Permission to get shockingly real about parenting small kids?
It’s hard. Much harder than you can imagine. Much, much harder.
A few months ago a friend of mine who is a professional therapist said, ‘A family with a kid under the age of 3 is in crisis mode.’ At first I thought that was a bit negative. Upon reflection, I conclude they’re understating it.
Yesterday someone said to me, ‘My youngest just turned 4. I’m starting to think we might be coming out of it. ’ I didn’t need to ask what ‘it’ was. She clearly meant the chaos. The crisis. The crazy zone.
My experience confirms that parenting infants and toddlers puts you under a kind of constant pressure that nothing else in life comes close to matching. Bar perhaps being in the front line of a war in which you’re never ever off-duty, your ammo is running out and the enemy is slowly gaining ground. To be fair, Julie and my situation of having five kids in six impossibly short years only compounds this reality, but treat me as a magnification of what is still there for parents of fewer kids. (Besides, I know, I once had fewer kids.)
Of course there’s more to parenting nascent ones than it being hard. That’s what all the photos on Facebook are about – the sweetest things in the world, they are. Your heart walking around in someone else’s body. I get that, and it keeps me going.
However, in this post I thought I would get real about the other (dark) side we don’t talk about so often. It’s no good running a marathon, and trying to kid yourself that the uphills are wonderful. Facing the fact of the agonizing incline is necessary if you’re going to make it to the finish line.
As for parents whose kids are all four+, looking back from your hard-earned view, it’s amazing how you tend to forget the pain. (One aspect of trauma is that you tend to forget the event itself, a kind of self-protective amnesia, I think.)
All that to say, would you mind if I get very real? Just so that I never forget, and maybe to help those of you who think something’s wrong with you as you suffer the little ones.
1. Julie and I are experiencing the PHYSICAL strain of parenting. We’re exhausted. Of late, I get about 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night, but here’s the catch: it’s broken by the need to get out of bed and deal with a crying or calling kid, multiple times per night.
Whether it’s a nightmare, a nighttime wee, a lost dummy or just a cry for reassurance, the net result equals two very tired parents. At 4:30am this morning I got head-butted by my sweet lullaby of a 2-year-old Ivy as she was waking up out of a nightmare. Unsatisfied that I was not-the-Mama, she ran down the dark passageway shouting for Julie, waking up the other kids. It’s impossible to fall asleep any time soon after that kind of ill-treatment from someone I love. (By the way, this assault provoked me to write this post an hour later.)
Perhaps the sleeplessness is the real, foundational problem: all the other strains would be more manageable if our bodies and brains weren’t yearning for the unconscious state. Thankfully, we can grab an afternoon nap. Not.
And sickness. You know those new viruses that sweep the globe every year? I’m beginning to suspect that the original viral mutation of at least 6 of them happened in my house. Families with little kids turn an ordinary flu that would set back a single person a few days, into a plague that loops through an entire family, two or three times – lasting a month on average, sinking us parents into our own mini-Great Depression. (Sick kids wake up a lot more, and sick parents need sleep if they are to shake off the virus they got from their kids.) In the past five years, I have gotten more colds, flu’s and tummy bugs than in the preceding decade. I am already dreading next winter, and this winter isn’t even done yet.
2. We have endured the FINANCIAL strain of parenting. Having kids has caused Julie and I to fork out enough for a home more suitable for a family (bigger, garden, near a decent school), a bigger car, domestic help and (gulp!) educational fees. Then there’s the medical bills. For example, little Charlie (10 months) has cost us about 5k in doctor’s bills and medicines over the last 3 months. Next week he goes in for surgery to get grommets.
There’s also more mouths to feed. I spoke to a single dad in the beach-front parking lot of my surf spot the other day. He has one kid. He said, ‘Terran, I just got back from the shop. I am shocked by how much it costs to feed my little family. How on earth do you feed yours?’ By the time they’re two they’re eating almost as much as I do on some occasions. All these new costs are often augmented by a diminished income. In our case, Julie’s earning power went down (up until now she’s been a pay-by-the-job, part-time freelancer) at the very moment our costs escalated. That’s pressure.
3. There’s the MARITAL strain of parenting. On our better days Julie and I team together like Batman and Robin, but on our more stressed days, we turn on each other. Beat down people tend to beat others down if they’re not careful. In the nights, we keep count of how many times we got out of bed, and when our number is higher, ‘gently’ nudge the other person who is pretending to be sleeping through the baby cry. By day, we play the ‘who is suffering more’ card, and sometimes have a go at each other verbally in front of these not-yet-pyschologically-scarred kids. Yes, we know how damaging it is upon a young child’s psyche to see mom and dad at each other. But the guilt doesn’t have the power to stop the bickering.
There’s also little and sometimes weeks of no sex. Since it’s public knowledge that Julie and I have had sex at least five times, I feel the liberty to make this point. Pregnancy means less sex. Birth-recovery means no sex. And the little sleep assassins we then spend years tirelessly running after, trying to raise well and who leave a trail of mess and noise behind them, well, it all somehow works against the prospect of a red-hot sex life. Stress and exhaustion work against one’s sexual capacities. As for the rare moments when the stars align, I am thankful that the Flight of the Conchords are right: two minutes in heaven really is better than no minutes in heaven.
