Saturday, December 6, 2014

Dreadful Parenting

I am struggling as a parent. Perhaps just struggling as a person.

Sleep training Ira is failing, potty training Ishmael is failing, my general composure as an adult is failing. We might all just poop our pants into adulthood around here.

Although I've come a long way, and I'm proud of my progress, I do not feel particularly well cut out to parent young children. I expect them to be able to reason like adults, and they don't. I stay home with my kids because I believe that it is my role as their parent to coach them into functioning little humans, particularly in such formative years, but I find myself filling my stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) life with other things than my children because 24/7 childcare is mind numbing. Obviously, avoiding my children while at home really wasn't the point of quitting my other jobs to be with them. I thrash around against the fact that I can't do anything without being interrupted. Sometimes I just let my kids sit in their poop or cry uncontrollably while I do my own thing for a few minutes, and sometimes I think that's fine, but other times I feel guilty about it (God forbid someone else see me doing it!) and it makes me stressed out or try to rush through whatever I'm trying to get done because I can't handle the crying or the poop. I also feel guilty when I think that if I were doing a better job of training them, maybe they would be able to listen better or entertain themselves for a little bit while I make a phone call or try and do some other task that doesn't involve them. In the end, nothing is accomplished effectively, and something needs to change.

I know that most parents struggle with their role - it is a huge responsibility, and probably the most difficult job any of us will ever undertake, particularly because the subtle moments can be the most important ones. There is something very comforting about knowing that countless others understand the feeling of both the lowest lows and the highest highs in this business. Yet, in days or weeks when I can't shift my focus from the avalanche of "downs" I'm dealing with, I can't fathom how it came to be that so many people do this day in and day out. I see my friends who don't have children having more fun then me - there's no nicer way to spin that, they definitely do have more fun than I am having. My mom noted that the difficulty of parenting is probably a large factor in why people have far fewer children (or no children at all) in modern times than they used to.

A lot of people are disparaging about comments like, "I just want to feel like I'm putting my time to good use" from SAHMs, because raising children is a good use of time. I do believe that, but it's not always enjoyable and the reward is far off, which makes it feel less impactful than some other things I could be doing. Furthermore, the weight we are expected to bare as modern parents will so quickly result in burnout that it makes us into desperate and miserable people, and desperate, miserable people aren't the best parents. If we have no way to collect ourselves and instead feel constantly at the end of our rope, of course we can think of nothing else but how to get out of this job as soon as possible.

I know this is exceptionally Freudian, but sometimes I get so overwhelmed with frustration that I bite binkies. If I pick up Ira, I usually need both hands, but want to bring his binky along too, so I put the rim in my mouth to carry it. I find myself chomping down so hard on that rubber to relieve some tension. This is motherhood, people.

Parenting small children doesn't generally stimulate my mind, and that makes me feel like I'm missing out on adulthood. While I think it's good to realize that raising children truly is worthwhile, SAHMs don't need additional guilt over wanting to feel more a part of "real life". I think the fact that so many SAH parents can speak of little else but how defeated they feel says something legitimate about the state of parenting we're faced with. Personally, it gives me dreadlocks. I'm not kidding, I have two dreadlocks. I have been so frazzled and miserable trying to adjust to my new normal, so much that I've neglected my hair majorly. Large tangles got coached into dreadlocks, making me an officially a dreadful parent.

I have asked myself, "am I - and my peers - so pathetic that we can't handle what people have been handling for centuries before us"? I've been thinking about this for two weeks (rewriting this post over and over during nap times), and I've concluded that there are two main societal blockades today that make good parenting exceptionally difficult. I know this sounds so hippy-dippy, but the first thing that I think we've lost that majorly complicates raising small children is communal living. Most of you know that my husband and boys and I are currently living with my parents. This doesn't solve all my problems, but it's worlds better than when I was alone before, because I really was alone so often when we had our own place. My husband - like many husbands and wives - works 40, sometimes 50+ hours a week to take care of us, and on top of that, he goes to school three nights a week. The reality of this situation is that I am effectively a single parent most days. The pressure of being the sole care-giver and instructor of 2 small humans is crushing, and I don't think it was meant to be that way. When we're expected to go it alone and love it (or be good at it), it's a tall order. Looking at history, as well as many other cultures around the world, young parents have immediate access to large extended families as well as their larger community, in a way that many Americans don't.

