So there you were, what seems like lifetimes ago, idly daydreaming about how great parenthood would be someday. Your mind drifted through thoughts of pleasantly pushing a gorgeous, smiling child on a swing, then meandering around a pond with a little towhead in hand, pointing out interesting things while she hangs on your every word. At night, you’d be enjoying a glass of wine while leisurely bathing prince charming or tucking your little princess into bed, promptly after two stories and one song so you can go about the rest of your evening and RELAX.
Yeah…..not the reality you got, huh? Not even close.
Instead, that trip to the park begins with your kid blatantly knocking somebody else’s gorgeous, smiling child right off the swing, so he can take over the hot commodity of the park. No sooner have you finished scolding him, before you find yourself racing to catch said child, who is now sprinting full force to the pond, bent on jumping in so he can "catch the ducks." You struggle to get either prince charming IN the bath or OUT of the bath – because on any given day it’s gonna be one or the other (or maybe even both). And, finally, there you are, two full hours AFTER bedtime (and counting!) with maybe part of the pajamas on, at least 5 trips to the bathroom down, 2 snacks in, one glass of water, several stories and every song you know sung at least once and, TA-DA!!! That little face peeks at you from around the corner, quoting the classics - “I can’t sleep!”, “I want to stay with yoooou!”, “I’m afraid!”, or simply smiling with an impish giggle.
You didn’t realize before you had kids that they could have the personalities of Jim Carey and a Monster Truck mixed together. You didn’t realize they could be as manipulative as a soap opera star or as swift to fearfully pull themselves into their shell as a sea turtle staring at a shark. You never imagined a child so impulsive and quick to leap outside of their own common sense to risky, dangerous or disruptive behaviors, a true aspiring Evel Knievel! You never thought of a child who, although smart and (in your eyes) funny, could struggle getting along with people and making friends. They are complicated and complex and there is no way we were ready for all they bring to the table. Even after we have a chance to re-focus on who they are, we didn’t ever dream of the things life would touch them with (health issues, grief, bullying, trauma, etc.), that can make their days and challenges - and therefore ours - even more difficult.
Sometimes we see our kids fully and completely...and sometimes we struggle. When we’re in the midst of the struggles it is very easy to see “the issue.” We see the impulsivity and lack of self-control inherent in ADHD as Our Child. We see the rigid thinking and low frustration tolerance of Autism as Our Child. We zero in on manipulative personality characteristics as Our Child, as well as personality differences from us that just simply rub us the wrong way as Our Child. I know how this feels and I know how much it hurts. It is difficult to not allow these things to stand out like a sore thumb and overshadow the other sides of the picture. It is hard to know how to manage things about a person that you may not relate to and also don’t always appreciate. It’s also even more difficult to find balance in your work as a parent when these issues are present, and not feel like all of your energy is spent trying to find that happy medium between parenting the hard stuff and experiencing joy for the good stuff.
What I encourage is an understanding that you are not alone and that allowing yourself to grieve your unfulfilled expectations is totally warranted. Yes, I said grieve. When you have some serious expectations of what life would be like with your children, or expectations of your child’s future characteristics, or have to accept a diagnosis or situation which changes drastically your understanding of your child from some type of “normal” - you grieve. You grieve the idea of a perfect childhood and witnessing your child move through the world with ease and grace. You grieve the ideas you had of the things they would accomplish. Maybe they still will, maybe they won’t, maybe they won’t want to. It is such a process for parents to allow themselves to really accept that their children are not who they thought they would be and will not always act or do things the way they envisioned in those early years of daydreaming.
And eventually….they get to accept their children as they are. When we allow ourselves to quit staring at one spot in the picture we get to see the whole picture. I know you know this. You know the whole “forest for the trees” thing. I know it sounds easy, right?!? Let me ask you though, have you ever spilled something on a sweater right in the front? A mishap with a coffee cup on the way to work, or maybe a dribble of toothpaste as you got ready. You figured that spot was small and you would get by. It’s too late to change for the day, so it’ll have to do. But each and every time you catch a glimpse in the mirror, regardless of how small the spot is, you stare right at it. Your eyes go to that spot like it found the prize, like it zeroed in on the only thing that matters on that sweater. You fail to see the gorgeous color anymore, or the softness of the fibers and how it feels on your skin. You can’t remember that it is keeping you warm on a cold day or that it was given to you by someone special. THE SPOT. All you see and all you think about is that spot.
When there is something present in a situation we didn’t expect and we look at with negativity, fear or doubt, it is all our brain will want to see. It is in this capacity that we have to be purposeful on realigning how we think. Ok, so the spot on the sweater is what it is but your child is a gift. Spot or not, a total and complete gift. When we pull back and look at our children in an all-encompassing way, beyond “The Issue,” we can begin to have balance and joy in a more effortless and free-flowing way. When we can find the benefits to some of the quirks and personality issues in our children, we can relax a bit and know they are going to be ok. Being able to see that our little manipulator has an amazing skill that could make him “Salesman of the Year” someday, helps us to relax. Knowing that your excessively timid and shy one will probably never jump out of airplanes, or take off to Africa alone to “find themselves,” can be comforting as a parent. Seeing the immense creativity your ADHD child puts into everything they do (whether they should have done it or not) is truly inspiring. And noting the ability your autistic child has in embracing every detail of a situation (although it may lead to rigid thinking) is actually a skill most people don’t have. Their vision of the world is unique and detailed in a different way than yours, and the amount of things these kids force you to pay attention to (that you would normally miss) is a blessing.
So what do we do with all these “gifts” in the meantime, when our children are hanging from ceilings, throwing huge fits at home and in public, and refusing to comply with our expectations of, you know, basic standards of hygiene and societal rules? We don’t give up. We don’t give up looking for the good stuff. We re-train our brain to see the better things front and center instead of in the blurry background. Embracing their uniqueness when we can and finding some patience and flexibility in our own thinking about their issues and behaviors when we can’t. This is not an easy job and obviously not what we signed up for. None of us were ready for the challenges actual parenting would bring, but we will all find our way - one way or another. Relying on your support system is key because sometimes others outside our bubble can notice the positive things we can’t see, especially when we’re responsible for spending so much time and focus tending to the not-so-good stuff. Being educated about our child’s issues, whether that leads back to a mental health diagnosis, trauma, or even just a strong-willed personality, is also where we can find some peace of mind. Also educating ourselves on developmental stages - and what is and is not appropriate to expect at each age and stage - creates a new outlook and refreshing perspective on what’s “normal” and what’s not. Last but not least, if you feel you need more personalized, professional support, working with a parent coach to help you identify what actually can change in your situation versus which issues need to simply be understood and worked with (instead of worked on), is also incredibly insightful.
In the meantime, it’s ok to abandon all of those ideas you had before - about the perfect children you would have and the perfect parent you would be. Let’s face it, none of that leads to those memorable stories you’ll be reminiscing with years from now – like the time you had to fish your kid out of the fountain in the mall, or stop them from performing an impromptu strip tease while standing inside the grocery cart at the store. Parenting builds character for sure, and not just your kids’. Embrace it, cry about it, cheer it on, live with it and love it.