Monday, January 6, 2014
Motherhood: Breaking the Cycle
My psych professor lectured, "You will parent like you were parented, unless you make an everyday, conscientious effort not to."
I think most people can truthfully say they love their parents and in many ways would like to be like them. I know I certainly feel like that about my parents. I also believe that there are things about our parents of which we have each said, "I'll never do that!" Then, as we get older, we find we sometimes become our parents or we strive to do better/be better than our parents. Consciously making those choices can often times improve family relations.
My mother comes from a long line of verbally (and many times physically) abusive women. I can see this philosophy of "parenting like our parents parented us" firsthand. My maternal great-grandmother was abusive to my grandmother and my grandmother to my mother. My mother wanted to break that cycle, but breaking something like that isn't easy. (Think "Divine Secrets of a Ya-Ya Sisterhood")
It was a hard adjustment for my mother at first. Especially considering back "then" parents didn't have resources at their fingertips like they do today. It took several years in fact, before my mother was able to consistently not parent as her mother did.
I think on the whole, my mom did pretty dang good. I'm not going to lie and pretend that everyday was full of rainbow kisses and sibling sing-a-longs of Kumbaya. After all, there were seven of us, all born within a seven and a half year time span. There were times we were naughty and there were times she lost it. But I think for the most part, we all understood she was doing her best, and that no matter what, she still loved us.
When I first became a parent, I think I did a pretty good job. I felt pretty good about my parenting skills, actually. (Perhaps I was just young and naive?) I rarely lost my temper and made a point of expressing to my children each day that I loved them. Hugs and kisses were plentiful. We played together, read together, and had lots of fun. Not to say it was all rainbow kisses back then either. My children were sometimes naughty, and I too, like my mother, had my moments.
Then, I went through a period of darkness. A depressing time in my life, where I was barely hanging on - mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In order to keep from hurting, I shut everything and everyone out and decided not feeling anything at all was better than crying all of the time. Soon, I began spending more time in bed and less time being a mother. When it was time to get up and go to work, I simply went through the motions. Numb. That's what I became.
There were little moments when bits of the real me would surface, and it was during those times I'd put on a happy face. Times like my children's birthday parties, at holiday or other family gatherings, or when I facilitated work training. "Fake it till I make it" became my credo.
I am a survivor of sorts. I survived a divorce and in the five-year period between that marriage and this one, I began to re-invent myself. I no longer felt suppressed or inhibited. I was free to choose my path and to write my story. Unrestricted breathing. In many ways I felt like the old me again, only better.
I totally love all of the new adventures and I love having a partner who is my best friend. Along with our marriage last Spring, I became a step-mom to a little boy.
He is a very smart child and I am the only mother this little boy has now. I don't think I anticipated as much struggle as there has been with him, considering I'm an "experienced" parent. There have been many occasions (especially in the beginning) wherein he tried me - to see how far he could push things, to see where I'd draw the line, and perhaps maybe to see if I was gonna stick around.
In the beginning there was a lot of baby-talk and back-talk and whining and terrible-two-like tantrums. I didn't know what to do or how to handle it. There were times I wanted the counselor's number on speed-dial! (I seriously wished I could have my own personal Super Nanny to tell me what to do in those situations.) Not to say we didn't have good days, because we did! We had many good days. It just seemed like for every "good" day there were at least two challenging days.
It was during these challenging moments I found myself all too often turning into the type of mom I didn't want to be. And it's not because I don't love this little boy; I do - with all my heart. But, I began to be easily frustrated when I didn't see immediate results. This was especially true on days which I thought were going well, only to later catch him in a lie or find out there was trouble at school that day. It seemed like no matter what I tried, things weren't getting better. It was discouraging. I think there came a point in which I just started feeling like, "Well, I guess this is just who he is." In my heart, however, I knew that wasn't true. I couldn't merely accept that this was going to be our mother-son dynamics the rest of our lives. Perhaps had he not experienced the things he did in his young life, he wouldn't have the struggles he does. But, there's nothing I can do to change his past. No, I had to delve a little deeper and ask myself what about me? "What's MY problem?" instead of "What's his?"
I think that part of my issue is I haven't been a mom to child that young in years. I forget the energy and patience (and trial and error) that's required sometimes. With children you raise from birth, you start laying the foundation from day one. Coming into the picture later is much more difficult, so I had that against me too.
In my psych class last semester we studied human cognitive development through the life-span. Things about my new son's behavior began to make sense. I suddenly understood why he was "stuck". Then someone in the class asked if most people parent the same or opposite of their own parents. That's when she said it - the phrase that changed me. "You will parent like you were parented, unless you make an everyday, conscientious effort not to."
That phrase triggered more clear the memory of the type of loving mother I once was. Granted, when my kids were little they didn't challenge me as much, but I was also making more of that conscientious effort back then. I realized many of my hard days with my new son were not only a result of his trauma, but a result of my trauma too; a part of me never fully-recovered from that state of numbness I was in. I had forgotten, to some degree, how to be the loving and gentle mom I was when my kids were very small. I felt awful at that realization. I didn't want to be the mean, cold-hearted mom. I wanted to keep moving forward from the cycle my mother helped to break. Pro-active, not reactive.
Overall, I feel that I have been good at setting boundaries and clear expectations, and in helping my son realize his own abilities. A year ago he'd throw a fit if I even suggested he pick up his toys or help put away his own clean laundry, let alone clear his plate from the table. I'm sure he thought he was like Cinderella and I was like the ugly, wicked step-mother.
Today, he walks himself to school (a block away), has a daily chore of feeding the cats, puts his own clothes in the wash, then moves them to the dryer, and even folds them and puts them away! (He's 7.) Instead of jumping on the furniture, throwing toys all over every room of the house, and playing video games for hours on end, he understands toys stay in the playroom, furniture is for sitting and he even sets his own 30-minute timer for his video game time and marks it on his chart when he's done. He has grown up so much and progressed so much this past year and he knows it too. He'll often say things like, "I never realized I was big enough to do [this or that] before." He also takes pride in his accomplishments, often begging me to come and see his room after he's cleaned it, etc. For all of those things and more, I feel greatly rewarded! I feel like perhaps I am making a positive difference. But in addition to being productive and self-reliant, I also want him, and my other kids, to feel loved, all the time, everyday; not just when we're having a good day.
I find that since beginning my quest of making a conscientious effort everyday to be a better parent, my mental self-talk often includes words like "breathe", "it's okay", "it's not worth the battle", "that [bad thing] doesn't matter", "they're not minions", and "he/she is a child of God, and He is counting on me". Because let's face it - the kid is still trying to see if I'll re-draw that line anytime soon. There are still times he's naughty and there are still times when I have a not-so-graceful mother moment.
The good news is I have moved past the daily struggle of "losing it". I am now focusing forward on how to implement more love into my parenting style, not only for my little boy's sake, but for all of my children. I fear that my older kids have become too used to the numb mom and can't see past that. I've added "being a more outwardly loving mother" to my list of goals for the year. More than just saying "I love you", I want to do something purposeful every day to let my kids know that I love them. I'm not sure what that will all entail just yet, but I do plan to keep track and blog back throughout the year.
My biggest hope is that, in spite of all my shortcomings as a mom, they will feel about me the way I do about my mom; that I'm trying my best and that no matter what, I always have and always will love them very much.