Toren has been crying non-stop all morning and insists that he be allowed to watch me cook from the top of a stool where he will surely burn himself. Avery, for some reason, has been eating a craft stick and her hands and mouth are covered in blue dye￼￼. Eirik must have procured my car key the last time he was on the countertop because the car has auto-started and all the lights are flashing.￼ ￼
Every object we own is on the floor. I sling breakfast as quickly as I can; using my hip to check Toren out of the way while I flip pancakes.￼ We are all tired today, which means that the kids are hurting each other, and I am emotionally thin.
Pancakes are served. I wait to see if a hush will befall the room as kids shovel food into their mouths; or if the food will be rejected and thrown on the floor.￼ Reception is not exactly arbitrary – some pancakes are better than others – but I can’t always predict￼ what will happen.
They eat. Briefly. Then Avery starts kicking the cabinet. I ask her to stop. Nothing. I tell her that she needs to stop if she wants to continue eating breakfast. Kick. Kick. Kick. I remove her from the table – roughly and by the arm. I return just in time to see Toren hauling Eirik away from the table – roughly and by the arm. Ugh.
The gift I most want to give my children is that of my own￼ varsity-level self-regulation. I want this for their benefit but also for the sanity of our family. My kids do what I do￼ far more often than they do what I say.
Knowing how to self-regulate means that you can deliberately get yourself out of fight-flight-freeze and bring higher-order brain functions, like language and empathy, back online when you need them. It means that even when you are flooded with emotion, you can re-center and respond to the situation from a place that aligns with your values, rather than freaking the f%*$ out.
Self-regulation doesn’t come easily to me. As a seven-year-old I received the grade N in “demonstrates self control,” which is basically an F for first-graders. What were my crimes, exactly? I don’t know. At school I mostly talked too much; but at home I definitely yelled, hit, and threw occasional tantrums. It was all normal kid stuff, I think.￼ Never did an adult suggest a healthier way of working through my anger, anxiety, or fear. We didn’t talk about emotions back then. It was the 1980s. A kid out of line could shape up or ship out.
Thirty years later, I brought twin baby boys home and my husband went back to work in a different town. Avery, age 3, suddenly had to share me with not one but two babies and she was jealous. She bit them, and would sometimes finger-pop the corner of Eirik’s mouth to make him bleed. If one baby needed a diaper change, I took both of them to the bathroom. I had no idea what to do with my big kid or her impulses.
I talked to friends. I did some reading and podcasting. Everyone said the same thing: Your big kid needs love. Once she knows she hasn’t lost you, she’ll come around.
Having one of your kids hurt another one of your kids is the worst. For three months, I took a course in Peaceful Parenting, and earned a star on the calendar every day that I managed not to react to Avery in anger. I reframed my perspective to see what a hard time she was having. I found that the vacuum breathing I did for the separated muscles of my core also helped me to calm down. I breathed like that all of the time. The best apology is to change one’s behavior.
For a while, things got better. I became more skillful, and Avery outgrew the wilderness of toddlerhood. But then the babies turned into toddlers and it all became too much again. At present I feel all of my effort at peaceful parenting being swept away.
The calendar fell off the wall today and I looked back through the months. In May, when Avery was in school half-time and the twins were epic nappers, I had 15-hours a week to myself. There were notes in those margins – grocery lists, meal plans, and ideas for writing projects. As long as I kept moving everything got done, and I had a fairly good time doing it.
Nothing has been written on the calendar since June. Even if I had a thought, I wouldn’t be able to find a pen￼.
My poor body is pumped so full of cortisol that I don’t sleep and I rarely feel hungry. I can’t poop unless all of the children are sleeping.￼ I forget when I last showered; so I shave my armpits each time as a sort of timer. Whenever I see that I’ve grown a full chia pet, I get in.
According to doctors’ recommendations, I should reduce my stress, sleep more, eat better, exercise (at all), re-claim my creative outlets, and meditate; but I don’t have time for any of that. As another twin mom told me, “I have to find a way to take care of myself so I can keep doing this.”
Let’s be clear: In most moments of most days, my kids are lucky to have me as a mother. They come to me when they are hurt, scared, proud, sad, tired, or hungry. They see my shining eyes. They feel loved.
My anger is never about one thing. It is forged out of a steady accumulation of incidents – small and large – all day, every day. Tantrums eventually end, and that knowledge is enough to get me through. What wears me down is the perpetual chaos, and knowing that it’s up to me to move our family through the mess, without ever giving in to my own pain and frustration. Nine tantrums this morning; that’s what I’m up against.
