As I’ve written before, I’m not generally a person who does New Year’s Resolutions. But I am a fan of using the new year to reflect upon what I want my future to look like. My New Year’s List tends to be a vague collection of activities I enjoy that I’d like to choose more often, or intentions I’d like to follow as guiding principles in my everyday life. One of the intentions I have this year is definitely applicable to my broader life, but especially relevant to my parenting.
When I look back on my last twelve months of mothering, one thing stands out to me that I believe has made the difference between moments of stress and moments of calm. Between horribly frustrating battles with my two year old and problems we solve together, often with a sniffly, weepy snuggle. Between sobbing my eyes out during a night full of infant wakings and not sobbing my eyes out through those nights. Between feeling like a parenting failure and feeling like I got this. And at its core, it can be summed up in one word:
This was an important lesson for me to discover this year (I don’t say “to learn” because I think I still have a loooong way to go). Going from one kid to two sure changed the dynamic in our house. I worried whether I would have enough time, love, and patience for an extra tiny person, not to mention enough to extend to my partner, nor to even consider any for myself! We’ve settled into a dynamic of one-on-one parenting, because both my partner and I feel ‘selfish’ putting both kids on the other person unless it’s necessary, but this also means both of us feel like we’re ‘on duty’ of some sort pretty much 24/7 (we have talked about needing to make a change here!). We entered the ‘terrible twos’ with A and have been, as I’m sure countless parents have been before us, utterly flabbergasted and filled with dread at just how loud, prolonged, and desperate the tantrums can be, and incensed at how powerless we sometimes are to stop them.
Empathy has been a shining light that helps me in these situations and many more. But true empathy, I’ve also discovered this year, is really, really, REALLY hard to have. I’ve learned a lot from the work of Lori Petro and Marshall Rosenberg, and one thing that has struck very deep for me is that true empathy seems to require a total selflessness, at least for the moment. Empathy isn’t understanding where my toddler is coming from in his tantrum but ultimately focusing on what I know we have to do in five minutes so we better get this shit together. Empathy isn’t understanding that my infant isn’t trying to fuck up my sleep but still grumbling at him and thinking about how quickly I can shush him and get him to go back down for the sixth time tonight. Empathy is understanding where A is coming from, full stop. It’s understanding that R is having legitimate trouble going back to sleep, period. It’s being in that place with them and not even going to my own wants, schedule, or ideas of what I think should be happening – yet. I can get back to all those things later (it’s important that there is time for them, too!), but true empathy is just being there in the moment with them, understanding their problem, and trying to help them solve it. Because in many cases, they’re simply not developed enough yet to solve those problems without my help. I spend a lot of time reflecting on how frustrating and upsetting it must be to be a tiny person, with so little agency over and understanding of the world around you. This often helps me to get to that selfless place, at least for a minute or two.
Does this make A’s tantrums end any sooner? Does it make R go back to sleep more quickly or have fewer wakings? Maybe not.
But does it make me feel calmer? Does it let me show them them the kind of behaviour I’d like them to exhibit? Does it let me offer love and kindness instead of frustration and anger? Does it let me de-escalate a situation instead of making it worse? Does it sometimes require that I go off to another room afterwards to scream a silent (or not so silent) ‘fuuuuuuuuuuck!’ into a pillow or up to the ceiling? Do I still routinely find myself getting fed up, yelling, and showing my immense frustration instead of having empathy as I’d like? A resounding yes on all counts!
But, it’s possible that these changes in me do help keep the tantrums a little smaller, or help us all get back to sleep more quickly. So I’m going to do my best to keep on this empathy train in 2017, because I know it has the capacity to make my family, my home, and my life more the kind of place I want to be.
I wish you great success in whatever you hope for 2017, too! What are some of your guiding principles or resolutions for parenting this year?