saying what's on your mind, and showing the feelings you keep under control all day long, is a big relief! Split twenty minutes of listening time with someone who can actually let you talk without interrupting, and who will keep an attitude of respect for you throughout, no matter what your thoughts or feelings are. It makes a difference.
- You may need to directly address your exhaustion. When you're so tired that resting doesn't really refresh you, you've become exhausted. At that point, it's hard to do anything but march in place. An exhausted parent gets the most necessary things done, but has little capacity to solve problems creatively.If time alone doesn’t refresh you, try to relax near someone who cares, and ask that person to be quiet and watch over you, while you talk, sleep, or just say how tired you are over and over. Someone to watch over you makes all the difference. Exhaustion means that big feelings, usually of isolation, worry, or hopelessness, are mixed in with the tiredness. Having someone care and watch over you helps with that emotional load. A good cry is often the result, either during a rest or some time thereafter. And that good cry can relieve the heavy feel of things.
For some of us, the person we can call on is a partner, a brother or sister, or a really good friend. For some, the relief of being alone after the children have gone to bed brings that sense of protected time. For others, a beloved pet can help the tears begin. And for many, thinking about a divine being helps.
As long as we feel some love and caring coming toward us while we rest, we're on our way out of exhaustion. To set up this kind of respite time, we need to ask for exactly what we want. No one comes along to say, “You rest. I'll watch over things, and guard you for an hour.” In an ideal world, friends should know how to help with the exhaustion of hardworking parents, but most people are shy to offer, or caught up in their own sagas. So we need to invite them to help and tell them what we need.
The bottom line
In general, our parents often improved on the job their parents did, and their parents had improved on the job done with them. If we look at the generations, we may get a clearer view of the long-range improvement we're making in the generational chain of parenting work.
The bottom line is that even on a day when we've been hard on our children or hard on ourselves, we've done the best that we could do. We may need to acknowledge that our best was pretty crummy today. And we certainly need to keep reaching to build good support for ourselves and for the work that's so important to us. But every parent can go to bed at night saying, “I did my best.” And every child will wake up in the morning glad to be awake, loving his parents, and eager for the best that we can do again that day! We are good parents. And we are raising good children.