Sometimes, parenting feels like a long string of fails with just a few wins here and there. There are so many days it feels like almost no matter what you choose, you just can’t win. And then there are these times, when you have such an astoundingly obvious insight, that you can’t help but feel like the biggest failure ever.
I had one of those insights recently:
My children need different things from me and it’s my job to figure out each of their needs because they are still little.
Astoundingly obvious. And yet, in the midst of the day to day, I had completely lost this simple little truth, especially about my youngest child. Here’s what happened:
I treated one child the same as the other.
I remember reading in Wendy Mogel’s incredible parenting book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, that parenting is not a democracy. While we American parents wish for children who deeply value equality and democracy, we ought not to parent through democracy. There’s a reason children can’t participate in the democratic process – they aren’t developmentally ready for those kinds of choices.
When it comes to rules and household policies, I have upheld what I believe to be a healthy amount of authority with my children. But, when it came to catering to their needs, I mistakenly valued fairness over personality type. On the weekends, if we went on field trips, we went to a museum where both kids could have fun. At bedtime, each child got a story, a song (usually the shema), and a goodnight hug and kiss. When one child was offered a treat, the other was offered one deemed equally treat-worthy.
It all sounds fair, but unfortunately the fairness made each experience lesser for both kids. When we only went to places that both kids could enjoy “equally,” they both missed out on experiences that would be particularly powerful for their own needs and interests. One child needs a lot of attention at bedtime and the other can usually go with a quick story.
In the end, I had to recognize that my little one really pays the price in this “fairness” system. His big sister is a higher-needs child and so he usually ends up getting whatever we’ve determined is best for her. But, of course, he has his own needs that can’t be neglected, even when his tantrums are easier to manage.
I let my children dictate their relationship to me.
For a number of years now, our children grew consistently closer to their same-gendered parent. It seemed to begin when my son, my younger child, weaned himself. I had been thinking it was probably time to wean him at that point – he nursed only once a day right before bed – and it no longer seemed necessary. But I didn’t intend it to happen that particular night; it was Thanksgiving and we got home late. Why rock the boat when everyone’s so tired? So, I sat down to nurse him for what I believed would be the last, or nearly last, time and he literally shoved my breast away from his face.
It felt in that moment like he said, “I don’t need you anymore.” And for the next four years, he seemed out to prove it. It was a fight to get him to give me a hug or sit in my lap. He covered my face with his tiny hands when I leaned down to give him a goodnight kiss. When he fell down and skinned his knee, he wobbled right past me to climb into Daddy’s lap for comfort.
Around the time that my son started to separate himself from me, my daughter began attaching herself to me. Over the years, she became more and more glued to my side, much to my simultaneous delight and utter annoyance. She would throw a fit if I weren’t the one to put her to bed and she would always opt for Mom when we split up on the weekend for errands.
Rejection hurts, even from a toddler
Each child had selected their parent. I joked that my husband and I each had one kid – he had a son and I had a daughter. But, the joke masked my sadness and pain. I love both of my children more than I could have ever imagined possible. And rejection hurts, even from a toddler.
The astoundingly obvious insight came as I realized that my husband and I had both subconsciously responded to their subtle cues, as we would have done with adults. There have been plenty of situations in which I thought that I had made a good friend only to see that they slowly and quietly started to pull away. In these instances, I responded in kind, quietly backing away and giving them the space they seemed to desire.
But I felt ridiculous when I realized that I had let my four-year-old child dictate our relationship! Children seek boundaries. They push us often to find where those clear boundaries are. I let my own rejection issues get in the way of showing him my unconditional love. It shouldn’t really matter whether there is a preferred parent. He needs to grow up with the security that there both of his parents will love him no matter what, even if that means he doesn’t show love back.
One-on-one time matters more than the endless to-do list.
I started to take stock of the time I spent one-on-one with my son. Most of our time together in the past had been with his sister or lots of other people around. And then I realized my biggest fail of all. For the last two years, my daughter has gone to Sunday school where my husband works. Most Sunday mornings I spent alone with my son. And here’s how we used most of that time: grocery shopping. Sometimes there were other errands or laundry, but so rarely were we doing anything for him. #fail
We have years yet to mess it up and make it better and mess it up again.
When I started putting these pieces together, I had to admit to myself that I had let his sister’s needs dictate many parts of my son’s life. I had let his toddler personality push me away. Too often, I had put groceries and laundry ahead of quality time together. But, I also knew that he’s not yet five years old. We have decades left and so much more time to right these wrongs (while making a bunch more wrongs!).
I started putting these pieces all together while we were on vacation at the beach. (“Down the shore” as the locals say.) I took my son on a special pirate ship adventure – a boat decorated like a pirate ship with teenagers in costume leading an adventure to find the lost treasure. My son, for all that he was excited to be on a “real live pirate ship,” was also very nervous about the whole thing. He spent a significant amount of time on the boat ride in my lap with his chubby little hands wrapped tightly around my neck.
So many years left to mess it up
When we got back to the beach house, I started thinking about how I might show my preschooler that he mattered to me in ways that he needed. We walked to the playground together. I read him the story he wanted. They were small simple acts on his terms with the two of us alone. And very quickly, he started climbing into my lap and choosing mommy when we split up for errands. So many years left to mess it up some more and make it better, too.
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