I Am Over 3,500 Days into Parenting and Today Was the First Day a Kid Showered Without Complaining!

Thursday morning, my daughter’s teacher asked them to pull out some blocks for a math measurement exercise. Flat paper blocks that were meant to have been cut out and kept neatly in a baggie, apparently. Blocks from a piece of paper I SWEAR had been labeled “optional work” when it was sent home weeks ago. All the kids with good parents had baggies full of paper blocks.

Obviously, I’d long since recycled the dumb paper with the dumb blocks on it to try to keep my dumb house clean. All the kids with good parents have clean, organized houses, AND baggies full of paper blocks, and they don’t say dumb.

So, Thursday morning witnessed me eavesdropping on my daughter’s call, hearing about the missing blocks, feeling that familiar icy doom creeping up my throat, hearing the panicked, then exasperated “MOOOOOMMMM” from my daughter, and then me sweating, swearing, and rummaging through our smelly recycling bin. It left me feeling like a failure and hollering at my daughter. Again. “You had ONE job,” I mumbled to myself, shoudler-deep in refuse. I’ve been repeating that phrase a lot lately. The thing is, it’s not even true. I havea million different jobs, but since they don’t pay money or earn any recognition, it feels like one big nothing burger. I feel like one big nothing burger.

A few days ago, I wrote this essay about what an impossible mind-fuck it is to parent full-time through a pandemic and virtual schooling. About how I’ve gotten lost in all of it. Since parenting is my whole identity and life right now, I’m kinda hating on it/me. All I do. is yell, nag, scold, bribe, beg, and scream into a pillow. I want to give up and walk away. After I sent the essay to my friends with messages like, “NEVER EVER QUIT YOUR JOBS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD,” they called me and told me to take it down. It was too raw, too emotional, maybe histrionic, maybe even incriminating. It revealed both my internal struggle with self-esteem, and my perceived/possibly very real badness at parenting. My girlfriends worried I was suicidal, asked why I would let anyone (in this case, my husband) effect my perception of my parenting, of my self-worth so much. They gave me support, reassured me I have worth discrete from how well it’s not/going with my kids, and asked me what my plan was to fix myself and my situation. I did take it down, initially, but have since changed my mind and re-published. I’m not ashamed to be struggling, not ashamed to be trying. Let’s be unashamed about our progress together.

Anyway, it all left me wringing my hands, asking:

Why do I work so hard for them and they still hate me?

If I had raised them well, wouldn’t they just do what they are SUPPOSED TO DO and make my life easier?

Why is this so hard?! I’m pouring my entire self into this and it’s still going badly? Am I just not enough?

This is the loop of helplessness and rage I’ve been stuck inside. And…dammit. I’ve been here before. Every time I think I’ve evolved in myself/my parenting, I get kicked in the lady jimmy by life and have to start all over again.

I’ve spent all week untangling myself and my kids. Our roots had gotten twisted, leaving them stifled and me tethered. I don’t like the person I have become. I’m realizing, begrudgingly, that they’re not misbehaving AT me, they’re just doing their thing, struggling to survive and figure life out like the rest of us. AND, that my thing has to be more than just supervising their thing. I’ve gotten caught in that mental trap again of making everything about me, my fault, my responsibility. We’re separate fucking people needs to be my mantra. I’ve been owning it all, because when I am anxious, I clamp down and control, hustle, and try to fill all the cracks with myself. Like my fretting is currency that can pay for their wellness and good decision-making.

The love from my friends floored me and I took their concerns seriously. I have been doing some deep dive into my shit and being extra gentle with myself, with all of us. Also, I’ve since taken some online parenting classes, talked to a parenting coach, and reached out for a local therapist for myself. I’ve had long, hard conversations with my husband. About how I’m drowning in this role. About my renwed divorce fantasies. About how my conditioning about what it means to be a mom, a woman, leads me to believe I should be something I just can’t be AND DON’T WANT TO BE and how that breaks my brain daily. How my shame is pinged non-stop, and I’m taut and terrified all the time. How I’m still processing all the change we’ve had this year, all the losses to grieve, how I want to escape but don’t feel like I have any right to or anywhere to go. How confusing it all is.

So, I’m looking for baby steps toward peace. And things are actually a teeny bit better already.

Friday, mid-day, my daughter said, “I HATE WRITING, AND I WON’T DO IT” for, maybe the fifth time that day, and the billion eleventh time since we started virtual schooling last March. She then threw her papers on the floor and threw herself on the dog. Now, historically, I would have been irritated with her and her sassy stalling techniques. I would have felt out of control, and like my authority was being threatened and I had to take action. I’d be mad at her for making me feel that way. I would have threatened, forced, begged, bribed her to pick up the fucking worksheet and finish it on time before her next class starts because it’s due, and it’s your job, and, Oh Jesus, a teacher told us to and so we do it, dammit.

