A friend of mine, who has three kids, and I escaped our families for a few hours this week to grab lunch and make a loop around the mall. And just as all moms do when they finally get a break from their kids, we spent most of our money on and time talking about our kids. I’ve had some struggles with my five year old and I know he has a similar personality to one of my friend’s girls, so I was asking her opinion. In the course of the conversation we both found ourselves trying to find positive adjectives to replace words such as “challenging” and “difficult.” We chalked the current behavior up to “a phase” and then philosophized about parenting styles in general for a while.
Later that evening I was surfing around pinterest and read an article that a woman had written about her son and his anger problems. In the article she said, she had some things to get off her chest and she wasn’t going to apologize. She then went on to explain how difficult her son has been to raise. Her issue was more severe than mine, but I could sympathize with her feelings of frustration. Then she said, she finally realized she had to grieve for the child her son was not (but whom she expected he might be) and then move on.
And this sentiment was amazing to me. Because whether you mean to or not, you go into this parenting business with some unconscious expectations. When you’re pregnant you imagine what it will be like when you and your child can play tag in the yard, you look at your newborn and think about how fun it will be to introduce him to sledding, or Disney movies, or chocolate cake. You are excited about birthday parties and play dates. Someday he’ll start school, learn to read, tie his shoes, and you’ll be there for all of it. You see crafts and games and outings on pinterest and know that you can make your child’s life as magical as you want.
And then that child is born. Maybe you struggle with breastfeeding. Maybe your baby cries…all the time. And this “amazing newborn period” is not so amazing for you. Then you go to his first play date and he clings to your side the entire time. Maybe your child develops or is born with a real, physical disability; maybe a food allergy or an intolerance; maybe your child is behind developmentally; maybe he’s shy, or wild. And you find your expectations have been completely blown out the window. You feel disappointed sometimes or even embarrassed, you find yourself explaining or making excuses, but at the same time you tell yourself, “I am an educated parent. This is 2015 and I’ve read all the blogs. I celebrate difference and difference isn’t bad.” And then you go out into the world and it’s hard to remember how strong and confident you are when there is something different about your own child. And you’re embarrassed when you find yourself wondering, “Why can’t I be okay with who my child is?’
My five-year-old is a normal, happy, healthy child. He was a breeze as a baby: breastfed like a champ, slept through the night in record time, barely cried, started talking early. I had all the reason to believe he was going to be everything I had ever imagined. Then he hit three with a vengeance. He had god-awful tantrums, occasional night terrors, he was shy and afraid in some public situations, and he completely put the brakes on at the dinner table. My child who once devoured lentils would now eat only noodles or peanut butter and jelly. Things were falling apart. This was not the child I expected. This child didn’t like to watch movies and had no interest in “kid things” such as bounce houses, face painting, and pony rides. He wouldn’t wear denim or long sleeves and for a period was severely anemic and had to go in for bi-monthly blood draws and take this twice daily, disgusting iron supplement. He was, however, incredibly verbal and loving and fun and all those “normal” kid things when we were at home or when he felt like he was in a safe place.
Now he’s five. We’ve got the iron thing under control. He’s still not the foodie I wish he was, but he’s expanding his palate little by little. He’s grown out of the tantrums and night terrors, but he can still be QUITE assertive about his needs and desires. He just recently discovered how fun bounce houses are and just at Christmas had his face painted for the first time ever. He still won’t wear denim and doesn’t love long sleeves. Sometimes he is genuinely in tears because his sock is “crooked” in his shoes, but other times he’ll play outside for hours with a sock wadded up completely in the toe of his boot.
He’s also crazy smart. He’s doing amazing in kindergarten and took to reading like a champ. He’s making friends, loves his teacher, and is really having a blast in the after school latchkey program where he goes with a group of kids of varying ages. He asks me these deep, philosophical questions and genuinely wants to discuss the answers. I find myself talking to him about my own life as if he were a 10-year-old and he actually offers feedback. He likes to help me with chores or errands and he’s an amazing big brother. He is unusually kind and empathetic for a five-year-old and is very conscientious as well.
But he’s not who I imagined he would be.
Of course he’s not. There’s no possible way he could be. The child I unconsciously imagined never had a tantrum or the occasional “shart” (come on, they all do it). The child I unconsciously imagined was always dressed in cute outfits (that included denim) and liked all the same things I like. I didn’t mean to imagine this child, this is just what happens when you transfer your own likes and memories into your future expectations.
Since 2015 seems to be the year of letting go (thanks, Frozen) I’m taking some time to grieve the child he is not, so that I can let it go and spend more time appreciating the child he is. Because not being the child I imagined is not bad, but it can throw a parent for a loop.
Here’s an example.
When we started potty training things went off without a hitch. We did all the “right” things: we made a chart, we bought little prizes and stickers, we celebrated when he went, etc, etc. And things were great, but then the novelty wore off and he stopped playing along. He didn’t have a single accident the first week we started, but then we assumed we were good to go and casually abandoned the stickers and prizes and he just casually abandoned using the toilet. He’s been incredibly verbal since he was one, practically, so it was incredibly frustrating because we KNEW he understood what was expected and we KNEW he could do it. I lost my temper. I did all those things they tell you to never do when potty training: scolding, punishing, threatening, but seriously, the kid knew what to do and wasn’t doing it! So I googled “potty training a strong-willed child” and I found a pdf from a pediatrician’s office in Denver that saved the day. It told us to do the following:
- Apologize to the child for all the things you did and shouldn’t have done (yelling, scolding, punishing and threatening).
- Explain to your child that you will not talk about it anymore or ask him to do it anymore, but if he wanted to talk about it, you would be there for him.
- Put the power in his hands. Tell him, “from now on, you can be in charge of your poops and pees. You’ll decide when they come out and when they stay in and Mom and Dad are here to help whenever you need it.”
I’m not kidding you, 15 minutes later he comes out, “I have to go pee” and that was that. He took charge and we just followed his lead and he proceeded with no accidents.
This story pretty much exemplifies life with Dylan. I don’t want to say we have to live on his terms, but he is a child who needs to be included and prepared. He doesn’t like surprises sprung on him and if we can include him in the decision-making process, our lives are infinitely easier. This is not the child I thought I would raise. This child is, at times, a lot of work.
The thing about highly emotionally kids, however, is that with great lows come AMAZING highs. And so I’ll let go of the fact that showing up at his school party as a surprise is not his idea of fun, it’s mine. I’ll own the fact that, emotionally, this child will be work to raise, but the trade off is maturity, empathy, and passion. I’ll stop thinking “why won’t he ___?” when he’s refusing an activity that all the other kids love because he’s young and he’s still growing and learning and just because he doesn’t love pony rides now, doesn’t mean he won’t love pony rides next summer. And maybe he’ll never love pony rides, and that will be okay too.
Because the time I spend noticing what he’s not would be better spent celebrating what he is. The time is better spent focusing on the things about him that surprise and delight me, like EVERY time he reads to me; or his amazing thought process and the questions he asks. I would be better spent getting into things he loves and helping him to discover the world. We do these things, of course, but sometimes as parents we get so caught up in worrying about our kids that we forget to just sit back and enjoy the silly, strange creatures that they really are! 🙂