As a child, I hated being told, "Because I said so!" "It doesn't matter why!" "Just stop crying!" "When you're a parent, you get to be the boss." "Please, just be quiet!" As a parent, I'd like to think that I do better than my parents did, who were young, damaged and struggling to survive as young adults, but I do find myself uttering those phrases I hated and swore I'd never say. There are so many things I start to do automatically, without thinking, because that’s what I learned to do. My parents yelled a lot, at my brother and me and at each other. They also hit us. Being born in the 1950s, things were much different then, and it was more common than today. They both were yelled at and hit as children and on backwards throughout the generations. As a young mother, I sometimes had the urge to hit my children and chose not to do it. I yelled, more than I would like to admit, and still occasionally have to fight both of those urges. What this struggle has done is teach me to understand my own parents more and learn from a few of their mistakes.
How many of us can look back on our childhoods without resentments and praise our parents’ styles of parenting? Some of us can. I know that I can’t. My parents did their best, and yet, they made some monumental mistakes with all three of us. Do I resent them for that? I don't now, but I did for a while. I’ve realized, as I’ve made my own mistakes (some of them monumental), that well-meaning parents will always make mistakes. We're taught that we learn through our mistakes, so it follows that we need to make mistakes in order to learn. Hopefully, as each generation passes, parents will continue to do a little better than their predecessors. Meanwhile, what can we do to stifle those urges? I think the first thing to do is acknowlege them. When we deny them and turn away from the hard realities, they tend to take over little by little. I think it's also important to have compassion for ourselves and for other parents. It's so easy to criticize other people's parenting styles. The truth is, we often have no idea what they've learned from their own parents, what they've gone through in their lives, where they struggle and what is happening in their lives right now. Wouldn't it be nice if we could learn to support each other fully?
I've often encountered parents in public who are obviously at their wits end and starting to be what I might see as abusive to their child. In the past, I would sometimes sigh or say something under my breath, or to another adult, condemning the behavior. I noticed that it made the parent even more stressed and, even if it stopped the behavior at the time, I suspected the child would get it even worse after they left. I learned to engage the parent in a friendly way, admiring their child, finding any positive thing to comment on. It doesn't always work but, when it does, it's amazing how quickly the parent switches gears and is able to see their child in a new light. Unfortunately, I've had to visit people in the county jail from time to time. It can be a nightmare of long lines, surly guards and a huge lack of information for newcomers causing much stress. I've used that same technique while standing in a seemingly endless line of families waiting to see their loved ones. Instead of a line of crying kids and frustrated, angry parents, the mood would change, and we would be friendly allies - all of us in the same boat, feeling degraded by the guards, confused and stressed out from the long wait.
I wish there was an owners manual for childrearing, but there's not. There are plenty of books that give suggestions, and they are written from many different perspectives. However, every child is unique, as is each parent. One suggestion may work for one child for not another. We each have our own styles and comfort levels. What works for me, might feel very uncomfortable for you. Parenting is all trial and error, and hopefully, we don't do too much harm. My suggestion is that you reach out to other parents for help and offer it in return. Every parent needs people to turn to for an understanding ear and for a brainstorming partner. Don't limit yourselves to your co-parent. Sometimes others can see things more clearly from an outside perspective.
To read more about self-comapssion for parents:
Remember, that you can use this for other parents as well. Imagine yourself in their place. How would you feel in that situation? Sometimes one kind word speaks volumes.
More Than One Child?
What a huge commitment becoming a parent is. Everything suddenly changes. You're sleep deprived and don't know what you're doing, but finally you settle into a routine, one that has its bumps along the way, but it's comfortable. Now, you have another child and suddenly there is another personality to fit into the mix. Having that new personality adds a lot more spice. Some of that spice is definitely the sleep deprivation. It could also come in the form of a fussy baby, or a non-sleeper, some postpartum stress, problems with feedings, all while wrangling another child, who may or may not be very much older. Also, remember that we are all individuals from the time we are born. We never know what personalities we'll end up with in our families. Each one comes with its unique set of challenges. Some personalities will go well together, and some won't. Some siblings may adore each other, some may not. Multiple children in the same families can be as different as night and day. As families, we have to learn to navigate a sometimes complex maze of relationships, and it's not always easy.
