My husband and I sat on our bed listening to the sounds of whining and screeching emanating from the hallway outside our closed door. I shook my head with disgust. It was a sunny Saturday morning in early fall, the perfect day to spend outdoors doing something fun as a family. And I really wasn't sure that I had any interest in doing anything at all with my two daughters.
Our first mistake was asking them for input: "Do you think we should go to the zoo or Tiny Town today?" I asked brightly. I'm sure you can predict their response.
"Tiny Town!" my youngest boomed.
"The zoo!" argued my oldest daughter.
What was it, my first day on the job? Rookie mistake. For the next 30 minutes, my 8-year-old proceeded to pout and whine after we overruled her and decided to go to ride the train and have a picnic at Tiny Town. I'll be honest: When my kids sulk about something that is clearly a First World Problem, it kind of pushes my buttons. I struggle to find a meaningful way to teach my children to genuinely practice gratitude while still respecting the fact that at this age, their disappointments are very real.
Out in the hallway, one of the girls apparently whacked the other one on the head with something. At 3 and 8 years old, they generally played together remarkably well, but this was an off day. Accusations, protests and wails echoed beyond the bedroom door. I sighed. "I don't feel like they deserve to go anywhere right now," I confessed to my husband. "What a couple of ingrates."
We've all had those days. The kids are fighting. They don't appreciate the treat you gave them. They're rude. They forget their manners. Does it make them monsters or you a bad parent? Despite what many would say while wagging a finger, No. It does not.
But it does indicate a very real phenomenon that many of us are unprepared for when we transition to parenthood. Parenting sometimes sucks. Sure, we knew it would be hard. (I can already hear the haters now: "You should've known it would be hard! Why did you even have kids?" Thanks for that. Really.) We knew we would be tired and that raising kids would be a lot of work. But it goes beyond that. Sometimes, it really actually suuucks. And here's the rub: While it aggravates me when my kids handle their disappointments like a pair of enraged gorillas on crack, I have to admit that I, too, have a problem handing disappointment.
I had been looking forward to that outing. When my kids spent the morning bickering, complaining and wreaking havoc, I was disappointed. I wanted a magical day -- the one you see flashing through your Facebook newsfeed. The snapshots of beaming parents and giggling children making memories. I didn't want whiny, ungrateful kids who had, wait for it, ruined my day.
Nothing brings out the possibilities for disappointment like the holiday season. The meltdown-laden parties; the indignation at being forbidden to eat eleventy-hundred Christmas cookies in one sitting; the holiday singalong where your 3-year-old freaks the freak out because Frosty the Snowman is only performed one time (seriously? That song is long as sh*t. Once is plenty. And yes, this just happened to me last night); the apoplectic fits when your youngest prefers the gift Santa gave her older sister. Here you are, just wanting to make some damn holiday magic with your kids, and they're ruining allofthethings. What is wrong with these kids? It's like you've morphed into Clark W. Griswold and everything is going wrong, but you can't even bring yourself to grit your teeth and declare that you're going to have the "Hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny F*cking Kaye!"
So, what are parents supposed to do during the disappointing moments? I think first of all, we need to stop judging ourselves for feeling let down. Just like we need to stop judging our kids for melting down for ridiculous reasons. Let them writhe on the floor over the sheer hell of not being allowed to watch Curious George's Christmas again. And let yourself feel bummed out when you need to. You're only human. You'll move on, of course. Maybe you'll even laugh about it later.
Parents feel so much guilt for not savoring every minute. Every time we dare to admit that we'd really been looking forward to something -- a vacation, a birthday party, a day at the zoo -- and our kids' behavior was atrocious, somebody pops up to remind us that there are plenty of people who would do anything to have kids and we should just STFU. And that works about as well as when we tell our kids that there are starving children in Africa who would have been thrilled to have that measly one cookie that was apparently inadequate. It doesn't work. Because shaming doesn't work.
So let's stop shaming ourselves for feeling disappointed sometimes. That sunny fall day, we did go to Tiny Town. And I want to tell you that as we left the park, I was holding both of my happy daughters' hands as the sun beat down upon us. I want to tell you that my heart felt full, close to bursting. It was one of those crazy gratitude moments.
But I also sort of don't want to tell you that part. Because -- what if? -- I just told you it sucked and we left it at that? Uncomfortable, right? But that's parenthood for you. Sometimes it's disappointing. And that's OK.