I was a shitty parent of toddlers. I was irritated, bored and reactive. I had no patience for my children’s efforts to put on their own shoes or zip up their own coats. I was always in a hurry to move on to the next activity, annoyed by their slowness. I found sitting on the carpet doing puzzles or playing games completely mind-numbing. I literally lost my temper every time my kids spilled their cups of water on the table. I did almost everything Dr. Becky tells you not to.
When my kids were little, a lot of my day was spent thinking about when I would be done with dinner/bathtime/bedtime so I could watch TV or read a book. I constantly felt like I was faking my enthusiasm for whatever my kids were doing, while below the surface was seething with a mixture of annoyance and exhaustion. Layered above was my guilt for not “savoring every moment,” as all the well-meaning septuagenarians in the grocery store queue urged me to do. As I smiled outwardly and nodded to their well-meaning advice, my inner voice wanted to tell them to fuck right away.
So it may not surprise you to learn that I, heavily pregnant with my fourth child when my others were seven and under, found myself in a therapist’s office. I was there because, frankly, I was wondering how the hell I was going to survive the next 40 years. Overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for another being who needed his diaper changed, his swing pushed, his little teeth brushed, I was consumed with deep shame at simply making the gesture of raising my children without a burst of joyful exuberance.
What the therapist (who looked like the well-meaning ladies in the grocery store queue) told me changed my life forever. “Vanessa, different people are good parents at different stages of their children’s lives. Some people are wonderful with babies and terrible with teenagers. Some people miss toddlers but love adult children. You have to give yourself permission not to love every second or every stage of your children’s lives.
It was as if she had taken an unbearable weight from my shoulders and put it down next to me so that I could continue my long journey. I felt absolved of my parental sins—my boredom, my impatience, my anger, my irritation—and freed to start over the next day, freed from my guilt and shame. The therapist offered me a fresh start by giving me permission to reimagine myself as a parent at each stage of my children’s development.
Here’s the fun thing. I didn’t like raising toddlers, but I love raising tweens and teens. Developmental psychologists will tell you that these are similar stages in many ways – rapid brain development, individuation, temper tantrums – but since my toddlers didn’t have much language, life was fraught with frustration and slight of lovely toddlers. My teenagers are expressive and funny as hell, which makes up for the tougher stuff – mood swings, shitty decision-making, pungent smells.
I recently interviewed Dr. Tina Payne Bryson for The puberty podcast and she explained that “history is not fate” – an important concept in her book with Dan Siegel, The power to show off. What she means by this is twofold. First, our personal histories, that is, the way we were brought up, need not dictate how we take care of our own children. And two, how we parented yesterday or last year need not dictate how we parent today or next month. Every day we have the opportunity to do things differently (and maybe even better) than in the past.
So for those of you who are just trying to get through each day, not doing a spectacular job, not loving every second, and most importantly not savoring the moment, I offer you the lifeline that was offered to me: your child will move on to a new stage and with them, you will have the opportunity to reinvent yourself as a parent. At every turn you have an unfulfilled potential to become better, more loving, more patient, more present than you were before. And when things get dark, just remember: history is not fate – tomorrow is a new day.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The puberty podcast; the founder of dynamo girl, a company that uses sports and puberty education to empower children; and the author of Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, reflections on the education of adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.