Somewhere someone once said that you know who your real friends are because they will show up for you when things get hard. Everyone can be your friend when things are easy, but not everyone can do it when things are hard. Similarly, scholars discuss how people who love us most will never shame us when we reveal our vulnerabilities.
This theme comes up for me daily in parenting. Sometimes there will be days (even days in a row!) where everything is smooth like butter. The hours roll along warm and easy, like a perfect summer day. I love these days. These days are easy. It is easy to parent my children when they are being darling and angelic, falling asleep on cue and waking bright and happy. These days are one of the universal parental rewards—you never know when they will happen, but they do, and life is good.
There are days where things are not easy. These are days when the tears flow hard and fast, when tummies hurt and when things just feel off. This “off” feeling can manifest in many ways, but it always shows up as a distinct sense of imbalance and gives a ragged edge to the daily routines. Perhaps you can relate—sometimes there are nights or evenings or even mornings when a child seems not quite right. They are quick to cry, quick to fuss, quick to complain, or quick to just plain old melt down. The mitigation is challenging and the usual tools and fixes don’t seem to work.
And of course, there are days where we are off. Sometimes our patience is paper thin from the moment we wake up, leaving us with little to work with throughout the day. Sometimes we receive bad news, or sad news, or something we are awaiting is taking too long and it slowly frazzles our nerves. On these days, it can be a struggle to deal gracefully with our children. Perhaps we are the ones to snap too quickly or to shed the tears. A mommy-melt-down is not an ideal situation, but boy does it happen.
My husband was speaking to me the other day about our children, about loving them when it’s hard. It’s easy to love them when they are easy, he said. It’s when they’re being difficult that it’s hard. But this, he pointed out, is when it matters most. This is the real work, the tough work, the humbling labor of love.
Really, this is what our children will remember us for: how did we react when reactions were running high? Our children are like holographic representations of ourselves: our anger becomes their anger. With our children we are tethered through an efficient system of emotional osmosis. Even if we try to stop it, the absorption is inevitable. In moments of tremendous difficulty and struggle lies our greatest opportunity. Herein lies the moment to teach what really matters. Herein lies the opportunity to teach conflict-resolution, communication, self-love, self-awareness, and empathy.
It is not easy. In teaching our children these things, we are teaching ourselves at the same time. We call on our many tools—the deep breaths, the bottomless well of patience, our husbands, partners and friends—and slowly, laboriously, trudge through the jungle of wild, parental love.
Parenting isn’t always easy. We may find ourselves needing to say no a lot, or to turn down invitations that sounded nice so that we can stay home and repair a day’s damage. At times, we will have to let go of everything and watch as our day shifts into a completely unexpected direction. We might have to wrap our arms around a tiny, angry child and let go of our own anger at what might be broken or undone; instead we will do what we can to speak softly and quietly, to emanate love and safety so that our children can relax, realign, remember.