I recently had back-to-back conversations with two distressed mothers. One, the parent of a preschooler, described how a tantrum her four-year-old son had thrown at a public playground had left her feeling helpless and more than a shade embarrassed. The other, the mother of a college graduate, felt wrung out by her 24-year-old daughter’s failure to honor some much-discussed, carefully negotiated responsibilities.
Despite the varied circumstances and the 20-year difference in their children’s ages, both women were left with the same ache: an acute feeling that she had failed as a parent. I have little doubt that had either of these women been a witness to, rather than a participant in, the very same dramas, she would have regarded the under-siege mothers with empathy of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God variety.
But these incidents involved their children. So, each of these mothers felt that she could have handled the situation better—if only she had maintained a cool head and not let anger or impatience gain the upper hand.
It never goes away, this feeling that we parents must somehow get it right, each time, every time.
Here’s the thing: we don’t.
Here’s the other thing: like our kids, we’re only human.
That may sound obvious, but, in the course of our daily lives, we tend to juxtapose our grown-upness against our children’s immaturity. What reflects back is the enormity of the age, wisdom, and experience divide. Sure, our kids act out. They’re kids. We’re adults. We should know better than to … (pick your brand of self-poison: yell, snap, or turn a cold shoulder; play deaf, use harsh language, or threaten penalties we know we won’t enforce).
I don’t know about you, but I was at my peak as a parenting expert when I was still childless. Back then, I’d watch parents respond to a child’s provocative behavior with hapless attempts to reason or calm, and I’d think: If that were my kid, I wouldn’t put up with that! If that were my infant crying on an airplane, I’d make her stop! If that were my son mouthing off, I’d make him zip his lip! If that were my daughter not doing her chores, I’d show her who makes the rules around here!
Parenting is easy—when you’re not a parent.
For those of us who actually have kids, however, here’s what we learn while our tots are still in Onesies, then keep learning over and over as they progress from soiled diapers to school sports uniforms to seductive sundresses and staid business suits: they may be our kids, but each of them is very much his or her own person.
If you have more than one child, you witness this daily as your kids grow under your roof. While this one craves your praise and approval, that one wants you to stop telling your friends that he got a part in the school play. While this one demands your undivided attention, that one wishes you’d disappear and leave her alone. This one disintegrates into tears because she’s colored outside the lines; that one finds delight in taking crayon to freshly painted wall.
The marvel isn’t only how different they are, but how differently they respond to the same parental cues. The coaxing that works like a charm on your son’s intransigence is inflammatory nagging to your daughter’s ear. The disappointed sigh that halts your toddler’s tantrum is toxic fuel for your tween’s melodrama.
This isn’t science. This is life. Your life—and theirs. It might help to remember that the next time you’re confronted by one of life’s more challenging parenting moments. When given the benefit of distance, by all means reflect, revise, and strategize. But remember, too, that in the heat of your child’s upsetting behavior, you offered the best you could.
In other words, forgive yourself. Chances are, your child already has.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents