Parenting Through Groundhog Day

At some point in the haze of cleaning mac and cheese off the floor, I realized that everyday my children presented me with pretty much the same conundrums they did the day before. When they were little, my repetitive failures included bringing the wrong toy to daycare or the wrong blanket in the car. That grew into repetitive sibling arguments over who was using whose brush, repeatedly being late for school because I had not signed a permission slip, and repeatedly preparing some horrible thing for dinner that neither child would relent to eat. Their complaints and actions were all age-appropriate behavior of typically developing children feeling secure in their ability to lash out at their parent and know they would still be loved. Yet still, it all made me, a veteran pediatrician, crazy.

Until I started to realize that I was living in the movie Groundhog Day. Yes, my children grow and change but, honestly, not too quickly.

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character starts as a self-centered news reporter reporting a story he doesn’t care about. As he wakes up, day after day, to the same exact day with the same exact circumstances, he learns first, to act clever and then, to act better. He learns what Andie McDowell’s character likes and presents himself as that. Each day he gets better at it and each day she gains more interest in him. He holds the door for others and acknowledges an old friend on the street — but it is transactional and in service of hooking up with Andie McDowell’s character. Until little by little the evolved Murray starts to gain joy from being friendly and creating music — no longer for sexual prowess — but because he wants to.

Which, translated into my parenting, means that the second time I am presented with a morning rush over a lost shirt, I don’t have to do the same thing I did the day before. Yesterday I might have joined in the frenetic screaming. Today I can choose to join in emptying the contents of the bureau onto the floor. And tomorrow, when this doesn’t work, I will be ready to try a different tack. None of which are guaranteed to work but by channeling the evolved Bill Murray I am empowered to keep trying. I can keep trying different ways to quell the frenzy (wake up a little earlier? Do laundry together and plan outfits while folding? Pick out clothes the night before?) until I find what works. Channeling the evolved Murray means that if I pivot until I find the right thing to do, I might actually find it, and — importantly — I may ultimately find joy in it. I just won’t know until I try. Over and over again.

It’s hard to imagine that time can stand still so that every day repeats itself until the main character in the movie is evolved enough to face the next day. And yet this task is pretty close to what we are called to do in parenting.

Pivoting has become the mantra of the work world. In medicine we talk about quality improvement cycles — assessing the situation, making a small change to try to make it better, assessing how the small change affected the situation, and then considering the next change. Throughout the business world, people talk about pivoting — how finding a new angle to address a persistent problem can help one gain a competitive advantage and how when we’re not at the top of our game, we must try other options, be willing to fail, and then try new options. Some large companies even have a budget line for mistakes — recognizing that there is potential for high risk and high reward in trying new ways of addressing old problems. But the truth is, pivoting is not just for the board room or the operating room. Pivoting belongs in our most intimate nurturing relationships.

There are many days when I am the early Murray — getting it all wrong and only realizing it after my daughters and I have all fallen apart. There are many days I am middle Murray — essentially transactional in my parenting so I can get the job done and we can all go on to the next activity.

This year the real groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, predicted an early end to winter weather yet here in New England it’s still snowing in April. It’s like the weather wants to remind me how slow change can be. And that every day I get a new chance to get my parenting right. Because when I am the evolved Murray — and try new ways to address all of our needs until I get it right — I am in love with my parenting, my daughters and, importantly, myself.

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