Like a lot of people, I was pretty sure what kind of parent I was going to be.
Like everyone, I was SO wrong.
See, there are a lot of things I was wrong about. Having a child is nothing like having a dog, nothing like having a niece or even nannying. But that’s not it.
And it’s not just the bone-numbing exhaustion. The day-in, day-out relentlessness of it all. Nor is it the staggering tsunami of hormonal changes that renders you unrecognizable at a cellular level.
Nope. The part I least expected was the deep impact my child’s emotions would have on me. Like I’m feeling their feelings, only magnified 700 times.
Parenting feels much harder than it looks.
Almost seven years in, I am still completely floored when I hear my baby’s cry, my toddler’s whine, my child’s late-night whimper. I would run across hot coals to get to them. No question.
When you visualize your life as a parent, you think you will be able to make intellectual decisions the same way you’ve made them your whole life. You think that you will be able to follow a certain well-laid path. You underestimate the pull of that sharp cry. Really, you will do anything, ANYTHING to stop that cry. It is physically painful. It renders you absolutely useless.
This is why it is so hard for new parents to take a break, to leave their children with others. Why they can’t string two words together when their infant is fussing in their arms.
It is why parents of toddlers and preschoolers struggle so much with discipline, with boundaries, with consistency. It’s not because we are wishy-washy and pathetic. It’s because we are fighting a huge internal uphill battle every time we resist the whine of the little one before us.
The impact dulls a bit as they age but it is still overwhelming, all-encompassing. I still underestimate it every day. I lie in bed planning how I will respond in certain situations, but I completely forget to consider my emotions.
Sometimes I will try to put into words why a certain parenting situation was so difficult for me, and I will realize suddenly that so much of it was the way it made me feel. The way it could make only me feel. That’s a very lonely place to be sometimes.
I try to listen with a loving, empathetic feel to my friends’ tales of parenting woe, but sometimes my brain will oversimplify the situation, intellectualize it. I’ll underestimate the power of their emotions.
The thing is, parenting young children is not an intellectual exercise. It’s an often overwhelming exercise in constant empathy for a sometimes very difficult little person.
There is a silver lining, of course. A big one. Often I find myself magnifying my children’s joy as well. It’s why I laugh hysterically when I tickle them, why I can’t wait to read Pippi Longstocking or even Goodnight Moon for the two thousandth time. (But not Clifford–even my empathy can only go so far.)
Kids–and their parents–feel big joy. These days, drawing is more fun, cooking is an adventure, and I always queue up alongside my daughters for a turn on the swing. I take wonder in watching the leaves change, the plants peek up from the soil, in the feeling of sand beneath my toes.
Childhood is a time of big feelings. For us and them.
About the Author
Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and just launched a new blog Critical Playdate. She is mama to Ruby, 4, Quinn, 6, and Nora, 17 months. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.