Some parents have it really, REALLY hard

I spent a lot of the first years of my daughter’s life carefully broaching the topic of behavior. I hardly ever came out and said how hard it was for me to parent my child, but I dropped breadcrumbs and waited to see if they were followed. 99% of the time, they were not.

I could tell, early on, that I was having a different experience than most moms I met. They just didn’t seem as anxious, or fearful, as I was. They didn’t seem as tired, as bone crushingly exhausted, as I felt. I wondered a lot if it was just me, if I was just not cut out to be a parent, if the normal struggles of raising kids were just too overwhelming for me. I wondered if I was defective, in some way, unable to manage the only thing I’d ever wanted to do in life.

As my daughter got older and I spent more time with other kids, I realized that my experience was different. In some ways fundamentally so. Parenting my daughter was such an intense experience, every day felt like a battlefield.

Everyone assured me that what we were dealing with was “normal,” and I believed them, because what did I know? I had never parented before. I didn’t know what to expect. If other people, especially professionals, told me it was par for the course, who was I to argue?

And the thing is, what I experienced probably was normal, as it couldn’t be described as clinically disordered, but it was definitely not what most parents were dealing with. We were not the mean, median or mode. We were the outliers.

When I started the diet, and joined the FB page, I quickly recognized that the mothers there were really struggling. If I thought I had it hard, these women had it hundred times harder. The normal, run of the mill parenting challenges that most people face would feel like a cake walk to them. They were parenting in the trenches. They were struggling to survive.

The past few months with my daughter have been the best I’ve experienced since she was a baby. For the first time in four years I have an idea of what other parents are experiencing, and my views on parenting have changed dramatically. I get it now, all the people going on and on about how incredible it is, how fulfilling, how wonderful. It’s not that I didn’t have those moments before, but they were the exception, not the rule. They were the little morsels that kept me from starving, the assertions that held bakc the fears that maybe I’d made a horrible, horrible mistake. They did not define my motherhood, but were fleeting, hopeful whispers of a promise that kept me going.

For me, parenting has fundamentally changed. It’s still tiring, in fact it’s still exhausting in a bone crushing way, but the exhaustion is not wrought of anxiety and fear, but of the unavoidable daily grind of continually meeting the needs of others while putting your own needs last. It’s the kind of tired that I can manage because it holds a certain predictability that you don’t appreciate unless it’s never been yours.

I think a lot, these days, about the parents who have it hard. The ones who struggle mightily just to get through the days, and rarely, if ever, enjoy them. The ones who feel they have to sacrifice the needs and wants of their other children to manage the demands of one. The parents who don’t even remember that they have needs themselves. The mothers who are alienated from other mothers by their extremely divergent experiences, who are misunderstood and misrepresented and judged, often mercilessly. I am not one of these mothers. I never have been (nor did I ever believe myself to be), but I know them now better than I ever have before and I feel so much empathy for them, such a deep well of compassion. Theirs is a long, hard, unrelenting road, one with few rewards and fewer accolades. It is is isolating and lonely and soul crushing and sometimes seemingly hopeless. And worst of all, it is often not recognized nor validated.

My road through early parenthood was not as difficult as it could have been, but it was so much more challenging than I even imagined it would be. I was so unprepared and I stumbled so mightily. I read so many books and I tried so hard and I felt like such a failure, and then when others mothers told me they didn’t read books because their instincts were enough, I berated myself for not knowing what to do, for not being enough. I wondered why the suggestions didn’t work and assumed I was doing them wrong, or wasn’t trying hard enough. I couldn’t do it with the help of professionals, when everyone around me could do it on their own. For much of my early parenting journey, I felt like a failure.

I don’t feel like a failure anymore, and parenting isn’t nearly so hard. I am so, so thankful for that. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t breath a sigh of relief that the transitions don’t require all my energy plus a million tricks, that bedtime isn’t a four hour marathon affair and that showers aren’t a torture session, that birthday parties don’t need to be left early and that teachers don’t need to leave notes about expectations that were not met. I’m so thankful that my daughter is making friends and actually playing with them, that she’s feeling successful in school and wanting to read and sounding out words and making up stories.

I am so thankful that I didn’t dread my parent conference today, and felt pride in the many compliments the teacher had to give.

And then I left the classroom and thought about all the parents who don’t get what I have. And I felt for them, because I have glimpsed, only momentarily, how hard it can be.

And it terrified me.