I found myself so depressed when all my siblings went back to school after the holiday, because when they are here (along with other friends and family), my boys can bounce from one person to the next, not exhausting any one person, and yet still happy as clams and stimulated and loved to their hearts content. All that help allows me to accomplish a few things that I need to get done, as well as be calm and energized when the occasions do arise that I need to step in and discipline them. This segways nicely into the second component that I feel is missing from modern parenting - instruction.

I've really been wracking my brain with the question "how do we learn to parent?" In a healthy communal situation (which I realize is not available to everyone), you have the opportunity to learn from your elders who have experience parenting. So much of what I'm working through in this post is a result of my mom helping to train me as a parent (thanks mom!). Of course, the goal is not for grandparents or anyone else to actually raise your children for you, but their advice and knowledge is a resource that we have forgotten to tap in to in this day and age.

A side note on communal living before I continue: it is looked down upon in Western cultures because it's so often connected to grown people mooching off of others, but that's a broken communal situation. In a healthy community, people are responsible, but help share one another's burdens and get to share in one another's triumphs. Downright Biblical, if you ask me.

Back to learning to parent - is it overwhelming, or is it overwhelming?! No matter what information you absorb before having children, you can not truly understand its meaning until you actually have children, and then much of the time, you change your mind about what you heard before anyway. That, and have no brain cells left from hormones and lack of sleep, so you can't remember what you read.

The "simple" answer to learning to parent is to read about how to do it, right? That is hilarious to me on two levels - first of all, I am a person who loves to read, but have read approximately 2 and a half books since having children because I have at least 12 other exceptionally pressing things I have to get done every day before I could sit down with any kind of book. Secondly, do you have any idea how many parenting books are out there? Possibly a billion, not kidding. Along with the internet, there are so many options that I end up reeling back and closing my eyes instead. I can Google a question as well as the next person (but is what some stranger posted on a message board at 3am really what I want to use as parenting advice?), but then I also end up being bombarded by 10 mini parenting dilemmas a week (should I let my child refuse kisses during the holidays?!?) that I would not have been worried about at all had I not been presented with the question in the first place. Thank you, internet. For the record, I think that article is probably good advice, but I am up to my eyeballs in good advice these days, and sometimes it conflicts with itself.

(this is me right now) 

I have never read a "how-to" parenting book on any subject in its entirety. I'm wary of self help books because I don't believe life can be boiled down to a set of 3 things to remember or the number one thing to avoid. Multiple methods can be found to do just about anything when it comes to parenting, and my general strategy has been to avoid seeking written advice because every source seems to contradict the last, and if you look even one generation back, so many aspects of parenting turn out to be fads. Knowing all the possibilities before I'm faced with a dilemma only makes me more anxious about all the things that could go wrong. How am I supposed to be confident about what the right course of action is when I'm confronted with 10 options, many of which sound reasonable? I end up having to make a judgement call about whether I think what I read makes sense or not, but I don't feel like I have a good enough foundation as a parent to be able to gauge what good sense even is! I try and look at things critically and ask myself, "do I agree just because it's logical or counter-cultural or well written, or is this something I truly think is a good idea"? Ultimately though, I have become unsatisfied with doing nothing because I don't know what to do. Not whole-heartedly pursuing how to be a good parent ends up making my life more difficult because, for instance, sometimes I don't even realize that whatever behavior or situation I'm dealing with is a THING, with a name, that happens with other people's kids too, and therefore I'm not aware that there are tools out there to help me deal with said behavior.

There seems to be no 1 (or even 2 or 3) main schools of thought on parenting today (I feel that there was, when my parents were young). Well, actually, what I've gathered is that there is attachment parenting, and then there's everyone else. I fall somewhere in the "everyone else" category, because I believe that letting your child believe they are the center of the universe doesn't do anyone any favors. It makes me feel like I'm dying when I structure every moment around my children.
I do need to make training them my utmost priority, but not let them control me through my responsibility to them. I realize that's a pretty pointed statement (many, many of my friends do attachment parenting), which leads me to the overall parenting philosophy I hear, which is "do what works for you". I think this is a nice sentiment, but let's face it - not everyone's kids are really that great, so "whatever works" probably isn't true or just isn't actually working. I often hear that "whatever you decide to do, stick with it", and I do believe that children crave consistency. However, I also used to think that that basically meant that all (well, many) parenting roads lead to relatively healthy adults, and it only takes about 5 seconds in the real world to realize that that is a filthy lie. Some people make it, and some get really messed up, you know? It's not like you can just cross your fingers and hope for the best with kids.

