There was a moment when I could have made another choice. My girls' giggling was reaching a fever pitch; I could tell they'd lost control of themselves. My son was entertaining them by jumping off his bed, naked. It was so close to bedtime and no one was in pajamas, no teeth were brushed, no toys put away. I could have watched my three children having a good time in their room, not fighting with each other, entertaining each other and laughing. I could have stood in the doorway and thought how lucky I was to be in a moment, witnessing the chaos of carefree childhood.
But that was not my style.
"GET OFF THAT BED!" I demanded, surprising them. "Why aren't you ready for bed? Who has brushed teeth? This room is a mess. I want this cleaned now." They scuttled like insects to please me. The joy from the room evaporated as I listed orders.
This was my style. At restaurants or our own table, I tolerated no misbehavior, no fooling around. "Get in your chair. Stay in that chair," was on a loop at every meal. My kids expected harsh words and demands from me, and knew cuddles and kisses and hugs and joking would be plentiful as long as every chore was accomplished.
More than once, I'd heard my kids' assessment of my parenting style. My oldest said to me, "This is our own house and we don't want our parents to be mean"; my younger girl said, "You should be nice to us because that's what love means." There is a great deal of love and play and warmth in our home. My default mode, however, when reacting to cleaning up messes or hurrying them out the door, is more drill sergeant than Mary Poppins. I had tried many times to be a different, gentler kind of mother -- but what I've finally come to realize is that I couldn't be a gentler kind of mother until I could be a gentler kind of person with myself.
At the end of last year, we all sat reviewing our own milestones and highlights of the year: vacations; the day the kids learned to swim, to read, to ride bikes without training wheels; the fact that, for the first time in several years, we didn't move apartments. Alone, my husband and I discussed other markers of the year, including addressing our son's behavior issues, work we'd done on our own relationship and the maturity we've seen in the children's minds and bodies. Neither of us is a fan of resolutions, but in the spirit of new beginnings, my husband said he'd like to be more positive.
I said I'd like to be softer.
"Softer" is a way of being, of parenting, of thinking that I learned to embrace over this past year. I had to. For years, I had been tightly wound around the idea that rigidity and harshness were my best options in dealing with my kids. And it wasn't that I was necessarily choosing to be this way. It is the way I have always been: insistent and demanding of myself, uncompromising when it came to getting things done the "right" way.
Since I was young, and perhaps because of childhood bullying I experienced, I have had little tolerance for my own mistakes and frailties. I believed in my heart that the world would end if I were softer with myself, if I wasn't on guard all the time. This extreme vigilance translated to my parenting, naturally and despite my desire to act and exist differently. Oh, how I wished to bring the inspirational quotes I read to life for me: "You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection" (Buddha) and "Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world" (Lucille Ball). The world is quick to tell us to be our own best friend; few people will tell you how to do that if it doesn't come naturally.
I wanted, ached to act this way, to twist my brain into thinking better of myself. Quotes about good parenting destroyed me. I read, "Whatever you would have your children become, strive to exhibit in your own lives and conversation" (Lydia Huntley Sigourney), and cried after one particularly difficult evening. After years of abusing myself, I knew I had to learn to be gentle in general, specifically so that I could be softer with my children.
I saw that they did indeed repeat my words and imitate my actions; the girls especially seemed devastated by mistakes. So I turned, fearfully and skeptically, to therapy, meditation, medication and yoga to help change my path. I didn't believe I could do it; I'd tried so many times before. But children are the highest stakes.
The process of shifting my behavior didn't happen solely with self-awareness or a decision to change -- after all, I'd been acting that way for decades. In fact, I struggled with whether to write this article in past or present tense; it is so much of a daily, active struggle. The dynamics of a gentle outlook must exist in almost every moment, or the negative thoughts gain momentum. I fail regularly and drift unconsciously back to snapping and judging. At times it feels like I am trying to change the direction of the flow of a river.
When I see how my children respond to a generosity of understanding, however, and how they thrive and soften and relate to me, I am reminded that although the struggle to do this is monumental and never-ending, the strength is worth finding.
This was first published on WhatToExpect.com.