One thing that helps a lot when introducing another child into the family is setting aside a regular scheduled alone time for the oldest child that they can count on. Children are usually fascinated with a newborn baby. Once those babies start to take on their unique personality, things start to change. The babies don't necessarily want to be poked or prodded. Maybe they're looking at something and don't want their older sibling to swoop in for a kiss. Maybe they are starting to pull hair. Even the most understanding and loving child will not like this. Eventually, there will be squabbles. If your older child or children know that they will regularly have you to themselves, even if it is for 15 minutes a day, they will not feel as though they've lost something. And, you won't have lost them, either. When they can depend on that time, you can encourage them to talk to you about their feelings. Yes, they love their sibling but they don't like ____, or they miss ____. Those things may often seem trivial to us but are important to them. If you know what those lost things are, you can often bring them back. Sooner or later, your baby will not want to share you, adding yet another spice. They will also need time when they have you to themselves. Meanwhile, they both will keep growing by leaps and bounds, with each of them bringing home new challenges. But, in spite of the challenges that go along with multiple children, they also grow up having each other, whether or not they get along. My brother and I didn't particularly like each other, but we could always depend on each other.
If you have more than one child, things often take more than twice as long. I expected, when I had my second child, that it would take longer to leave the house than it had with one child, but I didn't anticipate the number of things that could go wrong at one time. I had a terrible reputation for always being late. My friends teased me. My husband and my next partner teased me. Even my children, as they got older, teased me. Feeling exasperated, I would try to explain the numbers of delays caused by others that led to my being late ... We were all dressed and ready to go when the baby vomited everywhere. Then, someone else had an accident. Walking out the door, suddenly I had to change a leaking diaper. These days, I don't have children living with me anymore and am rarely late. I did learn to plan differently, though. I often had everything packed and ready to go the night before an outing so that I wouldn't be scrambling around more than necessary. I would even pack the car the night before, being sure that I already had my diaper bag, snacks, water or other things I might need. The kids were asleep, and I could think about what needed to go with us without distraction. That became so much a part of my routine that I still do it today.
When I had my first child, my housekeeping changed. I couldn't keep up with everything I had to do and also keep my home immaculate. When my second child came, my house was in chaos. I quickly learned to prioritize, constantly shifting to accomodate that chaos. I always felt that creativity and fun were important. My kids had access to all kinds of messy things to learn and create with. Spending time with them was also important. I struggled with juggling both of those important things and still getting my work done. I found lots of shortcuts like creating contained areas for messy play, or sending them outdoors with their mess. That made the clean-up easier. I also invested in various containers for different toys. Legos in one box and the train set in another, puzzles in a drawer, action figures in a bin, dolls in a basket, etc. They would bring out one or two at a time, and we would all put them away together. I even made a denim drawstring bag that opened up into a large square with a townscape of roads, buildings, a lake with a beach, a playground and more that I had made with iron on patches. The bag held their little cars and people. They played with the toys on this mat, then I just tied it back up when they were done. I also found that I could tolerate some mess if that meant I could also manage to have time for myself and for my partner.
In families, we all need to learn to work together, recognizing our weaknesses and strengths and capitalizing on them. We enjoy some things more than others and are better at certain tasks than others. Why don't each of us do what we love or do well? I always hated that concept of everyone being treated exactly the same. We're not the same. If this child loves films, I will take them to a movie. If that child loves dance, I will take them dancing. If they each get to do what they love with you, they shouldn't be jealous of their sibling. Although, some jealousy is inevitable. Birthdays were particularly hard in our family until I realized that I could enlist the aid of a sibling in the planning. It made them feel a part of the excitement. And the actual celebration went better without a jealous sibling whining and trying to sabatoge it.
It almost always boils down to that one all-important thing ... time. Each child needs time alone with each parent. They also need time to be only with their siblings, and each parent needs to take all of the kids by themselves and give their partner a break. Extended families are also a huge help. I loved spending time away without my brother. I had grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. The most important ingredient in all relationships (and I include the one with yourself) is making time for all of that. Good luck!
Older Parents/Younger Parents
This was another suggested topic, and one I seem to know a lot about - again. I was both a younger mom and an older one. I had my first child when I was 22, my next when I was 25 and the next when I had just turned 37. Then, my granddaughter came to me to raise when she was 1 and I was 51. I had already noticed a difference in my energy level when I was 37, but 51 was a huge difference. I will address the physical differences first.
At 22, I had lots of energy for running around, playing at the playground, getting up and down off of the floor, sleepless nights and carrying children long distances. I swung on the swings, climbed the jungle gyms, played games, climbed trees and more. By the time I was 37, I couldn't race around the way I once had. I got exhausted quicker and had less tolerance for chasing uncooperative children. I couldn't carry my son for long distances anymore and had trouble putting him in and out of his car seat. I struggled through, but when my granddaughter came, my chronic back issue had compounded, and I had developed arthritis. It was impossible for me to catch her when she sprinted away from me on walks, so I did what I swore I would never do. I got a "leash." It was a lifesaver - literally. I also couldn't lift her into the grocery cart, so she learned to climb up on my bended knee and jump while I guided her into the seat. I have always been a creative thinker, and nothing was going to stop me from caring for her properly. When we are older, our bodies also may recover differently from childbirth. It takes a longer to gain back our energy and to lose the extra weight. It's important to remember that and not be hard on ourselves. However, one of the many advantages to being an older parent is that you are probably more settled, less impatient, more secure in your relationship and are (hopefully) more financially secure.