Parenting isn’t the hardest job you’ll ever love; it’s the hardest job, period. Do your best to love it￼.
In the not-so-distant past, I didn’t understand ‘mom guilt’. I patted myself on the back, thinking myself immune to this all-consuming maternal emotion. But then I learned that guilt is inversely proportional to shame. When shit goes wrong, a person either thinks “I did something bad,” which is guilt, or “I am bad” which is shame. You either have one or the other. Ugh.
I am grateful for people who speak openly about how frequently (constantly) parenting is hard; rather than implying that hard times come as isolated incidents, involving one child, and wrap up with a big red bow. Overwhelm is a perpetual, impossible dance. I am forever trying my best, falling short, noticing I’m still the only adult around, and getting back up to dance some more. I would much prefer to lock myself in a dark room and make love to my phone.
Research shows that shaming ourselves when we miss the mark is a good way to ensure more poor behavior in the future. This makes sense: When I flog myself internally, shame tenses my neck and worries my mind. I am all the more coiled; all the more tired and burned-out; all the more likely to snap.
Shame hisses: Are you sssssure you want to talk about thissss?
Yes. The more personal a story, the more universal it is.￼ Shame only exists in secrecy. Casting stories into the light transmutes their power from isolation into connection.
If you want to love children in their worst moments, then you must first extend that warmth to yourself.￼ I did some reading and podcasting, and learned that without self-compassion, a person cannot be fully compassionate with others. You can’t give what you don’t have.
When I am unkind and impatient, I feel anxious. Regrets cycle around, and I have a hard time clearing them from my mind. How am I supposed to move from this into a place of self-compassion?￼
It’s hard to accept others in their mistakes when you haven’t experienced that way of being for yourself. I took a quiz and learned that self-compassion does not come easily to me. It seemed the closer I got to an antidote, the farther it moved out of reach.
What I need, is an imaginary, ideal mother. I render a Mother Earth figure in flowing white clothing. When I mess up or the cyclic thoughts spring up, she opens her arms wide. Come to me, my child, she says. You’ve treated someone poorly. I will help you feel better so that you can do better.￼
One of the best tools I have found when my kids get out of control is the pause. I don’t always know what to do from there. I am still looking for the right magic words to convince my body that there is no threat – only the children who grew inside of me and whom I love with every fiber of my being – but the pause is the right place to start. If I can stop myself from reacting for even a moment, the situation becomes far less important. This is not an emergency.
It’s very hard on me that I don’t always get this right￼. The ideal mother touches me on the shoulder. It’s okay, she says. You messed up, but we all mess up. You’re learning, and I know you￼ will do better next time.￼ I love you, just as you are.
When I succeed in getting grounded, I teach my children that mama is someone to trust; rather than someone to fear.￼￼ You feel mixed up and scared but you’re safe, I say. I am here. You don’t have to be calm; because I am calm. Let me take care of you.
I may never figure out how to prevent myself from being tipped off-balance, but when I pause, I can sometimes regain my center quickly enough that my children never need know that I left it.
My kids are fast and curious. If a mess can be made, they will make it. If an object can be broken, they will break it. Still, each of them deserves a childhood of exquisite tenderness.
I invented the ideal mother as someone to call on in difficult moments. I am surprised to find that she also comes in wonderful moments. When I am cuddled up with my kids and reading; when we are riding bikes in the driveway, when I hold their hands for a dinner breath before a meal, when I get them out of the bath and find a way to gently brush their teeth even though they don’t want me to. ￼￼￼She’s there, smiling upon me. Great job, she says￼.
Something else happens that initial morning after breakfast. I think Eirik dumped something out of the spice cabinet. As I run to him, Avery yells, “Mom! Don’t get angry!”
I’m not proud that my five-year-old feels the need to help with my self-regulation, but it was super helpful.￼￼ I pick Eirik up and start into my arsenal of mantras; You’re safe, I tell him.
But something strange happens when I say those words out loud — it is as if I am saying them to myself. I feel instantly better. Of course. You’re safe. These are the magic words.
Pushing myself to unearth unconditional love for children pushes me to love and care for myself. You are worthy of love and belonging, I say. Nothing you could ever do would make me stop loving you. Through self-compassion, I am becoming my own ideal mother.