12 Comments

  1. oh you know I know all about this. I definitely also consider us on the “not clinically abnormal but definitely an outlier” stage of this. I see it clearly when I spend time with other kids but even when I spend one-on-one time with my younger son. So so different; challenging, yes, but not soul-crushing and despair-inducing in the same way.

    1. I knew you would understand this post. It has been so wonderful connecting with other mothers that I feel really understand the experience I have had. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me so I feel less alone.

  2. I have always appreciated when you write about behavior because you’re one of the few people who seem to have an experience like mine! There are certainly way worse situations, but I also see that we are outliers too. Other onlookers validating that we are outliers is strangely comforting. This week’s feeding therapy was like that (and they were professionals!)- she was incredibly dysregulated and there were three therapists in the room working hard to engage her and two strategizing on the other side of the one-way glass with me. It was real – not just me having too little patience – yay! We have parent-teacher conferences tonight too, and I AM dreading it.

    1. Ditto. 1000%. You are one of the few people I have always felt understood where I was coming from.

      I wish we both had an easier time of it. I wish both our kids had an easier time of it.

  3. I have been there as well. I think I only really understood the relative difficulty of my firstborn after the experience of the second. For me, the experience is terribly confounded by my own mental illness so I have accepted that I’ll never know how much was him and how much was me, which doesn’t really matter anyway.

    One thing I want to say is that some people (me) avoided the parenting literature BECAUSE of the very frustration that led you to it rather than some self-assured belief in the power of instinct. My rejection of the parenting literature came from a decision not to accept the premise that we as parents are so wholly in command that by simply taking the correct measures we could achieve the desired outcome. I saw that some kids (in this case my own) don’t fit the desired outcome mold easily and I preferred not to set my self up for an endeavor that , while possibly helpful, was also likely to lead me to the conclusion that I was a failure.

    1. I also had a clearer understanding of how much I had been struggling with my daughter when I had my son. It was really striking.

      I appreciate hearing why you avoiding parenting books, and I’m sure some of the people I spoke with didn’t read them for similar reasons, but I also suspect that many of them really didn’t read them because they never felt the need, they never felt that they couldn’t handle a situation, they never felt so overwhelmed by the progression through the every day that they needed someone to tell them how to make it better. And that was the fundamental way in which our experiences diverged.

    2. Yes, I agree completely about parenting literature. Kids aren’t widgets. Certain inputs don’t guarantee certain outputs. Parenting literature enrages me because it suggests that we can control the outcome (and yes, I know they are trying to sell books).

  4. Oh how I relate to this! I’ve always felt pretty alone in this vast ocean of the in-between zone… certainly not as hard as it could be, but not the fairly typical parenting experience. As a therapist I have struggled with having children who are non-diagnosable, but who clearly are TOUGH in so many ways. I feel like a fraud when I try to explain our struggles. Thanks for helping me to feel a little less alone… (and YAY for feeling more peace and less anxiety!) 🙂

    1. You are one of the people that I have always felt like understood, and that has been so valuable. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. Oh wow. When Ana linked to a newer post of yours, I found it so relatable….

    But this is.. so spot on. So impossibly spot on.

    Thank G-d it’s easier now for me too.

  6. This is an old post but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. My son has some food allergies. So far his reactions haven’t been too severe, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be severe in the future. We need to carry an Epi-pen just in case. His allergens are relatively easy to avoid (i.e., he’s not allergic to peanuts or soy or eggs) but no food is completely avoidable and his allergens can be found in some of my favorite dishes. I’m in a few Facebook groups for allergy moms and I don’t know if I really belong there. So many families have it so much worse — allergic to airborne peanut particles, constant visits to the ER, dozens of allergies, etc. But I don’t want the severity of other families’ experiences compared to my own to give me a false sense of comfort — I need to be vigilant, right?. I am realizing I just have no idea what the “appropriate” response is to my son’s allergies. Do I ask the preschool to ban his allergens from the classroom or is that overkill? Is asking somehow disrespectful to parents who have it so much worse? Is not asking negligent? I somehow think that if I knew other moms in the exact same position I would be able to figure this out.

    1. My 7 year old is allergic to dairy. We’ve been lucky that none of his (few) exposures to it ended him up in hospital but the danger is real.
      We never asked for dairy to be removed from kindergarten but we have asked that birthday cakes are non dairy and the kindergarten teacher helped with reminding and explaining. Kids ended up being better than parents and used to remind them that H can’t have dairy.

      You gotta keep in mind that keeping your kid safe is in no way disrespectful to parents whose issues are worse. If anything , it improves awareness to food allergies.

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