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.