Then, there are the emotional issues that change with age. As a young mother, I hadn't finished my years of freedom. Since I didn't go to college, I did have some of that freedom, but I was still growing up and trying to find my way. I didn't have any girls nights out, gave up going to shows and just wasn't as secure in myself as I was later on. I struggled to "raise" myself while raising my children. However, because I was still fairly child-like, I was a fun mom. My husband resented his loss of freedom more than I did, lost his child-like qualities with the additional responsibilities and that, in addition to the financial challenges, put a huge strain on our relationship. Also, none of my friends had children yet, so we had to find and cultivate new friendships with other parents, which was not easy but at least it was possible. Some of the advantages of being a young parent is that you get your child-rearing over with early and have the rest of your life to do whatever. You will probably be a youngish grandparent, if at all. And, it wasn't that long ago that you were a child yourself, so you remember it more vividly.
When I was 37, I had a couple of friends who were also having children, and it was wonderful having a community around me. As a 51-year old raising a child and a young mother, I experienced a severe lack of peers. I had plenty of friends who were supportive, but no peers. I couldn't find a local group of grandparent caregivers, so I befriended younger parents. It helped, but they weren't experiencing the same things as me. I was a mom, but not really. I had been a grandmother for over 10 years already and was finding it hard to juggle the two roles. No one can really understand that dynamic unless they experience it themselves. I eventually found a couple of grandparents in the same boat, but we were all so busy readjusting our lives around these children and maintaining our current relationships, we found little time to socialize.
So, what about employment? Our expenses invariably go up when we have children. As a young mom, I hadn't yet embarked on a career and decided to be a stay-at-home parent. That was rewarding and wonderful in many ways but also held me back from pursuing what is now a successful career. If I had do it again, I would make the same decision, knowing the difficulties that came with it. I never regretted a minute of it, but it was harder to jump into the working world later. As an older mother in the working world, everything was different. I suddenly had to worry about childcare. It's not easy leaving your child with someone else while you go to work. And, I had to juggle my career work with my parenting work. Unlike many of you, I did not have a partner in this, making it even more difficult, but that will be a separate blog post. Deciding not to work outside of the home was much easier before I had a career. I was only giving up hoped-for income, not income that I already depended upon. When we're older we may have mortgages, school loans, car payments and any number of other financial obligations. So, we work full-time and squeeze in whatever time we can for our families. I decided early on that housekeeping was not as high a priority as it had been before. I chose my family over a clean house. However, as an older parent, I was much better at economizing and managing my money.
We also give up a lot when we become parents. Most of those things we give up willingly, but, even so, we may sometimes feel resentment over the lack of quality time with our partner, or missing social events we are used to attending, concerts, plays, parties or weekend getaways for example. I'm always amazed at how many people don't trust other parents to care for their children. I always traded babysitting with others. My own children were often happier with other kids to play with, and the adults got time away. It's fine to trade off and have each parent take turns going out, but then you never get to go out together. That usually puts a strain on relationships that are already changing when you add kids into the mix. In indigenous communities, everyone raised the children together. It really does take a village to raise a child. It affords them an opportunity to learn that different families have different rules; they have different diets; they do different types of things together. It's hard to let go of control over what our children learn and experience, but eventually, they will go out on their own anyway, and these are important lessons for going out into the world. My kids started doing overnights early and, because it was a regular part of their early childhood, they didn't mind being away from me. One small exception was my youngest son who did go for overnights but only felt safe in very specific homes. Always respect that in your children. Trust their instincts. It's good to nudge them, but don't force the issue, if you can help it.
At any age, childless friends become bored quickly with hearing you talk endlessly about your child's accomplishments and your struggles as a parent. They often give unwanted advice, thinking that they know better than you because they work in a child-related field, had younger siblings or babysat a lot. Always remember that you know your child better than anyone else and will know what's best for them, but don't be afraid to ask for help or advice when necessary, just be careful who you ask. Although your friends may be peers socially, they may not be parenting peers. And, that's an important distinction. If you have a caregiver who is with your child while you're at work, be sure to let them know what you struggle with and find out if there are struggles they are coping with as well. Tell them about any big changes. Did you have a loss recently? Is there a change in finances? Is there more stress than usual? All of these things will affect your child's behaviors, and your caregiver should be looked at as part of a team whether they are babysitting just once in a while or watching your child full-time.
