When we talk about parenting – which of course we parents do ad nauseum – we talk about the kids. When we do talk about ourselves – which is rare – it’s pretty much always about us only insofar as we bounce off them, for better or for worse. They did this, so I….
But parenting is a profoundly personal adventure, in the sense that it changes you more than any other choice you make in life. Many of the changes you don’t get to choose. They just happen. If you’re not quite grown up yet, becoming a parent is likely to get you there (if your kid is lucky). You will learn to function tired for a few years… only a decade or so.
You’ll learn how to live on less. Less what? Less of pretty much everything that’s for you and not for kids. You will become more patient, because kids don’t do anything on your timetable.
You’ll learn a whole lot about tolerating differences in relationships, because it’s unlikely that the kid you get will be the kid you ordered. Your kids will be wonderful, but in many unexpected ways. There will be expectations they won’t meet. Some of them will be expectations you didn’t even know you had (or couldn’t admit out loud). Some will be expectations you’re not embarrassed about. But both kinds will require you to learn something about accepting people for who they are instead of trying to make them who you want them to be.
In my experience this is not like learning skiing or scuba diving – it is not a fun thing to learn, because the learning grows out of disappointment.
None of us would ever want to admit that our beloved child has disappointed us in some way, but the truth is that they do. It is in the nature of human beings not to live entirely according to the expectations of others – perhaps especially their parents. And out of this unpleasant disappointment grows the first optional learning of parenthood: We can keep banging our heads against a brick wall and try to make our kids who they’re not, or we can learn to accept them for who they are.
A human being who has the capacity to accept others for who they are has it all over the rest of us who make ourselves miserable by wanting what we can’t have. I have a cousin (yes, it’s by marriage. Second marriage, but that’s another story) from Thailand. Whenever something or somebody upsets her, Nammon calms right down and lets it go. She has an astonishing (to me) gift for letting people be who they are. When I ask her how to do that, she reminds me that she was trained in Buddhist thinking from birth. I guess we missed that boat.
The second important optional learning of parenthood concerns worry. I am very good at worrying. Talk about what you imbibe with mother’s milk, my mom was a champion worry-wart and she taught me well. Having children became a golden opportunity for me to exercise one of my greatest life skills (after kvetching).
But the problem with worry is that it is truly toxic. To both the worrier and the person being worried about.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how worrying affects me: It makes life unpleasant. Worrying is usually anticipatory, so it mortgages today against tomorrow, it wrecks today over something bad that may – or may not – happen tomorrow. Big loss, no gain.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how worry affects kids: It makes them feel unconfident. If we don’t trust them to be okay, how can they trust themselves? It makes them anxious, because anxiety is like the flu, it’s contagious. It models fear for them, and we are their role models.
So how to stop worrying? This sounds horribly simplistic, but make a decision to stop worrying and then every time it gets you, take three long deep breaths and then say aloud: “I am okay and my kids are okay.” This sounds about as rational as crystal healing, but I’ve found it works, and nothing much else does. Don’t knock it till you try it.
Why worrying is negative parenting