[Big shout out to my sparkle soul sister Tessa for lobbing the first request for advice right away.]
What’s the best parenting advice you never got?
I’ve thought long and hard about this one, mostly because I’ve received some really wonderful advice, and also because no advice will ever fully prepare you for the wildly profound and exquisitely painful thing that is raising human beings.
From infertility and health issues, to discipline and manners, to maintaining your own identity while providing a safe and loving environment for someone else to find theirs—it’s not a voyage for the faint of heart (or body, or mind).
Add those obstacles to keeping house and being married and staying close with friends and tolerating family and holding a job and attempting to evolve as a person in your own right, and it is all the things all the time, basically until you die. Giving life is life itself.
Disclaimer: I have only my own experience to go by—a cohort of exactly two, which equates to exactly one-fourth of a child by Utah standards. I am by no means an expert. Even so, I have a blanket statement to all parents—including but not limited to birth parents, adoptive parents, stepparents, legal guardians. HEAR ME NOW: You are doing a great job. A fantastic fucking job, really, at what might be the hardest job there is.
I’m pretty sure every parent in every generation feels this way, but those of us that are currently parents of children 0 to 18 seem to be parenting at the toughest time in history. Climate change, war, social media, bullying, working parents with always-on schedules, too many guns and too many screens; it can all lead to drone parenting (helicopter was so ten years ago), which to me is nothing more than our attempt to counteract the fact that nearly everyone is in a perpetual state of mindless distraction.
I mean it: in the narcissistic, violent, political post-apocalyptic, distracted, depressive, and disillusioned bonkers-verse of today, if you have taken on or are taking on tiny souls in fragile bodies—you are on a hero’s quest.
The point is that I get it: IT IS HARD. But we were apes, so yeah; we do hard things.
Even so, I suspect that it is not as hard as we make it out to be. Or rather, perhaps it’s not as hard as we make it. Either way, the reason it’s so hard may be that we make it so.
As with so many things other than parenting, we think we need to be perfect and we think kids need to be perfect. We need to feel like we’re achieving—that things are going well, and that we have something more to show for our efforts than a baby with reflux, or a snot-nosed whiner, or a sullen teen—and all the things in between.
But I’m here to tell you, once again, right here and right now, that perfection is an illusion, like a breast pump with a soothing motor or a partner that bears equal burden all the time.
I may be wrong, but I’m beginning to think we should focus more on not whether we’re doing it right, but how our parenting feels.
Let me be clear: I’ve not always been up for this approach.
To be honest, I’ve said some crazy shit to myself over the years, and sometimes out loud. Things like ‘I think I messed up big time because the kids aren’t afraid of me, and I’m too indulgent with them, and they never listen to me, and they have no spiritual foundation, or patience, because we don’t and we’re modeling badly, and we’re not validating feelings, and we’re not following through on consequences, and we’re all hopelessly fucked, and they’re going to community college if they go at all, and that’s if they don’t get addicted to something. And even if they’re generally okay, they’re going to be anxious and depressed and on meds and it’s all my fault.’
And, of course, don’t forget the coda when talking to your partner: ‘And it’s your fault too.’
Well, just for fun, let’s spin that record all the way to the center. Everything that I said might very well be or come true. Our kids may end up all those things; they may get hurt and lost and addicted and screwed up and on meds for some time or even permanently. I don’t know about you, but those swerves feel a lot like the scoliotic spine of my own story. And you know what? I’m sitting here blogging about it, feeling stronger than I’ve felt in years.
This is what I know for sure after nearly 20 years of ‘mostly-on’ therapy, with a screwy family (like all families), marital challenges (like all marriages), some bouts of clinical depression (yep), a near constant hum of anxiety, and two delightfully smart and sweet and high-maintenance children: If you’re not accepting, you’re resisting. And if you’re resisting, chances are you have a perfection problem. You are in good company.
I’ve learned that if you are resisting, you are self-judging, and self-shaming. You’re likely operating under the faulty premise that your situation is somehow imperfect.
Perfection can be as seemingly innocuous as frazzle—nothing more than an unquiet mind. I’ve felt it as an urgent restlessness and a lonely emptiness that says ‘You’re just not good enough,’ and often that everything is just not enough. Good enough for what? For whom? As my beloved Cheryl Strayed says in Brave Enough, ‘The fuck is your life. Answer it.’
Your life is happening while you are in the self-critical shame spiral, and the kids are watching. They see everything, they hear everything, and they perceive things they can’t possibly understand.
The good news is that there’s a lot of help out there. Check out my own Death Bed Test and Other Shortcuts for tips on reengaging with your life, which is essential.
Mindemptyness, dear readers, is what leads to disinterested and disengaged parenting, which is a much graver threat to healthy child development than Paw Patrol or Cheetos ever will be.
Alright, I’m back, at last, to my answer to Tessa’s question: What’s the best parenting advice you never got?
Here it is: Kids don’t do what you say, they do what you do.
I mean this in the literal sense: kids will often ignore you, and sometimes even do the very opposite of what you say, or request, or recommend. Hell, that’s basically the toddler years in a nutshell.
But mostly I mean it in the larger sense. Your children see you—really see YOU—in a way that almost no one else does, even more so than your own parents and your partner. They boot up pre-programmed with a lifelong fascination with YOU. They are intuitive and nuanced and deeply, at times dangerously, perceptive, so you can’t hide; they see you laid bare.
You are the headliner in their life for a damn long time. You are the narrator, the protagonist, and the mentor, the moralist, and you provide the laugh track, the boundary, the hard stop, and basically all the props. You are the playwright and the muse; you create the world that they inhabit. No pressure.
So if you want your kids to be respectful listeners, polite talkers, patient, kind, self-reliant and hardworking souls, yep—that’s who you have be, or at least what you must aim for.
This goes for everything from financial responsibility to physical, mental, and spiritual health; but also service, mindfulness, consciousness, and peace. If we want our children to take care of themselves, we must take care of ourselves. If we want our children to strive for balance, and accept sacrifice—so too must we. If we want our children to accept themselves, relinquish the goal of perfection, and show vulnerability—we are called to do the same.
After all, the opposite of perfection is vulnerability, which leads to intimacy, which as far as I’m concerned is the very best part of being a parent. Nobody said it was going to be easy. But intimacy feels good, and intimacy should be the goal, because if you are truly tight with your kids, you’ve done your job. There are lots of resources out there for the targeted behavioral troubleshooting.
Just last night, I was getting the kids wound down. We were snuggling under blankets on my bed. After books, and prayers, and songs, we lay there enveloped in one another, eyes closed, just breathing in one another’s breath. I was so comfortable, in a state of shavasana, that I couldn’t tell which legs were mine, which were Eloise’s, and which were Will’s. Flesh of my flesh; I feel their hearts beat inside my own. I used to have to remind myself, ‘Be Here Now.’ I don’t know how I could ever forget. There is nowhere else I’m supposed to be.
The Beth List
Other sage counsel on parenting, with attribution:
1. Just keep them safe as best you can and love them exactly as they are. (Kathy Mitchell)
2. Just when you think you can’t stand a phase for another moment, it’ll change. (Mom)
3. The best parents are gardeners, not carpenters.
4. Listen when they speak so that they’ll listen when you speak.
5. Times have changed; keep what you want from your own childhood, forget the rest. (Me)
6. It doesn’t get easier, it just gets different. (Joe Mitchell)
**If you liked this and want MORE, please feel free to send me your problems and ponderings in the comments!**
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