Why Parenting Kids Age 4 And Under Is A Kind Of Madness – But Here’s 7 Glimpses Of Hope To Keep You Sane.
I am writing this post because I don’t want to be a fake. For months now I have been studying and reflecting on how to love my kids unconditionally. I have been getting ready to write, hopefully, a kickass blog series that will take us to the noble heights of parenting.
But if I post those without first posting this one, I’d be misrepresenting parenting. Parenting is not just love. It’s also lots of pain – especially when your kids are little.
Why parenting toddlers is such a challenging time of life.
Parents of kids aged 4 and under are in crisis. They’re undergoing a slow-motion trauma. Just yesterday, a granddad told me, ‘Finally my grandkids are all 5 and up, and my child is surfacing from the madness.’
Last year I wrote a blog that revealed the multi-layered hardship that parenting little kids is. It produces a multi-layered pain and strain that is simultaneously…
Physical: there’s exhaustion, sleeplessness and sickness.
Financial: there’s the skyrocketing costs of food, medicine, accessories, new car, maybe a new home; there’s the monthly experience of sinking – when there’s more month at the end of your money, especially if child-rearing called for a transition from DINK (double income no kids) to SINC (single income no cash).
Marital: as stress increases and energy decreases there’s sexlessness, less time and attention for each other, more bickering and blaming – all of which is deleterious to marriage health.
Social: few friendships go forward, most either go backwards or are at best maintained.
Spiritual: if you’re spiritually orientated, maybe you can relate: the stress and pressure tends to erode the space to reflect and read that are essential to a vital relationship with God.
Professional: when home is stressful, we bring the bluntest version of ourselves to work.
Logistical: there’s a typhoon-hit house, all the prep time needed to leave the house (add 30 minutes for each child) – but why bother going anywhere, when few outings can possibly give us more energy than they consume?’
Emotional: the cocktail-mix of these pains and strains leads to a toxic froth of negative emotions, such as feelings of being bedraggled, empty, discouraged, frustrated, overwhelmed and inadequate; also our kids’ volatile emotions tend to activate our own.
These factors compound upon each other as a kind of madness – not continuously but often enough to warrant the use of the word.
That’s why I wrote that blog. Well, just because I articulated the struggle doesn’t mean I have transcended parenting as torment and suffering. I wish.
Sure I have times of grandeur on the mountaintop moments of parenting, when parenting is the best thing in the world. Moments when I feel called, even specially chosen, to parent. When I feel tremendous insight about parenting. But very often, like now, I am in the trenches, hand-grenades flying overhead, just hanging on for dear life.
To persuade you, let me give you an all-too-common snapshot of the madness and the mayhem that is parenting little lives. Let me pick out incidents in the last 24 hours of my life. Then 7 glimpses of hope for fellow-sufferers.
A snapshot of the trenches.
Yesterday I come home early from work, sick with flu. I am the final person in my family of seven to fall at the foot of this flu-virus. And although you moms might tease us dads for saying this, as the dude I really have it the worst, with science to back my claim. I feel terrible, miserable and bone-tired. So I creep away to have a nap. An hour later, Julie wakes me up. She needs to go get meds for the twins, and then pick up Eli.
Left with four kids under five to look after, and ready to pay back for the hour nap, I tell myself I’ve got this one. Wishful thinking…
Somehow, thinking the kids are under control, I attend to a couple of urgent work emails. A rookie error! It never works. Deep in keyboard-clicking thought, I am oblivious to the hurricane unfurling its horrors upon our house…
The neglected twins (19 mnths old) have stepped into destroyer mode. 50 crayons are scattered across the floor. Rice Crispies by the 1000s are sprinkled across the kitchen, with the entire contents of our plastics cupboard intermingled. Julie’s toiletry box is turned upside down in our bathroom. A permanent marker makes its forever mark on two chairs. Streaming snot pours from 8 little nostrils.