Like everything, there are pros and cons to both situations. Everyone does this in their own way and it all works. These are just things to keep in the back of your mind. I think the biggest piece of advice I have for parents of any age is to find peers, other moms and dads who are around your age with whom you can share your successes and failures, your hopes and worries. And, find people who have been through it that you can go to with questions, whether it's one of your own parents or a trusted friend. We all need a helping hand sometimes, and there are lots of experienced people willing to share what they've learned over the years or willing to help you figure it out by listening to you.
Also, remember to care for yourself physically and emotionally, no matter what age you are. We are doing our children a disservice when we don't prioritize ourselves. In everything we do, we are modeling for our children. Do we want to model detrimental self-sacrifice? Certainly not. We want to teach our children to value themselves while they care for others. We can only teach that by doing it ourselves. We need to value ourselves and our partners and make time for everyone, including ourselves. It's not an easy task but is very important and worthwhile.
Here's a great article that lists 5 pros and 5 cons of being an older parent.
And one on being a young parent: http://afreshstartonabudget.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-being-a-young-mom/
This post is coming out later than I had hoped. It was delayed by my trip to Maine to visit my son and his family. It was a difficult trip from before I even left the house with my car breaking down, scrambling to rent a car at the last minute on the day before Easter and a long drive which had me arrive many hours later than I'd planned. Then the trip itself was stressful for a variety of reasons. Never forget that no matter how old your children are, they are always your children. Even adults need some guidance or a helping hand now and then. The trick is knowing how much to help and when to say no, which is not an easy thing to do.
I had a lot of time to think about my kids and about my relationship with their father on my drive home. It made me realize that I forgot to include a very important component in the last post about maintaining your sense of self. It's important to pay attention to your partner. You decided to have children because you love each other. Many couples get so involved in raising their children, they forget to continue being in love. When I talk about being in love, I'm not talking about that all consuming passion that happens in the beginning. I'm talking about the slow growing comfort and dependence on each other, though the passion is important, too. Your partner should be your best friend. If they're not, something is wrong.
My husband and I had our daughter less than two years after getting together. We were young, adventurous and carefree, traveling around the country, playing music along the way with big hopes and dreams. When we discovered I was pregnant, we happily traded that carefree life for a more settled one, though settled had a different definition for us than for most people. We decided that I would be a stay-at-home mom, and I loved doing that. It had it's disadvantages too, though. I was living in Santa Cruz, California and had very little community, having moved there from Connecticut. I was still very shy and became stir-crazy very quickly. I didn't know about mom's groups or story hours at local libraries, so I immersed myself in being the best mother and housekeeper I could be but did it all alone. That was my first mistake.
I spent all of my days with my baby girl, taking her for walks, singing and reading to her and propping her up on the kitchen table while I baked bread or cooked other yummy things. Her dad worked a full-time job as a cook. It was very stressful, and he didn't love his job. When he came home, he wanted to relax in peace and quiet. I'd had no adult conversation all day and almost lunged at him verbally. Of course, he hated this. I also wanted a break from entertaining a baby and expected him to rush over and scoop our daughter up. You can easily see, this was a recipe for disaster. Over time, I learned to let him debrief first, but those early days were difficult.
We became so overwhelmed with just trying to survive financially and otherwise, we forgot about each other. We still played music and wrote songs together, but it became more of a job. We'd lost sight of the things we loved, including each other. We never went out together unless our children came with us, though most of that was due to economics and lack of support. What we didn't realize is that we didn't have to go out on dates to acknowledge our love. We forgot to have meaningful conversations. We talked about problems, money, the kids, but never talked about life, politics or other non-family oriented topics. We kept moving further and further away from each other emotionally and eventually ... physically. We soon became angry, not really at each other, just at our situations, and took it out on each other.
If I could do it all over, I would make time for the man I loved. I would be physically close to him noticing that I was tired but also noticing the love we shared. I would remember to have conversations that didn't involve my complaining about the woes of the day. But, I would also make time to listen to his woes and ask him to listen to mine, too. I would find other parents with whom we could trade babysitting and ask him to go for walks with me, remembering that it isn't necessary to spend money to enjoy each other's company. I would remember to praise his efforts whether or not I thought they were enough and find ways to encourage change that didn't involve criticism. It's easy to look back and see all the things that I would change, and I have changed many of those with subsequent partners, but that's why I'm writing this post, so that you don't have to look back later with the same regrets. It's not easy. Our relationships are always hard work whether they are friendships or love affairs, but they are worth every effort. Our love can easily stagnate when we throw children into the mix. I hope you don't let that happen to you.