A further note on attachment parenting - I'm not saying that I think attachment parenting necessarily leads to entitled or otherwise messed up adults, but I do think giving your child everything they want when they want it will leave with you with no self left, only a slave to your offspring in the body that once was you. Of course that makes people miserable. I also think that attachment parenting has the potential to rob marriages because when everything is child-centered, there is no room to invest in your spouse. Similarly, I think that living in hatred of your role as a stay at home parent can chop your marriage off at the knees (who wants to come home to a constantly miserable, exhausted and spent zombie?), and that's one of the many reasons I'm trying hard to turn this ship around.

Back to parenting philosophies. When people say, "do whatever is right for you", isn't that a thinly veiled "what you're doing sounds wrong to me"? I hate millenial bashing, but seriously, oh millennals, why must we all be so offended by... everything? (This trend actually got a name, it's called outrage porn). I got home from a play date with a friend and her two kids the other day and found myself wondering, "when I was saying how hard it must be to feed her daughter several times a night, did she think I was judging her"? I'm constantly trying to tip toe around every parent or would-be-parent or non-parent that I know, trying not to offend or impose my ideas. Similarly, I find myself getting all bent out of shape when people try and tell me what I should be doing differently. Here's the thing: sometimes we need to be able to hear good advice and consider changing aspects of our parenting, other times, people are crazy and we need to let their crazy roll off our backs. Give me a call if you figure out a no-tears system of telling those two apart.

When it comes down to it, I can be quite confident in some of my parenting choices, but inevitably, someone else thinks it's the most heinous choice I could have made, and then I either question myself or live in fear that other people will think I'm ruining my children. I think the line between "it's none of your damn business" and accepting constructive criticism is made out of spider web silk. I want to be someone who doesn't isn't swayed by every passing breeze, but I also think people who never listen are so arrogant.

Sometimes I crave a situation in which someone would just tell me exactly what to do. But, only stuff I like and agree with. Basically, do all the leg work for me and make me think it was my idea. Wouldn't it be great if there was a step by step, foolproof guide? But I know that if I had that, I'd challenge it and balk at formulas.

What I've come up with so far in parenting 101 is that first of all, you have to come to the conclusion that you have no idea what you're doing and that you need change/help. I have been parenting one situation at a time (which was my intentional parenting philosophy at one point!), but that becomes a problem once your child is a toddler, because they start getting a bit smarter and you have to preempt their behavior rather than run around putting out fires all day. I feel like trial and error is so dangerous when parenting, but even when I do have a plan, I can not dictate my child's every move, and so there remains an aspect of trial and error.  I'm becoming much less of a fan of going in completely blind, though, because you only get one chance sometimes. I can think back to some words that were said or things that were done in my childhood that may have been no more than a passing thought spoken aloud on behalf of the adult speaking to me, but their words or actions shaped me and have stuck with me into adulthood. When I think about that, I'm often terrified that my boys are picking up everything I say and do, and some things that I may do without thinking are sinking in very deeply. Nothing feels more "ready or not, here we go" than parenting.

I'm beginning to see that not having a strategy to follow or a specific goal to reach results in meandering parenting, where everything takes me by surprise, and then the moment is gone and I've lost the chance to teach my sons how to be a responsible, loving, pleasant human beings. Instead, they learn that if I haven't made up my mind about what to do, it's up to them to make the rules. I'm trying to learn to think more long-term and address the myriad issues of each day in such a way that I'm instilling character ("we need to be good stewards of our property and not be wasteful") rather than making ten thousand small rules ("do not stand on that book. or that one. or that one.") to try and corral them into obedience.

