“I’m sorry for being so difficult lately…” I said to my husband last week. His response couldn’t have been more amazing.
I have been feeling less than awesome lately.
I do not like the version of myself that my husband and daughter have been getting. This version of me is overtired, over stretched, overwhelmed and completely, well, over it. This version of Lauren says yes too often, not because she wants to please, but because she really and truly wants to do it all.
(Why am I talking in the third person?)
And yet again, on this journey of motherhood, I have been taught an important lesson in surrender. But this time, it came with something extra.
As I rushed out the door on Tuesday for another appointment for my stomach, I apologized to Ted, “I’m so sorry for how I’ve been showing up lately. I’m just so tired. I’ve got too much on my plate, and I’m not handling it very well.”
He assured me it was ok, and – as he always is – was very loving and patient with me.
“I understand, dude. You’ve got a lot going on. I’m here for you,” was what he said. Not, “I’m glad you brought that up because you’ve been a real you-know-what lately!” and not, “Well you know what? I’ve got a lot on my plate too!” Nope. None of those responses (although completely valid) escaped from his mouth. His response was simple but filled with the compassion and patience I so desperately needed.
That in and of itself was enough to diffuse the guilt brewing in my heart, at least for the moment. He always shows up with that kind of love, respect and caring, especially when he can tell that I’m at my wits end. This week has been the most I’ve snapped at him I think in our entire marriage. And he hasn’t complained about it even once.
I know. Lucky. But is it really lucky? Or is Ted’s example what should be the norm? Isn’t it true that the times when we need the most compassion are the times when we are in distress?
Ted had a dinner out so I took Madison to the park last night to meet up with another mommy friend. I was venting to her (and hating the way I sounded with every word that came out of my mouth) about how Madison has been so difficult these last few weeks. Constantly clinging to me, only “letting” me be the one to put her down for naps and bedtime when she used to be so easy to put down (and now it’s taking 30-45 minutes of rocking her to sleep, with wake ups during the night that are reminiscent of when she was a newborn), whining more than I’ve ever experienced before, and generally being really, really demanding. My fellow mommy friend, Marie, was very understanding, as she always is. While her daughter played – and even came up to Madison and gave her a hug (to which Madison was like, “What the what?”), Marie reminded me of something incredibly important, something that Ted has been doing so well for me:
She told me that she read an article about how parents complain when their kids are being difficult. It’s understandable. You’re tired. You can’t communicate so you have no idea what’s going on with them or what the heck they want. Everything in your life seems to stop when your child is upset and not doing what you want them to do. At least, for me (it’s hard to cook dinner when you’re child is reaching up for you, butting her head against your legs, and screaming for you to pick her up). But why is it fair for us to only love our children’s behavior when it is good, and not when it is challenging? What message are we sending to our children when we get frustrated with them when they are having a challenging time, but love them up when they are being “good?” Aren’t we communicating to them that they are unlovable when they are being difficult, and lovable when they are on their best behavior?
I let that sink in as the memories of the last two weeks came rushing over me. I didn’t take my frustration out on Madison, which I’m proud of (though I did take it out on Ted, which wasn’t cool). I always kept my cool and spoke to her in a soothing and understanding voice. But she’s not stupid. And energetically, I have been frustrated. I’ve taken it out on Ted, who has been amazing at letting it bounce off him because he knows that – as with a child – this is just a phase.
And then it got me thinking about how this idea can be applied to all of us. I always wanted to “be a good kid” when I was growing up, so much so that it has transcended into my adult life: I never like to make any trouble, and feel incredibly guilty and shameful when I am less than perfect. And I know that my parents were understanding with me whenever I acted out, but I’m sure I could also feel their frustration whenever I did. We have been conditioned in society to punish when something is bad, and reward when something is good. Is that really helpful, though?
I’m not saying that bad or challenging behavior should be rewarded. And I’m certainly not advocating for anyone to be someone else’s punching bag. Children – and adults – need to operate within respectful boundaries. And when children are young, they need their parents to set limits for them because their developing brains really don’t know what’s best for them just yet (beyond hunger and thirst). But setting those limits doesn’t have to come with a side of anger and frustration. We can be firm and gentle. We can be firm and compassionate. I would argue that in most cases, compassion is a very effective tool in dealing with bad or challenging behavior. So rather than match shitty mood with shitty mood, a whine with a whine, fist with fist, might it be a better response to say, “I understand that you’re feeling frustrated right now and that you wouldn’t normally act out this way. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better or to help you get through this time?”
When we aren’t feeling well, it just adds insult to injury if our frustrated behavior is reflected back to us. But how good does it feel when we’re not feeling well, or when we are even downright being pains in the ass when someone meets us with love and understanding instead?
I can tell you from personal and very recent experience that understanding and love feels much, much better.
So thank you, Marie, for the amazing reminder to practice compassion and understanding as Madison goes through this developmental phase – not just with my words but also with my heart. Thank you, Ted, for not meeting my incessant nagging and complaints with anything other than love and patience. The husband of the year award is being hand crafted with your name on it as I type! And thank you, Madison, for being my greatest teacher, helping me to navigate the brightest and the darkest parts of myself so that I can be a better mother, and also, a better human.
With love, gratitude, and a heck of a lot more compassion,