By the time I’m snapped out of my badly mistimed attempt at work, I have an inconsolable, sick Charlie who cries in my arms and refuses to be put down. The house looks like it’s been overtaken by wolves. And the 3 other kids just need attention, and a lot of it. Somehow out of my emptiness, I am meant to fill them.
Sick, tired and full of self pity, I phone Julie and let her listen in on the howls in the background. When she comes home, I pass her still-crying Charlie. For the next 2 hours, we muddle through eating, feeding, bathing, negotiating and juggling kids – with short little interval missions in pursuit of missing socks, hiding dry towels, vanished syringes and the right medicine for each patient.
It gets darker in the night.
Eli (7) and Fynn (5) ask for the latest story episode I promised. I drag my sore throat and non-existent imagination across the glass-field of the next part of the story. Julie, in a feat of brilliance, has put the twins down, and has read to Ivy (who is still wide awake from an afternoon nap we failed to intercept).
Late once again, Julie runs to the car for a very rare girls-night out. Ivy runs after her, screaming she wants to go too. I’m also a girl! I hold her thrashing 3-year old body in my arms, and wave goodbye as Julie reverses out the garage. Ivy is devastated.
The next 2 and a half hours consist of me trying to watch a series, with Ivy drifting off next to me on the couch, and me running between the twins whose stuffy nose and sore throats make sleep impossible.
Charlie is the worst – he bellows for his mom for almost an hour. When she finally gets home, I grunt at her, and put the crybaby in her arms. We decide that I will sleep in the lounge and he and Julie will sleep in our bed. I’m relieved to be honest, but I feel awful with sickness. It’s 10pm.
A midnight cry from Fynn (sore tummy), and Ivy wetting her bed an hour later ensure that deep sleep evades us still. By 2am, I’m exhausted but too irritated to sleep. Julie’s bed is littered with small, coughing people.
I climb back into my makeshift bed in the lounge. In the early hours of the morning, I scorn the fact that I ever wanted to start an inspiring and helpful parenting blog. What can I honestly tell people? There are times in the trenches when it seems there’s little to no meaning in the suffering. It’s just plain hard, that’s all it is.
It’s then that I tell myself when I wake up I will write this post.
But some hours have passed. It’s daylight now. Hope has returned. The madness has subsided. And as I drive a chirpy Eli to school, with a breath of fresh air, I think of hopeful things I can say to other parents of little kids – all based on admittedly belated insights from the oh-so-common trauma of the previous 16 hours…
7 Glimpses of magic in the midst of the madness.
The very same trenches that make you vulnerable to artillery, are the ones into which sunshine can come freely pouring in.
1. You are not alone in your suffering.
You have not been singled out for some kind of special suffering. For millennia, parents of little kids have lived in a state of nose-dive.
Your suffering might not be special, but it still is suffering. Life, especially this season of life, is difficult. Denying it’s hardship is seriously disempowering, because it guarantees you will feel injustice and shock each time missiles fly overhead. But if you will call the anguish what it is, then you can start adjusting expectations, and be ready when the battle intensifies. Some parents – those who are unusually lucky or competent – are spared much of this suffering that most of us experience. I am happy for you, and I wish I was you, but I still contend that it’s better to expect distress and be surprised by ease, than visa versa. So let me harp on about how hard it is.
Another thought, and I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but your and my parental suffering is quite likely not the worst. I think of single parents who don’t have a spouse to angrily call, or an extra pair of arms to dump a crying child into. I think of parents in freezing shacks experiencing the same thing last night with their kids – but no medicine, no chance to leave work early, no TV show to watch. I especially think of parents, like my mom, who have lost a child (my brother) tragically.