Small fixes are at best temporary, because children never agree to stay the same once you've figured them out. I find that when I'm wrestling mightily with my boys' behavior, it reveals my own inner ugliness and my own shortcomings as a parent. I become so lost and frustrated that I want nothing more than to escape my role as a parent, when the real remedy is to lay down my own adulthood where need be, and pour myself in to raising them to be less selfish than I am. My adulthood will resurface eventually, but we can't get their formative childhood years back later. As they are molded into more disciplined beings, I predict that I will feel less compelled to escape them.

I've already realized the truth in this when it comes to disciplining Ishmael. When I am trying to deal with every little situation instead of the behavioral heart of the matter, it is impossible to tell him "no" about everything, so he gets away with a lot, which reinforces to him that anything goes. Eventually though, I become frustrated enough to discipline him after he's disobeyed multiple times in a row. Not only is it unfair to him to discipline on some occasions and not others, it also leads me to discipline out of frustration, and he experiences me losing my temper. Not that I use excessive force or anything, but I've always held that disciplining out of anger is wrong, yet I couldn't see a way around it until understanding that I need to focus on the bigger picture and remain calm and firm when he tests me, rather than letting things slide (because seriously, most of it really isn't a big deal) and then swooping in and laying down the law every 10th incident.

Another major tenant of mine in learning how to parent is to seek the advice of parents with children you admire. My friend Cara told me that we feel like our own situation is the most challenging because we aren't dealing with other people's situations. My friend Jessa assured me that I don't have to find playmates that are exactly Ishmael's age in order for him to be benefited by the company of others. My friend Heather suggested I take Ishmael to the library to help him learn to sit in a group quietly. She also taught me the HALT acronym to run through during a child's meltdown - is he Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? She even suggested a book to me that I might just read. ;) Many people have commiserated that going from 1 to 2 children is the most difficult jump there is.

My husband kindly reminded me that it is okay not to enjoy parenting all the time - the point is that I do it anyway, and that's what makes a good (and perhaps 1% less selfish?) parent. Similarly, a wise woman at my church told me that I do not have to feel like a good parent, only strive to be one. I do not have to live under the burden of trying to feel happy or accomplished as a parent all the time. How I feel doesn't change the fact that my boys are loved and cared for at the end of the day.

While there is a grain of truth in this, I can be haunted by the notion that if my child does something wrong, it's my fault for not teaching him otherwise. In reality, it is my responsibility to equip my children to know right from wrong, and then it is their responsibility to make the right choice.

Lately, the concept of grace has been presenting itself to me everywhere I look. Simply the idea that I can never be good enough - or even good. But I don't know how to stop trying. I don't know how to divorce the doing the best I can from relying on my own strength, and frankly, the struggle gives me dreadlocks. Although I think I understand the concept of God's grace, I don't understand how it's free to me, because free stuff always feels stolen to me, in some sense (yet so good...). You know what I mean? I always feel like I got the best of someone when I get something for free, and it seems wrong to do that to Jesus, even though I know he's powerful enough not to be robbed by me.

For today, I combed out the dreadlocks and only bit a binky a little bit. That's a good start, right? And I keep trying to remember this: Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. {image credit}


  1. So, so, so good, Karissa. I wrestle with all of this every day. Thank you for writing it out! Staying home alone with children all day is NO JOKE. It sounds like you're doing an amazing job being a mom to your boys.

    1. Thank you so much, I really admire you as a parent (and as a woman :)).

  2. this is amazing and you are incredible. so proud of you, 妹妹!

    1. thank you, that means tons coming from you. <3

  3. Hi Karissa- I've been reading your blog for several months now and I'm not even sure how I stumbled upon it- probably through mutual friends on facebook. At any rate, I'm coming out of lurkdom to say: yes and amen- motherhood can put you through the ringer like nobody's business. And I'm only a semi-SAHM; my two-year-old goes to daycare three times a week. If I had a drink right now I'd pour it out in your honor, seriously! I love the scripture you shared at the end; it's words like those that keep me from losing my ever-loving mind in the midst of the sleepless nights and early mornings.
    Blessings to you, and tell your husband I say hello! We sang in choir together in high school. :)
    -Mia Schneider-Purdin

    PS- I bite binkies every once in a while too. Takes the edge off! Haha.


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