Breaking toxic cycles is hard f**king work. It is so easy to parent the way we were parented, blindly hand-down archaic attitudes, and hold our children to standards that predate our own existences. Our only hope to ensure that the generation we are raising will improve the world they are inheriting, is to make sure we are improving on the world we were given.
My mother made extremely difficult choices and broke several cycles in how she raised me. She risked her life to leave an abusive marriage the day she found out she was pregnant with me. She chose to raise me as a single parent and accepted all of the challenges and stigma that would come along with that choice. She made the choice not to use whoopings (see: physical abuse) as a way to discipline me. She also chose to support my choice to attend a university out-of-state, hundreds of miles away from the home we shared for 18 years; which was an independence that she was not granted as a teenager.
I still experienced a great deal of trauma. That truth doesn’t mean my mother did a “bad job.” I don’t blame my mother for that. She did the best she could with the knowledge and resources she had. I am at a place now in life where I can have gratitude for the things I was successfully shielded from while also acknowledging that there were times when I was not protected or not protected enough. I can’t change the past (nor do I desire to), but I can try new methods. Here’s a 2020 round-up of what I’ve been up to…
I love virtues because they focus on ways of being versus doing. And while different situations call for different interpretations of the same virtue, the virtue itself provides a guiding light. For example, flexibility can look like letting my three-year-old make her own peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of me doing it, even if that means it will take 15 minutes longer, at minimum, than it would if I made the sandwich myself. Flexibility can also look like honoring her request to wear her rainbow unicorn shirt instead of the pizza shirt I found on clearance at Target and have been dying to see her in. After all, it is her body.
Virtues I’m focusing on right now:
Flexibility, Trust, Compassion, and Integrity
Every year on our wedding anniversary, my wife and I recite our original vows to each other. It’s an I-Love-You ritual that keeps our roots healthy and strong. Reciting our vows reminds us, especially during tense times, to look through the lens of those vows before acting too soon on a strong emotion. One of our vows is, “I promise to help you discover and follow your own true path in life.” I held tightly to this vow when my wife told me about a job opportunity in February, shortly after we celebrated our 7th anniversary (Feb. 16th!). The position offered more money and adjacency to a position she was desiring down the line, but also meant she would work longer hours on some days and at least one Saturday per month. I hated the idea of seeing her less and was less than excited about the change in routine that would result, but more than anything I knew I didn’t want to look back in history and know that my grief stood in the way of her finding her true path in her career. So I chose to support her and was upfront about my needs and concerns. She felt supported and because she didn’t have to guess at my deeper feelings we were able to move forward as a team. My vow to her gave me what I needed to show up for her while still honoring my needs. I have been developing similar vows for how I can show up for my daughters.
Vows I’m meditating on right now:
I will honor your right to independence through each new stage of development.
I love you unconditionally, even when I may not understand something fully.
I will protect and nourish your joy.
I will be your peace.
I think it is all too easy to fan a flame between oneself and their child, simply because the parent lacks knowledge about how their child’s brain and identity are developing. This is where I felt myself earlier this year falling into the traps of unhealthy parenting cycles. When my twins turned 3, they hit a new chapter in their independence. It was like suddenly, they went from depending on me for everything to wanting to do everything for themselves. Oh, and f e e l i n g s? They suddenly had ALL. OF. THEM. And each one was strong. And conflicting feelings were frequently happening at the same damn time (*future voice*). It was a lot to keep up with, and I was shook by my perceived loss of control. I started yelling more and having patience less. It felt ugly, but often gave me back the control I thought I lost.
But parenting, to me in my heart of hearts, is not about control at all. It is about guiding a child through each stage of their development, while providing both the boundaries and the freedom they need to self-actualize. Sounds a lot easier than it actually is when your three year old is screaming their head off in the driveway at 7am (good morning, neighbors!) because she wants to climb into her carseat on her own. Meanwhile, you’re in a parenting-approach-standoff with your wife who has zero patience left because she is about to be late for work. So last summer, I began to seek books that will help me understand my kids’ development and that offer developmentally-appropriate strategies for navigating each stage. I’m committing to reading at least one book per year about the stage of my children’s development.
So far, I’ve read:
How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen
By Joana Faber and Julie King
Note: I recommend listening to this title on Audible, if you have it.
Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers
By Dr. Deborah MacNamara
I don’t believe I have it all figured out. But I am a lot better off than where I was at the start of 2020. This has been a really difficult year for all of us. I wouldn’t judge myself too harshly (see: at all) if you’re reading this as a parent and are thinking I haven’t done any of this work or I yell at my kids daily and have no problem with that. I try to state this as often as possible: I don’t believe in judging other people’s parenting styles or approaches. We are all doing the best we can with what we have. I choose to share “what I’ve got” because it helps me process and accept myself for who I am. As the ancestors have said: when you know better, you do better. I’d like to add: you also feel better.