I entered parenthood right from the beginning of my marriage. My baby girl was born preterm at 35 weeks, in the 9th month of my marriage. Babyhood is exhausting but exciting with so many firsts in a row, the milestones passed and the syllables uttered. But along the way, I always felt that I was not that perfect mother I had dreamed of being. Something with me was always off once she turned past three. The realization is stark — you can sleep through the world, but not through parenthood.
I couldn’t measure up to her kind, playful, pampering father. I made sure she was cared for, safe and met all her needs. But as a working mother, a writer and a woman with her own frustrations, each passing day and year, I was losing myself. I was feeling guilty that I was not good enough. I even wondered if I was loving her enough.
I lost my temper pretty quickly. I made my points by raising my voice. I simply couldn’t put up with ‘kiddish’ mess. I would feel even more guilty once she fell asleep after the day’s struggles. When she began kindergarten, after she returns from school, I fixed her food, gave her instructions for the rest of the day and left to work in my clinic from 5 to 7.30 PM.
Often, I sat overtime, sometimes seeing patients, sometimes writing, just wanting to be by myself. After reaching home, I had little time to spend with her and that, too, not very qualitative. Whatever reluctance she showed to get things done would irk me instantly and I realized I told her, “I don’t have time!” more often than I should and wanted to.
Shortly, my husband moved out of town to pursue his MD and plunging into depression only aggravates bad parenting. I was blind to my daughter’s pain of separation from her father and focused only on mine. While I was missing one person, she was missing two. And she became difficult to handle.
We fought every morning. Sending her to school was apocalyptic. Add to it when your child does something or avoids something and her reason for it is “to make mom love me more.” I am not someone who resorts to physical punishments, but I discovered that I was not very emotionally available as a parent. It was hard for me to maintain composure and a calm tone when speaking to her.
That was wrong! She shouldn’t be trying so hard to get my love. She should be loved by default. Damn, I love her but she is not feeling it. When this dawned upon me, I knew I was not doing it rightly.
From that point on, I began working towards being a better parent, a better mother, someone she would confide in, someone she would not be afraid of. I learned these lessons the hard way. Some revelations were my undoing. Some were liberation for me. Altogether, the journey, with its ups and downs, guilt trips and roller coaster rides included, was one worth taking. Because love is worth it.
1. Polish the mirror
This happened at the time I was in pieces, trying to get back to life after my husband, her father, moved out. She became unmanageable each passing day. I realized I was not asking her, but demanding, not requesting, but shouting, not speaking, but screaming. And she was simply reflecting it back. When I screamed at her to get things done, to get the day moving, one day, I paused to listen to myself and then her response. They were the same. And it seldom got things done. When it did, it was half-hearted.
The change did not come instantly. I tried to calm down or take a moment to think before shouting. I didn’t transform overnight but over time, I began listening to myself and to my kid. And once again, I realized, “A child is just a mirror.”
To polish that mirror, polish yourself. To make it shine, be the light. Children just mostly reflect. Who they are tells more about us than them. Once I regained my composure, she became easier to handle. Nobody likes to be bossed around just because you don’t have time. Not even kindergartners.
2. Address unresolved personal problems and frustrations
Continuing from the previous point, I decided to fix myself. I took up art therapy at home to address my writer’s block and depression. I started directing my energy to creative pursuits more than to unproductive thoughts and negative focus. During this phase, I still used to ignore my child a lot. I tried to avoid conflicts but I sometimes pointedly ignored her 5-year old emotional needs. Having her grandparents was helpful to pass through it.
But I believe, it is essential to attend to our own unresolved personal problems, frustrations and internal conflicts. Whether it is new life changes or old childhood trauma, you need to deal with it. A child needs a mentally sound parent for a normal childhood and eventually, normal adulthood. Address your issues so that you do not dump your uncertainties, insecurities and repressed emotions on your innocent child. They are already confused enough and process your behavior pretty much directly.
3. Take quality time seriously
Love is nothing without quality time. I was at fault for not finding quality time with my child. I knew about it all. Hell, I have gone through a lack of it. I have known what it feels like to be not there for our emotional needs. My childhood and my family was very different from my child’s. But I realized I had the potential to make it every inch like mine and I did not want that to happen.
I wanted a family in which parents had time to spend with the kids, a family in which teenagers would confide in their mom and dad, a family who had more fun within it than anywhere else. A family that the children would prioritize above anything even after becoming adults, because that is what quality time ensures in long term. A family very different from mine.
So, to ensure I contributed to building up quality time spent together, I had to take some drastic steps and some control over my social life — online and offline. I severed unnecessary social circles/relationships that seemed to be eating my time so much that at the end of the day, I do not have the energy to read to my child or play a game with her. Doing that has liberated me more than ever. I make it a point to keep friendships that respect my need for personal time and space without compromises.
