Friday, February 4, 2011

The Things Our Children Teach Us

There are some things that words are never enough for. Being a mother, I find, falls into this category.

I can never find words big enough, or eloquent enough, or raw enough to adequately describe the kaleidoscope of emotions we daily feel as parents... the awareness of the tension we walk between being our children's everything and being their downfall... the terrible burden of knowing that the decisions we make on the fly, everyday, have such far-reaching impact on the people our children are and will become... the intense joy, delight and awe they inspire, as well as the pain, stress and exhaustion they seem to create.

Yesterday, in our house, was a big day. Miya went to three year old kindy for the first time. She has ached for this moment for many, many months, and despite my concern that the day's eventual and much built-up arrival would overwhelm her and send her back into her shell, she handled it with great poise and excitement. (so did I - no tears!)

This is the point in the story that I come unstuck. I'm not sure how to write about our afternoon without painting a picture of my daughter that I know is not true of her nature 99% of the time. We had tears, we had tantrums and it was incredibly difficult to find a way through them. Miya was so overwhelmed by her tiredness, her emotions and all the new things she had taken in during the day, she became almost volcanic. Reason flew out the window, and calm did not prevail.

Tantrums are not a new thing in our house. I wince when I look back on my childless self, observing children throwing tantrums, and remember all the sentences starting with "When I have children..." that I naively preened myself with. Tantrums are a normal part of development for many, many children and a rite of passage for their parents.

Yesterday, though, tested me.... and I failed. For so long, Nathan and I have disciplined in a kind of 'colour by numbers' way... we had our formula and we stuck to it. It involves a hierarchy of 'consequences' and we thought it worked for us. Friends were impressed by our consistency, members of older generations approved of the strictness of our methods. But if it truly worked, why were the same behaviours reappearing, sometimes many times a day? Why did I feel as though I was letting my children, and myself, down? Why did disciplining our children feel like constantly engaging in battle?

Miya is three. Just three. I expect so much from her, as my eldest, and forgot about the things she needs from me. I am her mother, a safe place for her, a nurturing presence in her life. When I 'engage in battle', however,  I am none of these things. When she is challenging, it is because she is challenged - by learning something new, feeling things that overwhelm or confuse her, by boundaries that are just made for testing, by learning where she fits in. It is my place to help her navigate these things, learn alternative ways of dealing with things, seek sanctuary when she needs it. I am doing her no service by reinforcing unhealthy ways of relating or expressing herself (by smacking in response to violence, by yelling in response to rudeness, by isolation in response to testing limitations.)

As a teacher, I would have felt that I was doing a poor job if my 'time out space' was in constant use, or if a particular child was always 'in trouble'. It is my job to diffuse, to gently correct, to support, to teach. Why is this different now that I am a parent? Somewhere along the line I have fallen into the trap of believing that 'negative' behaviours must be punished, rather than investing time into showing my children different ways of coping with their experiences and expressing their needs and wants.

Once again, I read back on this and feel that words have not been enough. I can't describe the pain I have felt since yesterday - pain at every punch my beautiful baby landed on my throat, chest and arms; pain at every thud as she threw herself at the closed door of her bedroom; pain at the sound of her hoarse little voice, her throat sore from endless screaming; pain as I unloaded my feelings on Facebook (I know, I know, how silly and selfish of me) and realised that all I had done is misinform people that my child is a monster; pain as I recall the look my child gave me when I reacted in anger, as if I was a stranger that she was wary of; pain as I realised that she is seeking something from me that I have not been giving her, and that after all the fighting, after all that, she still just wanted to curl up in my lap and be held. Why had I not done that from the beginning?

Gentle, slow, simple. This is how I live my life. This, now, is how I intend to parent.



  1. beautiful writing. and oh so well said! thanks for sharing Nicole. lots to learn!
    Lidia xxx

  2. Hi Nic.... tough times eh? Learning to be a parent is a very tough call. You write so well about what we all feel even when our children are grown! Sometimes we are so close to the issue and the emotion that to step back and assess the situation as a third party would is just impossible. This is why teachers can do the things they do with children and we parents struggle 'in the moment' only to reflect afterward about the ways we could have tackled things differently. Don't be hard on yourself ... you and Nath are doing a fabulous job. Jenny. xo

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, Lidia and Jenny - its a hard gig, this one! Sometimes it gets the better of me, and other days, like today, its truly the very best job in the world.


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