Parents hear so often about how important it is to support our children’s emotional needs, and that we must serve as their social and emotional coaches. The role of the parent is to help children become more resilient, teach them coping skills, help them learn to regulate. But what I notice about being a parent and supporting others in this role is that children so often are teaching US about understanding and expressing OUR feelings, as well as helping us to be more aware of what challenges us in our daily lives. They quickly discover what triggers sometimes deeply buried hurt, shame, and disappointment which we are then forced to confront and manage in our own adult lives. This is the true and unexpected gift of being a parent.
As adults before having a family, most of us have learned how to function pretty successfully in the world, even if we experienced a stressful or dysfunctional childhood. We become educated and pursue careers, we nurture relationships, and find life partners. We feel capable, we manage our frustrations and disappointments, and we channel our anger through maturity, exercise, meditation, and sometimes therapy.
Then, we have children—and for many of us we are brought to our knees! When they are babies and we are sleep deprived, we barely manage to take care of ourselves and be civil to our partners. Instead of logic to solve problems we do anything we can in the moment to get our baby to stop crying and eke out a few more minutes of calm or sleep. We rage, we cry, we despair—and ask ourselves what have I become?
Some parents are lucky however and sail through the baby stage relatively smoothly, feeling very confident about their skills because their child eats, sleeps, and smiles. But then the baby becomes a toddler and then a preschooler—and starts to throw food, says “no” to our requests, has tantrums in the middle of the store with a cart full of groceries, hits and bites. Or we have two or more children who bicker and fight with one another, who don’t listen, who create chaos in our homes—and we find ourselves feeling a level of anger and frustration that we haven’t experienced since our own childhood.
How can these tiny beings create these feelings in us? Where did this come from? We did not have children in order to feel angry or guilty, out of control and confused. Many parents ask “Who is this person I brought into the world, and what have I become?”
When we reach this point as a parent we can discover that our children do not exist to please us, to be like us, or to fulfill our dreams. Our children are unique individuals who are struggling for independence and a sense of self from the moment of birth. They are wired to be in the here and now, to explore, to discover, and to feel the vast range of human emotions.
When we can join them on this journey and let go of our desire to control what we cannot, we can learn so much from their world view as well as appreciate their unique contribution to the world. We discover that we must embrace and practice mindfulness: to slow down and be present in the now, to see situations from different perspectives, to remove judgment, to allow differences and mistakes. We learn to be kind to ourselves, to take the time to reflect and expand our thinking, and to breathe deeply.
My son is grown up now and leading his own independent life, but I still marvel at and feel grateful every day for the many lessons I learned from him, the self-awareness I was forced to embrace, and the “review sessions” he and my daughter-in-law both continue to provide. This is the unexpected gift of being a parent.
Karen Friedland-Brown, MA, is the Director of Parents Place on the Peninsula.