For the past month I have been assisting at a preschool that Maggie and Will attend. It’s an amazing preschool. At first I was tentative to agree to assist because I worried that Maggie and Will would not do as well with their own mother there. But I decided to be brave and jump in. The first few weeks were rough for all of the kids. Learning to sit, to listen, and to follow a routine is hard work. But things slowly started to fall into place. A rhythm began.
In the beginning I worried most about Maggie. She has been headstrong since she learned to get herself around. Sweet, but stubborn. Smart. Physically strong. But preschool has been so good for her. She’s slowly learning to sit. She’s showing a lot more respect. She’s talking about her feelings more. She’s listening.
Will has not taken to the routine so well. One day last week He would not get out of the tent so the teacher went to help him out. He resisted so much that the teacher almost fell and hurt herself. After school she suggested that maybe preschool wasn’t right for Will. And I agree that that preschool is not right for Will. He’s not ready and Maggie is.
Which causes so much shame.
When I was growing up I was controlled. If I didn’t do what I was supposed to do I was spanked. When I got too big to spank I was poked and pulled and lectured and felt small and unloved. When Mandy and Kenzie were little I tried that way of parenting. I was not a good spanker so I took to flicking them in the head when they wouldn’t listen. After a solid flick to the forehead they would stop doing what they had been up to and cry and for a second I would feel like “I’ve got this mothering thing down…right? The flicking is easy, doesn’t hurt much, and then they listen.” After the flicking I would talk to them, tell them over and over what they did wrong and how stupid it was. And just when I would think I was clear to move on, I would see it, the defiance in their eyes, and know that flicking them and the lecturing them, was not helping them.
I would immediately be back in my own little kid body with my mom standing over me telling me to go to my room and wait for my dad to get home. That was the worst, the waiting. When I look back on my childhood I don’t remember the things I did wrong, I do remember what followed. While I waited I would get trapped in my mind. I would think about what I’d done for a split second and then spend the rest of the waiting hell giving myself a lecture. “Why did you do that? You know that they are going to get mad and hurt you. You need to be better. Better at being good and way better at hiding it when you aren’t. You are so stupid. You can’t do anything right. That’s it, from now on you are going to be silent. No talking when they are around. Tomorrow, when you wake up, you are going to be a new person, one that does all the things right, and they are never going to get mad at you again.”
By the time my dad would arrive to deliver the spanking or the poking and the inevitable lecture, I would seethe with hate. Hate for him, for myself, for being caught, for failing. And as he would talk, which he always did, I would close my ears from the inside and dwell on my own thoughts. I would look straight into his eyes as mine filled with tears and I would seal my mouth shut like the lid on a bottle of neglected super glue. With my mouth closed and my jaw clenched, I could say whatever I wanted in my head. If I was in trouble for something I’d actually done I would chant over and over “I know, I know, I know. I’m stupid. I’m stupid.” If I was enduring the punishment for something I hadn’t done my mind would rehearse “You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know anything about me. I hate you”, over and over and over. It drove my Dad nutty when I would just stand there and cry and not say anything. He would tell me that if I wanted to cry he would give me a reason to and then he would ask me question after question. I would stand, resolute, trapped in my head listening to my own yelling thoughts.
After years of that cycle I started becoming a really good liar. Whether I had done something wrong or not I would lie. I did not trust that I could tell the truth. I did not trust that it even mattered what the truth was. I developed a healthy fear for not only my parents but adults in general. By the time I got into kindergarten I was SO afraid of adults that I would not ask to go to the bathroom because I didn’t want to accidentally ask at the wrong time and get in trouble. So, I peed my pants. Quite a few times. I knew that I needed to go, but I always wanted to just wait until I got home.
When I started to see those things in my own kids…their ability to talk to me, to feel safe showing emotion, to feel like a person….disappearing, when they’d done something wrong, I knew I needed to change the way I interacted with them.
Since then I’ve done a lot of studying and reading and changing and trying and working. I’ve settled into a better way to respond when they aren’t perfect little angels. I’ve realized that they aren’t meant to be perfect little angels. That they are here to make mistakes and learn from them, just like I am.
This change has brought a lot of criticism on me. A LOT. My kids are not robots. They don’t sit and fold their arms and be quiet and always do exactly as they are told right away. But they are good kids. They are KIDS for crying out loud. Sometimes they hit each other. Sometimes they make messes. They make mistakes. They draw on walls. They say poop and butt and call each other names.
But you know what they don’t do…lie to me about it. They also don’t hide their feelings. If they are angry, they tell me. If they are sad or scared or afraid, they tell me. If they make a mistake, they tell me. I am not trying to be there best friend, I still want to be their mother, but every time they come to me when they have made a mistake or are struggling, I am reminded that, although incredibly difficult and often frowned upon, the way I am fostering a relationship with my kids is the right one for me.
A year and a half ago one of my brothers called and told me that because of the way I parent my kids, he would not feel comfortable with them in his home. I was devastated. A part of me that I’d worked so hard to change and foster and strengthen, had just been trampled on and crushed. I immediately doubted my previous convictions. I spent months re-examining what I was doing. I re-read some of my most trusted parenting resources. I prayed. I cried. I worried. I doubted.
In the end I came back to myself. I realized that I didn’t want the relationship with my kids that my brother has with his.
But, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still doubt myself sometimes. Because for years I only knew one way of parenting…control and fear. And when I decided that that wasn’t right for me or my kids, I had to fight to learn and maintain new habits and reactions. And there are still so many people who want me to go back there. Who are almost begging me to…because they want to be able to control my kids with my permission.
So, when Will was expelled from preschool last week (not really, I just think it’s kinda funny to say it that way because, don’t ya know it, Tony Hawk was also expelled from preschool), I heard all of the familiar voices. I head the voices saying “I told you so.” I heard the voices saying “If you would just get control of that kid…” I heard the voices saying, “Now you’re finally going to start spanking, right?!” And I panicked a little. I came home and the next time Will did something out of sorts, I threatened to spank him, because for once I just wanted people to like Will…and me. The pile of all the years of control and “this is how you SHOULD parent your kids” was too much. I couldn’t get out from under it, I couldn’t make it go away.
And then I took a step back, again. I took some deep breathes, went for a walk, did some yoga, and reminded myself of one crucial thing. Will is Will. Will isn’t any other kid, and he’s not supposed to be. And Will only has one Mom, and it’s me. I realized that Will didn’t fail at preschool or being a good kid, he simply needs to be doing other activities right now. And that is perfectly imperfect, just like Will.
I would like to say that because of this experience I will never doubt my parenting abilities again but I know that isn’t true. I will however, stay really grateful that I still remember what it was like to be a kid and I will do everything I can to make sure that my children can experience their childhoods knowing that no matter what, they can always come to me, and I love them. I will set boundaries with my children but I will do my best to stay calm and not use hitting, flicking, or pinching as a consequence for their actions. I will guide them when needed and let natural consequences be their teachers.
I am me. Will is Will. And that is exactly why life is so amazing.
To continue to process my feelings on this I envisioned a drawing for Will. Here it is…
I even let him color in the words himself. Now to get it framed! Love you Will, just as you are!