A couple of months ago, I had one of those mommy out-of-body experiences where I was looking down on myself screaming at my five-year old son….And I couldn’t stop. It was scary, so of course, I started over-thinking it. I also think it might be relatable, so here goes a confession of my own…and an epiphany I had as a result:
I noticed myself screaming at my son in the locker room of the YMCA after swim-class: “Why can’t you get dressed when I tell you to get dressed?! I asked you to put your clothes on, and you just stand there! You just stand there! I shouldn’t have to keep reminding you to do a simple thing!” My son stood still, looking at me, fighting back tears as pool water dripped from his pirate swim-shorts. My one-year old son was sliding under a bathroom stall, getting ready for his favorite pastime of splashing in toilet water, and my three-year old son was standing inside a locker, naked, opening and closing the door. A seven-ish year old girl looked-on at the scene, bewildered, while her mom was in the shower.
I looked at my oldest child, my rule-following, people-pleasing, sweet child who would gladly give his brothers the bigger piece of candy, who would beam with pride when he remembered to clear his dinner plate and offer to clear his mommy’s plate too, who would feel sad for his brothers when it was his birthday and they didn’t get a present too. My child whose voice was cracking as he tried to explain, “I am getting dressed! I AM!”
I looked at him and realized he did have one sock on.
My highly distractable five-year old, who would sometimes forget he was eating mid-chew and nearly choke because something else caught his interest, my five-year old with poorly developed planning skills and would sometimes put on his backpack before his jacket, was doing the very best he could. He was doing the very best he could, and I loved him more than anything in the world, and I was screaming at him. All of this came flooding into my mind, so can you guess what I did next? In a frantic, instinctual, exhausted effort to make it better, I decided to….. keep. on. screaming. “You need to learn to focus! You just need to stop getting distracted! Focus! Keep doing what you are supposed to do, and don’t to anything else! Don’t play with the locker, don’t play with the bag, don’t get a drink. Nothing! Just focus!”
Ten minutes later, I was herding the younger brothers through the YMCA and the parking lot, dragging one of them by the jacket hood and holding the other squirming and practically upside-down while my oldest dutifully following us. I buckled up all three boys in the car and sat in silence. I turned around to see that my sensitive 5-year-old still had that wide-eyed, chin-indented look of fighting back tears. Partly feeling is pain, relating to his exhaustion and the feeling of being misunderstood and under-appreciated, in a mixture of empathy and my own desperation, I just let it out. With tears overflowing from my eyes, I tried to pick back up the pieces of my broken child, “I’m sorry, sweetie. It wasn’t okay for Mommy to yell at you when you were working hard and showing good listening. I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that.” And with that, my son felt safe to let his tears out too.
So…. in order to create the space to give myself a little kick in the butt to “do better next time,” I validated myself. I told myself I wasn’t a complete failure, that it was understandable with ALL that I had on my plate (packing up a house for a move, finding a new daycare and babysitter, hiring a contractor, rescheduling work for illness, christmas parties/concerts, an out-of-state death in the family, all the Christmas preparation and shopping, my own feeling under-the-weather, all the extracurriculars I had stupidly enrolled my kids in….) I would have a short fuse. HOWEVER, as a moderate (politically, socially, personally), I like to give myself a realistic plan for improvement instead of just telling myself how great I am. (And if I am REALLY over-thinking this concept of balancing support with accountability, I will say that I have noticed that a lot of blogs, books, etc. about parenting are shying away from the accountability piece…. Why?? We as mothers sometimes need it, and it doesn’t make us failures to admit it!!)
Words I would have told my sister or my therapy client came into my head: “The opposite of anger is surrender.” I needed and still need to get this “surrender” thing down. Regarding the locker room event, I needed to surrender to my son’s abilities and limitations as they actually were in reality, not as I wanted them to be. I needed to get it through my head and accept that at his particular stage in development (only five years old!), my son had poor sustained attention and motor-planning, and maybe even some difficulty with receptive language processing. Wow, yes, I am overthinking this. But the point is, it does not do our children any favors to not accept where they are as fact. It only frustrates us and makes them (and ourselves) feel like failures when we try to fight reality by “yelling” them into submitting to a “better” person.
(Boring side-note: Of course, true acceptance of our children’s’ unique developmental abilities, talents, interests, diminishes frustration and anxiety and creates the space for us to work on the “accountability.”’ My son and I play games where has to follow three-step commands, and I give him little encouragement and reinforcement when he is able to sustain his attention on a task that requires multiple steps and multiple opportunities to get side-tracked… I only add this because I don’t think accepting where he is precludes me from attempting to encourage growth.)
My seemingly simplistic epiphany was that we need to accept our children for who and where they are before we can make any constructive, realistic changes.
This could apply to countless situations as a parent, but potty-training comes to mind first. God knows, I had to just accept that my 3-year old was going to create a lot of extra laundry for me, in order for the frustration to not eat away at me and cause me to diminish him unnecessarily. Tantrums also come to mind as an excellent opportunity to practice surrender. As a fellow-psychologist once reminded me, it would also be helpful for me to accept the fact that my toddler has not yet developed an alternative self-soothing mechanism to screaming his head off when he is upset. (We are practicing, but at this point, screaming it is. It would do me no good to scream back at him or use a stern voice. Instead, I try to go with taking a deep breath and “surrendering.” No, it isn’t easy, and just earlier today I failed at it, but back on the horse I go.)
And if I am REALLY over-thinking this, I could also practice “surrendering” to the realities that exist in my husband. The need for this practice comes up lot in couples therapy. Usually it is the woman (sorry ladies), who wants to “change” the man, get the man to be more “aware,” more “involved,” etc. And unfortunately, the male brain is simply not wired the way the female brain is wired. Our husbands simply do not have it occur to them that the toddler needs his sippy cup or the high chair should be wiped down with a CLEAN rag. (For the record, I totally made these examples up as a courtesy to my really awesome husband ;-) Our husbands’ brains are wired to hyper-focus on one thing at a time, and generally not three steps ahead. Just because we women are wired to think of fifty things at once and plan fifty steps ahead does not mean we should take it personally or belittle our husbands for being the way they are. I remind myself of this through gritted teeth at times. Just another opportunity to practice surrender as opposed to needless anger.
Of course, acceptance is balanced with a healthy dose of accountability. It is not at all constructive to sit back and take what unpleasant or difficult things life has to offer if it is possible to take accountability for changing it. The careful balance between accountability and radical acceptance reminds me of the beginning of the serenity prayer by American Theologian Reinhold Neibur:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
If I radically accept situations with patience instead of fighting reality, and encourage my kids with empathy to do the same, will this “skill” rub off on them? If I tell them how upsetting it must be that Joey is excluding him on the playground, but Joey is who Joey is, will he be able to manage a jerk boss with less internal conflict one day? If I get in the habit of empathizing with how upsetting it must be that they didn’t want their candy bar to be broken or didn’t want it to rain on their field trip or didn’t expect their favorite TV show to go off the air, while supporting them to sit with these realities, will they be more equipped to handle the real bumps and bruises of life one day? Will they be more at ease with the mistakes of others, take their own limitations in stride, be able to manage disappointments, traffic, and inconvenient snow-days, and even sleep-deprivation more easily? They will certainly not be in the habit of internalizing and making life’s disappointments about them, and alternatively be accustomed to accepting, moving on, and rolling with the punches. Possibly???
“Surrender” would have sure done me and my son a lot of good on that afternoon in the YMCA locker room.