I also compartmentalize my work time and family time now. It was all mixed up earlier that when I wished to write and my child asked me something, I would either not listen or I would simply grumble back or send her away. Now, I can say, “Mom has to write for some time, I will be with you after that.” or I can simply close my laptop and say yes to her request to read her a book.
I have also decided to reschedule my work time so that I will be at work when she is at school and I can have the afternoons off. I will be able to help her with her homework (which I had skipped this year) and build a bedtime reading routine. And I will be able to bake her some goodies that she has been begging me to do “when I have time.” Finally, it is time to find time.
4. Be mindful of words and actions
This helped big time. Mindfulness is a lifestyle and all therapists and life coaches advocate it to reinforce healthy habits. But its effectiveness in parenting is paramount. Now, I halt to think for a moment before I speak. And all it really takes is a moment to think:
- Do I have to say it?
- Would there be any significant change if I say it?
- What would happen if I just comply?
- What’s the worst that could happen if I do not say no?
- What do I gain?
- What do I lose?
Is my moment of rage and ego worth it? Punishing our children is like gambling. We got lucky if we managed to bring up a kid who is sensible or forgiving enough to attribute our punishments and humiliation of his or her individuality to our love and care. If not, we know what losing is like, we knew the possibilities of gambling with our own heart.
5. Get down to the child’s level, physically and mentally
There’s a special amount of comfort and security enfolded in speaking to your child by lowering your body to his or her level. I knew this but seldom did it. But crouching in front of her, holding her shoulders and speaking to her, face to face, had more effect than hollering from my 5.1 feet to her 1 metre height.
This makes a child feel he or she is considered an equal and respected. Further, it also helps us to think from their side and their level. That ensures an effective communication with a child which is crucial in our relationship with him or her.
6. Go verbal and active with love
It is natural and normal for us to love our children. But, children — they do not know of that default setting. Let us also be honest about the fact that there are parents who do not love their children and parents who are abusive in every which way. This is a truth we cannot hide from. This makes expressing love an inevitability.
Love that is not expressed is just an emotion contained within us. In love, we grow anxious and apprehensive about our loved ones and we fear for them. We get angry when something they did was unsafe for them. We feel let down when they defy us. Unexpressed love has more negative impacts than positive. When you are someone who has not expressed love much but react strongly to the negative circumstances citing your love, know that you are giving them an invisible, nonexistent reason for being an ass.
If I have not hugged or kissed my child enough, or told her I love her often enough, she definitely will not buy my “I was trying to protect you!” when I react emotionally if she screws up.
Parents will always react and respond emotionally but it is acceptable only if you have shown them how much you love them. Otherwise, from their side, it is just unfair that you notice only when they screw up.
So hug them, kiss them, tell them you love them. Now, I find time to cuddle with her, tickle her and we giggle together. We crack dumb jokes and I pretend she is my favorite cookie with a button nose. I make it a point to tell her she is my most favorite person in the world despite her naughty, bratty and silly moments.
She comes back to me when she is hurt and that makes all the difference.
7. Check with your kid how you are doing as a parent
Kids do lie, kids do know how to behave to please and what not to tell. So here’s the challenge. Cultivate a relationship with your child that is so good that he or she won’t be afraid to tell you when you are doing well or not. Even when wrought with guilt, we parents have a way of justifying our actions and emotions at the end of the day and manage to attribute it all to our love for our children. It works for us, but not for them. Nothing happens overnight. But over time, our actions and attitudes have a cumulative effect on their personal growths.
I never bothered to ask for feedback. But I caught myself off guard when one day I just asked my kid if she thought I didn’t love her. It must have been my guilt speaking. But for once, I was not defending myself and was ready to find how she felt in reality. Then on, I ask her how I am doing, once or twice a week.
We implement point rewarding systems and happiness projects to discipline our kids in a soft way that is no less bossy. But seldom do we ask their feedback on us as parents. No, I do not seek details like whether I am a bad mommy because I didn’t allow her to watch cartoons for another hour. No. But I ask her, “How is mommy doing now? Aren’t I a little better, less angry? Aren’t I shouting less these days?” This and a calm voice brings out an innocent and honest answer and a fearless bond in speaking her mind to me.
Our gut instincts are always in sync with our dilemmas. If you know deep inside that something is not right or if you simply feel guilty about something you said, did or did not do, instead of justifying it and defending yourself from what you know to be bad, try stepping in, taking control of yourself, being mindful and considerate. Sometimes, we just need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves, “Am I doing it right?”.
It doesn’t hurt to be told “You can be better,” by your child but it hurts to hear “You ruined my life / you made me this person,” from them years later when you meet a screwed up adult. Everything you say or do impacts your child. Because they are watching. And nobody likes to be fixed. All just want to be loved.
So forgive yourself. Start anew. Love the best you can.