4. There’s the SOCIAL strain. Friendships go into maintenance-mode. We have hardly anyone round. For all kinds of reasons: our house is a mess, our own emotional margin to socialize is fraying thin, we’re tired, our kids are sick. We keep telling ourselves that on the day we stabilize, we’ll open diaries and think who to invite over for a meal. That day is not today.
5. There’s the SPIRITUAL strain. Maybe you can’t relate, but since I was a teen, early mornings have been a sacred time for me to tune into God so that I can keep sensitive to his promptings and stay within reach of his power and guidance throughout the day. Now that I need this kind of spiritual alertness and empowering more than ever, I seldom get the time that I need. I know God understands and loves me anyway. But I also know that not spending this daily time with God tends to put me out of frequency with the Spirit’s energies and nudges, setting me up for yet further stress-inducing errors of judgment and lapses of sanity.
6. There’s PROFESSIONAL strain. In the last decade, I have had two notably under-performing years in my work-life. My lack of sharpness has been evidenced in emails not responded to quickly enough, under-preparedness for critical meetings, increased strain from less quality attention to fellow-workers, and a tendency to lose composure when leading people requires that I stay calm. Those two years just happen to be the ones that immediately followed the birth of my third, and now the birth of my twins. (Would you let a pilot fly you if you knew he was bottle-feeding one baby, while trying to tame a volcanic tantrum in a toddler running amok in the cockpit, threatening to push ‘eject’? My policy: smile and wave boys.)
7. There’s LOGISTICAL strain. Our house is a mess almost all the time. Julie and I are both not fanatical when it comes to neatness, but we start to come undone in the constant mess and chaos that besieges us. The tiny lego pieces you step on in the most unlikely of places, the countless tooth brushes, toys and toilet rolls fished out of toilets, the half-eaten apples in-between the couch cushions. Trying to keep a kid-inhabited house tidy is like trying to shovel snow while it snows. As for leaving house as a family: for every kid you have, add another 30 minutes to get-ready time. (For our first few months after the twins came, I was okay with us not having a car big enough for seven. I thought to myself, ‘Where can we go with this many kids? And when we get there, what will we do other than continually count to five to check none have escaped, been kidnapped or are doing something illegal?’ So we just stayed at home.)
Air travel is another story. The fact that kids under-2 fly free makes bargain-hunters like me want to capitalize upon this fleeting opportunity. Bait for us fools. We just flew our family to another part of the country. It was as simple as one, two, three. One day of packing. Two cars to take us to the airport. Three tons of stuff. You have never seen people in a plane praying as much as when we queue in. ‘God, please no! Not next to me! No.’ When I notice enough people doing the count, and mouthing a silent, freaked-out ‘five kids’ to the person they just elbowed, I usually break the ice with one of my two jokes: ‘Yes, everyone. There are five! Our TV was broken’ or ‘Who’s the lucky person who gets to sit next to us?’ The cabin laughter at that moment helped ease the obvious tension.
8. There’s EMOTIONAL strain. Parenting introduces a panoply of negative emotions that are new to the life traveller: new fears and anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, the crippling curse of comparison, and post-natal depression for some moms. In my view the most emotion-intensifying thing about family life is that we tend to absorb each other’s emotions. If we were all emotionally self-contained units, that would be easier. But as it is, every tantrum and tear and sibling-tiff emits an emotional toxin that the try-hard parents tend to take-in to their tender hearts. Our kids bounce back remarkably, but we parents, the emotional filters, are left with the residue. Keeping your head while all those around you lose theirs is easier said that done. I once came across a best-selling book on parenting titled ‘Keep calm and parent on.’ It’s one of those titles that says so much, you don’t even need to read the book. That title is probably the best advice. But also, the most unachievable. It’s like telling a person who is tumbling down a mountainside to keep calm and enjoy the ride.
My point? Parenting the youngest of humanity is not for the fainthearted. It’s brutal at times. It’s incessant in its challenges. To complicate it all, these strains – physical, social, financial, spiritual, etc – have a domino-effect, one causing or exacerbating the other. The result: life in a fully-fledged crisis mode. A trauma being inflicted in slow motion.
It’s true. Parents of little lives are in nose-dive.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. Some of you have it much harder. I think of parents who lose their income, or single parents, or kids with severe disabilities. You guys are the masters of the universe. We are in awe of you. Some of you don’t have it as hard. The thing so many parents say to us is, ‘You know, when Lee and I are freaking out as parents, we think of you with five, and that helps us. So thank you!’ Glad we could help.
Do I have any perspective to share for the fellow-traumatized? Other than ‘Keep calm and parent on’? For starters, one thing I can say: You Are Not The Only One. Parenting is hard for almost all of us. The other thing I can say is that You Are Not Alone. A small verse hidden in the massive book of Isaiah says God gently carries those who carry their young. It has helped Julie and me when we’ve been at our lowest. It reminds us there’s a Parent in heaven who’s there for you as you parent another. Our vulnerability, as we rear the most vulnerable, catches the loving attention of One Above. We might feel alone, but in reality there’s a Heartbeat as close to you as your child is to yours.
Also published on Medium.