the mother you are is the mother you need to be

Sleeping OwenMy fourth son, Owen, is a screamer.

It started when he was a baby. If I picked him up the wrong way, or accidentally bumped his sock-clad foot against the wall–verrry lightly–he’d burst into ear-splitting screams. There was no scaling up from whining to fussing to crying for Owen–it was 0 to scream in a second or less. Every insult, injury or need immediately resulted in shrieks that could not be calmed with my usual bag of soothing tricks. You’d have thought there were piranhas in his diaper.

Fast forward a few years. Owen will be four in a couple months, and he’s still got screamer tendencies. Most of the time he’s quiet and sweet, but once in a while a mix of sleepiness, hunger, disappointment, anger or hurt create a perfect storm and send him off into a fit. During those times I do my best not to escalate the tantrum, but also not to be a doormat or willing target for Owen’s rage. I won’t punish or belittle him for screaming, but I won’t allow him to do it in my face or ear or at the dining-room table, either. I try to blend my natural ability to tune out chaos with reasonable limits: after all, just because it doesn’t really bother me if Owen screams in my face, that doesn’t mean he should get the idea that it’s OK to do so, either.

I can see him getting a little bit more capable of controlling his emotions with every passing month, but of course, he won’t be completely over it by tomorrow. Screaming is part of who Owen is, due partly to his wiring and most likely partly to the fact that, as the youngest of four brothers, he learned that he had to be loud to be heard.

I’m just glad Owen’s not my first child. It would be so easy to assume there was something wrong with me, with my parenting, if my first baby had come out screaming and never stopped.

My first baby, Jacob, came out eager to please. He was a happy, easy baby and a well-behaved toddler. I got a taste of what it’s like to experience “mom success”, that feeling you get when people generally approve of you and your child, when you can get through an outing without breaking down in tears, when your confidence is boosted, rather than deflated, with each passing day.

toddler tantrum

Then came Isaac. He was one of “those” kids. You know the scene where the kid is running willy-nilly around a store and the mom is sweating and red-faced and trying to keep from breaking down in public? That was me for years. Isaac simply couldn’t and wouldn’t be controlled. He rarely responded to punishments. He reacted to Jacob’s typical big-brother teasing with red-faced rage and sometimes, violence. He responded to anger with indifference. In a few moments of desperation I spanked him, and he laughed at me. (talk about a humiliating moment).

In those days, I had doubts about whether I was the right kind of mom for Isaac, indeed, whether I was any kind of good mom at all. Obviously I had just lucked out with Jacob and couldn’t take credit for his easy-going nature. Maybe Isaac needed somebody more firm and authoritarian, to squelch those rebellious tendencies. Or maybe he needed somebody more nurturing and endlessly patient, to give him the acceptance he needed. Instead, he got me: usually patient, but liable to blow up under extreme pressure. Affectionate, but with a sarcastic streak. Occasionally too lenient. Occasionally too harsh, but always willing to apologize if I crossed a line. Trying hard, but imperfect, and apparently not very effective when matched against a strong-willed toddler.

The mom Isaac got may not have been the perfect mom for his temperament. But now ten years old, you’d never know Isaac was the same kid. By the time he was four or so, he started calming down. Now he’s quiet and respectful, even shy. He’s affectionate with his siblings and loving to his baby sister. He gets along with Jacob…most of the time. He listens to me, though the sparkle in his eye often gives away his true, devious feelings. He’s learned to use his intellect, rather than his body, as an outlet for his contrarian and rebellious nature. Instead of throwing toys, he now throws around big words. He bests us with his logic,  a battle I don’t mind losing once in a while. Obviously, I didn’t do everything right with Isaac, and yet here he is, a well-adjusted, successful and kind young man.

Isaac comes to mind when I see other moms I know struggling over the behavior or nature of their two or three or four-year-old child. Moms are understandably eager to finding a parenting style that will mold our kids into the kind of kids who fit in. We understandably want to be perceived as capable and competent. We understandably want to be in control of our homes. And we think that if we could just change X, Y, or Z about ourselves, our kids would suddenly get in line and would realize that the world is a better place when they just behave themselves.

But is that really the way it works?

Don’t get me wrong–I know most parents have room to improve. It’s helpful to find new strategies to put in the parenting toolbox. I’m certainly not suggesting that parents take an “Eh, whatever, this is just the way I am!” approach to parenthood. But I think we have to be true to ourselves in all this, too. You have to have faith in the kind of mother you are at heart. Because I think that’s the mother you need to be.

Sometimes new moms will ask me if I think it’s important for a baby to be on a schedule. To that I always ask “How important is a schedule to you?” To me, that’s the real question. I’m naturally laid-back. A schedule would make me crazy, and I don’t think babies need them. But that doesn’t mean some moms may not need them. I allow my kids to have freedoms that would make other people cringe. Then again, I hold tight to certain standards that other parents don’t put as high a value on. That doesn’t mean I’m right and they’re wrong. It simply means that we have different needs and values.

I know I am constantly trying to improve as a mom, but I try hard to do it within the framework of my personality. I no longer even look at books or websites that seem completely at odds with what I believe in my heart to be true about myself and my children. If I have major philosophical differences with another parent or expert, it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect them, but I’m not going to frustrate myself (or confuse my kids) by trying to make their philosophy fit in my life. After all, improving as a parent isn’t about adopting somebody else’s style. It’s about tweaking your approach while still respecting your own instinctive style.

Your child(ren) will change many times while growing up. And if you have more than one, they’ll all change in drastically different ways. You’ll find that the things that seem so fraught when they’re young are completely forgotten later. There will be times your strategies will work and you’ll have that peaceful trip to Target you were hoping for. But plenty of times it’ll go horribly wrong, no matter how good a parent you are, no matter how deep your toolbox. You have to be true to yourself, because at the end of one of those bad, bad days, what else have you got? And really, what else have your kids got?

Owen is going to be who he is today, tomorrow, and ten years from now. I’m trying to remember that I’m not just parenting him for today, but for ten and twenty and thirty years from today. I can’t change him, but I can encourage him to be the best version of who he is. And I can only really do that if I’m trying to be the best version of who I really am.

I can’t guarantee results: nobody can. But if I’m being the real me, and letting my kids be the real them, it’ll come through loud and clear. And to me, thats the proof in the pudding: not a quiet home or well-behaved toddlers, or preschoolers with consistently good table manners or school kids who always speak respectfully, or teenagers who never lash out or young adults who never make mistakes, but a family in which everybody is encouraged to be the best possible version of him or herself. Even Mom.

Scratch that. Especially Mom.

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