Parenting through trauma, life change, and healing is a humbling endeavor. But we can do it. And if we’re open, our children can show us how.
Holidays and long breaks from school aren’t exactly vacation for parents—especially when we’re dealing with stress above and beyond the norm. I still remember sitting in a cafe one afternoon doing an interview with integrative life coach Angela Benck that ended with me in tears. The topic that did it? Parenting my oldest son. A week later, the tears came again as I stared down the barrel of a weekend of a lot of alone time with my boys.
There are times when we hit our stride and enjoy our time together as a single-parent family of three. But I know that usually I need help, and if I go too long without it, I reach my limit. To cope, I make myself busy with cleaning and cooking or social media so I don’t have to face the monotony and emotional volatility that makes up a large portion of my boys’ world right now.
“It’s okay,” said Angela as we sat in the cafe. “Honestly, I didn’t fall in love with being a mom until four years into it.”
“Ha, that’s about the time I fell out of love with it,” I said.
When my oldest son was 3 years old, my marriage ended unexpectedly. The following year, just after his fourth birthday, I sat by myself with a neuropsychologist, plowing my way through his first comprehensive eval for autism. He met the criteria for only two out of three domains, and so began an onslaught of therapies, further testing, and troubleshooting to address and uncover the reasons behind his developmental delays. All the while, my one-year-old tagged along strapped to my chest, blissfully unaware of his family happenings.
That’s about the time I stopped savoring the moments and started pleading for my babies to grow up quickly, because I couldn’t do it by myself.
Embracing What Is
Today my ex is involved, and I’m surrounded by supportive friends and family who have made space for us in their lives. But it’s still not easy. A quote from a New York Times video about the challenges of motherhood illuminates the main reason I still struggle as a parent: “The gap between expectation and reality is where the pain is.”
I thought motherhood would be a certain way—with an engaged partner and fully neurotypical children. For me, it’s not that way.
I intuited the difficult journey I’d have as a mother when I was pregnant with my oldest son. I didn’t foresee the details of how it would manifest, but I knew. I was hoping for a girl because that’s the kind of energy I grew up with and understand. The week before my second trimester ultrasound I wrote to the readers of my baby blog at the time:
Despite my preference, my guess is that I’m having a boy. For the past year, I’ve had this nagging intuition that one day I will have a boy. He will be just like his dad (gorgeous, hyperactive, and mischievous), and he will be my spiritual practice for the rest of my life. My mother shares my intuition. Our jaws dropped when we first verbalized it to each other….Here’s where I’m supposed to conclude with, “I’ll be happy no matter what the outcome.” But that would be boring. If I’m having a girl, I’ll be shocked, ecstatic, and wild with anticipation of meeting her. If I’m having a boy, I’ll laugh, nod, and know I’m about to embark on the journey of a lifetime—because we were meant for each other.
I reread those words on my son’s sixth birthday, and it still gives me chills today.
Accepting the Challenge
On that day with Angela, she reminded me of a truth I already knew. “Our children are our greatest teachers if we let them.”
That weekend I spent my alone time with my boys teaching them how to ride their bikes on and off road. There were wipeouts, whining, daredevil stunts, and, best of all, progress. My oldest son gets easily frustrated and emotional when learning new things. It often makes me not want to teach him as I anticipate the probable struggle and minimal outcomes to show for it. But that weekend, he sat in the backseat on our way home, aglow with his newfound identity: “bike master.”
I taught him about bike riding, but he schooled me in how to parent him. For all the books I’ve read, being fully immersed in his practice sessions that weekend taught me more than ever about how he works. He needed lots of praise, breaks to do his own thing, no distractions like playgrounds and toys, and well-timed pushes to get back on it. And he needed to do it again the next day—again and again.
“Hey, Cam,” I caught his eyes through the rearview mirror on our way home from one of our practice sessions. “How did you feel after you mastered that trail and then climbed into the car?”
“Sad,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “Why were you sad?”
“Because I wanted to ride my bike more,” he reasoned.
“Okay, that makes sense, but what else did you feel?” I prodded. “Were you proud of yourself? Did it feel good to do even better than you did yesterday?”
“Yes,” a smile spread across his face.
“That’s what happens when you practice and try things even when it’s hard,” I said. “When you finally get it, you feel really good inside. There are lots of things in life like that.”
“Okay,” he said in his typical minimalist manner whenever I try to engage him in conversation.
It is not lost on me that parenting is like that.
Recognizing the Sage
If there’s one thing I know how and love to do as a parent, it’s recognizing the wisdom in some of the impromptu, profound comments that come out of my children’s mouths. The same week that I taught my boys how to ride their bikes, I stumbled onto some pretty poignant insights from my own children and others through my social media network. Here they are, with a little humor thrown in. After all, kids are some of our best reminders to stop taking ourselves and life so seriously.
Child: I am a gardener, a ninja, a potion-maker, a draw-er, a painter, a song-maker…(sigh) Mom, I don’t have enough time for everything I am.
Parent: Who do you think we truly are?
Child: I think maybe we’re God on the inside and human on the outside.
Parent: I like that idea. Like maybe we’re half God and half human?
Child: No, mommy. I think the whole God is in us.
Parent: My daughter asked if she could “French kiss” me. My jaw dropped, and before I could respond, she kissed both my cheeks. The way the French do!
Parent: When we go to a park and they climb a tree my initial reaction is to ask them to come down; they may get hurt. They remind me that the reward of being free and experiencing life to the fullest is worth the risk of getting hurt. This is why they are my greatest teachers.
What have you learned lately from the sage in your backseat?
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