Instead, I did the things the free teaser parenting classes told me to do. I gave it a beat. I approached her with calm curiosity. I enquired about how she felt, and then eventually about what her assignment was and what her plan was for it. I asked her to repeat her plan and what the consequence would be for finishing/not finishing it. I didn’t even mention the papers on the floor. It made my brain sweat not to insist she pick them up….but after we calmly talked about her goals and expectations, she just casually reached down and picked it up and went back to writing, finishing the damned thing in record time and with record peace.

It worked. I couldn’t believe it. She caught me staring at her, mouth open, and she was like, “GOD, MOM, WHAT?! I’M JUST TRYING TO DO MY WRITING.”

So, I’m only 1 of 37 parts into the parenting master classes, but here’s what I’ve learned so far. Cliff-notes, for you (and my husband) and anyone who wants a taste of a taste of parenting techniques that might actually bring some peace to our homes.

These lessons are from this program and this program. Let me start with this- you remember that scene with Paul Rudd (who just had a birthday and turned 52 slash 20 again) in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” where he’s the surf instructor to Jason Segal, trying to teach him how to get up on a board? He’s like, “Do less. You’re doing too much. Just pop up. No, you’re still doing too much.” (So Jason Segal just lies down on the board looking perplexed) and Paul Rudd says, “Well, you have to do SOMETHING.”

THAT is what parenting feels like: you have to do SOMETHING, but not too much.

  1. When your kids tell you you’re the worst and they hate you, you have to have boundaries around your knowing who you are. Need to maintain your wellness.
  2. You need to build frustration tolerance. It’s a practice to be in control even when they’re dancing all over all your buttons.
  3. Give kids as much agency as possible- when they don’t have agency, no control, when rules/school/activities are all happening TO THEM instead of them making things happen, they feel helpless, lethargic, irritable, they lose motivation, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and anger. Umm, oh, like how the whole pandemic feels to me, you mean? They do that, too!?
  4. Break the pattern. Whatever the cue that starts the cycle off, say they scream or fight, then you scream or threaten, you get the reward of that instant release of anger, then you feel guilty and they are mad, and you just keep repeating into infinite and neither of you ever really get back to baseline. Your’e wire and easily triggered, they’re defensive, waiting for it. Write down your pattern. Identify one, work on it, and that can help disrupt the others.
  5. Pretend when you’re talking to your kid you’re speaking to your friend’s children. Would you talk to them with that much vitriol?
  6. Be your child’s guide, coach, Yoda. Disrupt your thought process and change the pattern.

Then there’s the ACTUAL SCRIPT OF WHAT TO DO/SAY when your kid does something shitty. Instead of jumping into your normal power struggle, try this (it takes just as long but builds connection instead of resistance and bitterness).

  1. Notice and Wonder. Become an observer instead of judger. A neutral observer. “I notice your room isn’t clean, I wonder what happened with your plan to clean it.”
  2. Say what you see, “I see your fist is bunched. I see you’re throwing your shoe.”
  3. Get on their level. Get low. Don’t tower over them.
  4. USE FEWER WORDS. Don’t lecture. Listen. Use your body. Demonstrate, get muscle memory going. Like if they refuse to put their seatbelt on, and it’s become a thing, demonstrate with yours.
  5. Enter their flow. Figure out the mood they’re in, where their heads are. Get what they’re doing, what’s important to them in that moment. Honor it.
  6. Use talk it out props, like a mouth and an ear, or a talking stick.
  7. Reverse roles.

So, that’s what I’ve been trying all weekend, and no one is yelling. It’s eerie. Like they’re little robot children who just do what needs to be done. With a smile. Wait. Are they fucking with me? One showered today (I’m 60% sure even washed all hair AND feet) without any conflict, just a gentle reminder of the contract we’d made. No threats or bribes or anything.

So, we’ll see if we can keep this up. If I can keep learning. If we can all change our patterns. I have so much more to work through on how I’ve been trying to make parenting my entire self and how that’s lousy for me and them. And so much control to release, focus to change. It’s a lot of internal work. But we’re all worth it.

Baby steps.

Frank and funny, Sarah writes the hard stuff of marriage, parenting, woman-ing. Ravishly, The Belladonna Comedy, Pregnant Chicken, & more. Twitter: @sarahzimzam

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