Bad Feelings Don’t Make You A Bad Parent.
I remember vividly the day I stopped a half-second short of slamming my two-year-old into the wall. He had just hurt the baby, and not for the first time. I was livid. I was almost out of control.
And after I caught myself, I was scared. Very scared. I’m not sure I would have said, that day, that I was angry. Or that I felt upset. What happened to me came faster than anything that would have a name. I had no idea what came over me.
I was happy to be a mom. Happier still to have two beautiful sons. Happy to be caring for them. It was what I wanted, what I’d looked forward to. But there were these problematic moments when I was something else. I was ready to hurt or harm anyone—even my own child—who threatened my baby.
I didn’t know, even after I’d gone through that dark day, that I had feelings other than happiness about parenting. Then one day, in the middle of that “Mommy can be touchy” period, a woman I had just met asked me, “What’s it like being a mother?” She wasn’t a mom, and wanted to know. I burst into sobs right then and there. She was kind, and her innocent question had somehow put a big crack in my emotional dam.
Out spilled grief, and lots of it. I told her that I was appalled at my own behavior. I was frightened at the violence I saw coming out of me. I was reminding myself of my own father’s worst moments in parenting. I was doing things I vowed I would never do. And now, heavens! I was sobbing in the arms of a stranger. That’s when I began to know that I had some feelings, other than love, about parenting. Until then, I couldn’t notice what stirred beneath my “I’m a good mom and I love parenting” suit, a suit that I intended to fit me, but didn’t quite when my stress level was high.
In fact, I was a pretty good mom and I didn’t always love parenting. There were moments when it was hard, lonely, confusing, frustrating, isolating, maddening. I wasn’t letting myself notice these feelings, because I took it to be my job to love parenting, and I wasn’t going to sit down on the job. As soon as someone asked how I was, though, with a kind heart and the openness it takes to listen, there they were. My feelings. Many of them, escaping like the wild and unnamed but desperate things they were.When I then took the chance to explore what it’s like to exchange listening time with another parent, I came to understand. Of course, I had feelings! Everyone does! When there’s a listener, one finally has the resource to notice them. The range of feelings that went through me every day went from sunny and mild to passionate and electric, with colorful stops in between. My children had these enormous emotional swings, and heavens! So did I!
Slowly, with a listener, a parent can sort out where the feelings come from.
As I found out, many times our strong feelings come from childhood, from the moments our own parents got caught up in strife and stress, and we, little children that we were, didn’t know what to do. These feelings, long-held and tightly guarded, finally release when you have a listener. Crying or laughing or storming them away gives us the chance to gain fuller control over how we parent, and how well we show our love.
Our feelings aren’t us.
Our feelings are a historical record of what has happened to us, of wounds still waiting to heal. They’re like tree rings—they show what has happened to us, but the living, creative, loving part of us is elsewhere. Our feelings come from how we were treated, and how children of our age and circumstances were treated back in the day. Our feelings want out. Whatever they are—worries, harshness, selfishness, hurt, helplessness, resentment, anger—they are not us, and they want out. We try to keep them corralled, but at the end of our patience, they spill out at our children and others we love. With a listener there to respect and offer warmth to us, our feelings find a much better path out. With a listener, we can notice them, we can show them, we can release them. We can get past the damper they put our love.
We are good parents.
But we don’t have to love parenting. We get to feel any way about it that bubbles to the surface. And a good listener helps us to release those feelings. Then, we can be more ourselves, our warm, sunny, hopeful, playful selves, all the better to parent.
Compliments Hand in Hand, Palo Alto, CA, USA. www.handinhandparenting.org
You might also like "Listening Partnerships for Parents", one of a set of Listening to Children e-Booklets.