2. You will forget the pain.
Someone asked me today how hard it was with Eli and Fynn. I can’t remember, I said. In fact, most of the comfort I have received in parenting little kids has not come from parents of older children. In the main they look at me quizzically. It’s other parents who are currently in the trenches that can empathize. Why is this? I can think of two reasons…
Research reveals that our memories tend to exaggerate the good times, and gloss over the bad times. This is true of holidays – how many of us have had a stressful holiday in terms of hour by hour existence, but when we got back we can barely recollect the stress, only the good memories. The same phenomena happens with early-stage parenting I think.
But probably the biggest factor is that when you have a bad night, long-term memory-making in both the preceding and following day are blocked. Unlike other kinds of pain, toddler-borne pain is only experienced in the moment, not as much in our memory. Mother Nature, it seems, mercifully serves up an amnesiac by coupling the agony with sleeplessness.
3. There can be moments of connection in the midst of it all.
As I re-read my rendition of last night, I realized I skipped over many magical moments woven into the nightmare. Somehow in the middle of all of it, I hugged Julie and told her I loved her and she told me the same.
Straight after dinner, we put some happy music on and I danced with Eli and I had a flashback to my dad dancing with me at the same age, and I felt a connection to my long-deceased dad, and the wonderfulness of my dad’s love to me, flowing through me to my son.
At one point I belly-laughed as Sam who, out of the scattered toiletries, ripped open a pack of tampons, and came through to me nonchalantly carrying one in his mouth – cigar-style!
4. Be grateful for all the help you receive.
To be fair, usually it is Julie at home, not me. Last night I gained fresh appreciation for my wife who routinely suffers in my absence and yet doesn’t feel the need to blog about it. And I am grateful for Michelle, my mom and mom-in-law, who often help out in the crazy hours (not hour), but last night couldn’t. Next time I see them I will thank them profusely!
Just as we reached the age of finally holding up our trophy of independent self-sufficiency, having kids drives us to a much better way of life: a life of interdependent community, a life where we are able to not just give but also receive help.
5. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, and better.
Crush grapes and you get wine. Put coal under immense pressure and you get diamonds. This kind of run-of-the-mill suffering built into the life-span of the reproducing adult is exactly what is required to make us better people.
Affliction tends to make us less shallow. More grateful for the little things. More robust when future hardships come. More sensitive to the trials of others. Most importantly, in suffering as a parent, we get a deeper understanding that love always costs us something. We realize that our kids cannot be lifted up if we aren’t willing to go down in some ways. My willingness to embrace the pain is itself a manifestation of my love, a love which is purified and deepened in the suffering.
6. Resist the urge to shout at or throttle your kids.
I came so close to shouting at Sam, to being too rough with Charlie, and to whacking Ivy! Somehow I didn’t. In the moment the temptation to let loose and the actual doing it seem like the same thing. But this morning I realize they are world’s apart.
What if I had handed myself over to those pain-induced impulses to try return some pain to the causers of my pain? It would have left a mark on their psyche and a deposit of mistrust in my children towards me. (And just so you know, Julie and I stopped smacking our kids a year or two ago – I will tell you why in a future blog.)
7. The sun will come up tomorrow.
Several times in my life a verse from the Bible has whispered hope into me: ‘Though weeping lasts for the night, joy will come in the morning.’ It’s echoed in Annie’s song, ‘The sun will come up tomorrow.’
As crazy and dark as these recent hours of hardship have been, and these nascent years of parenting, I write this with sun streaming in through the window. Despite the raging storms that parenting has brought into my life, I am still alive. My kids are still alive. My love for my kids is still alive. My faith, my marriage – still alive. The sun has outlasted each storm.
My youngest kids are 3 and 1, but soon enough they will be older, and a little more self-contained and self-sustained. Like Fynn and Eli now are. These psychotic years of earliest childhood – they too shall pass.
But I must be careful not to wish this mad season away, because there are threads of magic woven in that will not only keep me sane, but will never be repeated again. As End Asner put it, ‘Parenting is part joy and part guerilla warfare.’ I’m discovering once again that we can’t have one part without the other.
Also published on Medium.