by Kate Steilen
The moment you take an infant outside, two things happen: people give you unsolicited advice at an alarming rate and, destabilized by the noise – which says “you are going to fail” – you seek advice from everyone. You become a newly-anointed failure. You wear anxiety like a winter coat. You perform ridiculous Google searches.
You lose yourself. Years may pass.
And then one day some chirpy parent, maybe older than you, at least out of your stage – maybe one who has rediscovered her/his confidence – places a hand on your arm and says, “It gets better, honey.”
“It Gets Better” (IGB) is the ultimate in non-compliments one can receive while parenting kids. It’s like the “This too shall pass” doled out in the first year for each wild thing your offspring does or doesn’t do (e.g., sleeping), except applied to the public drama of toddlerhood and the preschool years. Year three is the heyday of “It Gets Better.” To the shocked parent of a child who has loudly entered year three, It Gets Better has some weary appeal. It fosters solidarity.
But three is also an experience that can last for many years beyond three. Temperament is forever. When you have young children discovering their power, or maybe you are raising a spirited child, every day is a shot at failure.
Perhaps the one thing I’ve learned in six years of “mothering” is that every mother thinks she’s doing something wrong. Nearly every mother feels like a terrible parent – that is, a terrible person.
I’m over it, and I want to know who to blame.
Blaming the “it” of It Gets Better leads nowhere. All that generic advice strangers offer does nothing to help when kids face larger challenges. The truth is, “it” does not get better. You do.
The life of a parent is committed. These days, it is insanely committed. You don’t check out; you don’t ever wash your hands of your children. You may gain sleep for a few years before your baby faces big kid issues. But those issues are out there, amplified by the lives children live online.
I know that when my girls are teenagers, driving cars, exploring intimacy, and becoming independent persons, their conflicts will loom larger and more terrifying to me. As children grow, so do the activities and emotions – exponentially.
If you’re bothered by the fact that a five-year-old’s hockey schedule runs three days a week, wait until they’re really into it, traveling or playing varsity in high school, when kid athletes have to drop other activities because one sport’s schedule won’t allow dabbling.
Your bigger kid may not throw tantrums anymore, but that doesn’t make their emotional growth easy. Your own desire to see them succeed may frighten you. If you feel rage toward the tot on the playground that shoves your child, imagine how you’ll feel when your teenager is treated badly by a teacher or boyfriend.
In an age where I’m supposed to focus parental energy on “resiliency,” as if my child is a permeable failure of engineering, as if projectile poison missiles are daily hurled at her body, I just…don’t know anymore. Robust, nope. Adaptable, no, not very. She’s six. Her instinctive response to badgering is to scream. It usually works.
Maybe I should take a page from her book and ignore whatever she doesn’t understand or have time for at that moment. I don’t need it to get better because my child is not a product. Whatever you are selling me in the parenting aisle, from “Pick your Battles” to “Failure makes Grit,” I no longer want. Whatever my child requires to survive in the American contemporary, I reject.
We are middling humans trying to retain a shred of originality. We were born with intellect and imagination. It’s a gift I gave to her! I don’t need a farm to cultivate my child. I don’t need a wild garden. I don’t need the unschooling adventure road trip. I don’t need a special school for her, and I don’t need a coach. I don’t need your book, FB group, meditation program, or any version of the pre-professional applied to my six-year-old’s life. I don’t want to tinker, I don’t want to STEM. Or STEAM.
As a parent, I get to be all of those things – wise – simply by being hers. I teach her by being around, and I think parents can stoke their kids’ imaginations and knowledge stores without living in a bus for a year or resorting to packaged, expensive adopted methodologies.
Instead of lamenting what is a brief moment in my day with kids, I would like people to observe that my child is human. You know, a person? I’d like people to remember they were once human children, the best of humanity. I want people to see children’s squishable hugginess and their ability to absorb the emotion of what you are telling them.
When you say, “It Gets Better,” you are saying children are temporary and inconvenient. You are saying we live in different worlds. You are admitting the now is forgettable. Regrettable, even. Tense, yes. Embarrassing to me, often. But it’s normal, not hell.
I want people to remember their own squishable, fleshy bodies and say, “Hi, what’s up?” Don’t tell me I’m doing a great job, or that they’re a handful. And don’t tell me IT GETS BETTER.
My kid likes to taste her boogers. In the next six years, she may be offered a prescription to help her cope or a friendly 10-step solution. She is not a future professional. Nor is she a windfall, a free, organic angel of the earth. She is 100 percent kid. Please make room for that species – the kid and aspiring dog-owner who spends her energy perfecting scooter tricks, eating cheerios every single day, fighting unfairness, and protesting adult overlords, taking in her world one day at a time.
It doesn’t get better. I get better. You get better. And kids grow faster than any strategy when your life has been belittled and insulted by the American obsession with ROI. I’m going to take all the credit I possibly can for this state of affairs, thank you, and no thanks to anyone who wants to think “it” is more consequential than you and me and the space we make for our children.
Please help me see my children, and children everywhere, for who they are. They’re only getting bigger.
by Kathryn Trudeau
The night I brought my oldest son home from the hospital was one I’ll never forget. Not because I was in love with him and was basking in the glow of an oxytocin-induced euphoria. Nope. In a word, our first night home was miserable.
Between my total and utter lack of experience combined with a baby who wanted nothing to do with sleeping anywhere but on me, I slept a grand total of two hours, got pooped on, and was sore everywhere. By the time the sun began to peek over the horizon, my tears were in full force. I thought, “How in the ever loving world am I going to survive?”
Fast-forward eight hours and my sweet mother was at my door, sprinkling her magic baby dust on my boy and showing me how things were done. She assured me these first few days were tough, but it gets better.
She was right: those early parenting struggles (lack of sleep, 23,423 diaper changes, and the crying) do pass and it does get better. But babies don’t stay babies, and pretty soon, you have a toddler on your hands and then a preschooler and, before you know it, an empty nest.
While each stage of parenting has its own special joys, each stage of parenting also comes with its own unique problems and struggles. As we level up, so do the challenges. In an effort to maintain some (even just a shred) of sanity, we often comfort ourselves by saying “It gets better.”
But does it? Are the struggles and woes of a toddler any better than the sleepless insanity of newbornhood? Are the struggles of the infamous teenage years really better than the unpredictable moods of a threenager? Is it better, or are we just trading problems?
Here’s the short version: it does get better. But not for the reason you might think.
As our children grow up, parenting gets better, but not because our children become saints overnight who learn to listen (the first time), clean up after themselves, use polite words, and never fight another day with their siblings. No, parenting gets better because we get better.
I see the truth in the phrase “little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.” So why do I still think parenting gets better? Because we have been strength training since day one. The day our child was born, we began strength training. Being a beginner, you had to ease into it. Gradually, you could add more weights until, one day, you were strong enough to compete in the Strongparent Competition.
Think about this: every player in the NFL at some point had never even held a football. He, too, was an inexperienced beginner. See where I’m going? At first, we’re given small problems, but at the time they seem BIG because that’s all we can handle. As we grow in patience and wisdom, we graduate to bigger problems, and we take it all in stride because we’ve been in training.
The little problems at the beginning (tantrums, relentless crying, sleeplessness) were huge, all-encompassing problems. They also built you up, toughened you up, and gave you the experience and wisdom to tackle bigger problems. So in a way, parenting becomes easier – not because the problems shrink – but because you become more experienced.
You also grow in love and understanding of your child. You alone know your child better than anyone else, and a love like that can give you strength you didn’t know you had.
It’s important to remember that even those NFL players make mistakes and have bad days. It won’t always be butterflies and rainbows, and you won’t have all the answers 100 percent of the time, but chances are your day-to-day life will get easier. At least you won’t always be covered in spit-up!
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