Hi. My name is Zach, and I’m a parent.
If that sounds kind of like the introduction you’d hear at at 12-step meeting, it’s because that’s kind of how I feel about parenting. I’m addicted to it. I can’t help it. I can’t get enough of it. Sometimes I hate it. It might ruin me. But it’s who I am.
In addition to being an addict – I mean a parent – I’m also a husband. My wife, Rebecca, won’t mind me telling you that we’ve been happily married 17 out of 18 years. Together we parent two girls who are now 9 and 13.
I should probably mention that professionally, I’m a therapist. A couple’s therapist, actually. So I spend a lot of time helping couples make sense of the complex ins and outs of their relationship dynamics both with one another and with their kids.
I speak often to PEPS groups and I always say the same thing: I wish I could tell you that it gets better. But it doesn’t. It just gets different.
It’s always exactly what it is now. Wonderful and terrifying and amazing and awful and beautiful and still mostly wonderful. More often than not, however, I feel like I’m totally messing it up.
Technically, I’m supposed to an expert on something called emotional intelligence. But Rebecca will be the first to tell you that sometimes the cobbler’s kids have no shoes.
I think we’re confident that our girls will grow up to be decent adults – they’ll be able to take care of themselves, they’ll find rewarding work, they’ll have fun, and create meaningful relationships. I think we’ve done a pretty good job managing the big picture.
It’s the day to day that wrecks me. We do what the rest of you do: We take them to school, arrange playdates, drive them to the sports and activities they love, we help them with homework and snuggle them up at bedtime.
BUT, we also raise our voices, have petty competitions, spend too much money on junk food and toys they’ll never play with. We create multi-colored, multi-columned chore charts that are in the recycling bin by the time the next episode of Girl Meets World is finished. The last time we started a chore chart, my 9 year old said, “It doesn’t really matter because we won’t be doing this in two weeks.”
The other day, my older daughter wouldn’t pull her nose out of her cell phone at a restaurant. I’d asked her a few times to join the family, but with just one more text, I snapped and made a scene in front of Judy Fu and everyone. She looked at me with all the contempt of a full blown teenager and said: “I’m sorry, but how come you get to look at your phone all the time but I can’t.
My kids are attuned to my deepest fear, that I’m a terrible parent.
My daughter is right about the phone. The perfect symbol of the first reason I’m a terrible parent. I’m distracted. At the moment I wrote this essay, I had three screens within arms’ reach and the television was on. This is how I relax after an evening filled with math facts, soccer practice, singing…always with the singing…half eaten dinner, fighting about what constitutes a brushed tooth, and bedtime…oh by the way can you bring me a glass of fresh water…and oh by the way please remember to lock all the doors…oh by the way, oh by the way…
But it’s not just technology. It’s work and bills and what are we having for dinner? But the fact remains, when I am distracted, I am not setting a very good example. I can blame it on screens all I want, but I’m a grown up so I need to take responsibility for my behavior – which probably means I have to refrain from having my own tantrums in restaurants.
Another reason I’m a terrible parent is that I’m tired. I may not be getting up in the middle of the night anymore (or at least as often). Though when PEPS groups ask me about how to handle sleep deprivation, I do take a certain kind of sadistic glee in telling them about how my now 13 year old didn’t sleep through the night for five…years. I spend more than a few days crying at my desk and I don’t even work for Amazon.
Still, I am often really, really tired. This is usually because I’m edgy from a long day, or my back hurts, or it’s Thursday. I just want to put my head down for one minute. But the minutes add up and I often miss critical opportunities to connect with my kids. And they want my best energy. Not leftover energy. So, I’m learning how to take better care of myself. The other night I went all in with the kids for a few hours after work and was still asleep by 9:40. It was pure bliss.
I blame my mom and dad for the third reason I’m a terrible parent. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of regard and gratitude for the job my folks did bringing me up, but I grew up in the south in the 70s and 80s and it’s safe to say that parenting in Seattle in 2016 is really different.
Our first and primary lessons about how to parent come from our parents. That can have pros and cons, but whatever it is, it’s not uniquely ours. When I was a kid, it was more of a Father Knows Best world, but that’s not how I want to run my house.
I want my girls to know that that no matter what they are feeling, they are allowed to feel it. And I want to do my best to understand. Turns out there’s a word for this: Empathy.
Empathy is about really understanding another person – what they want and what they believe. I think it’s really hard for adults to do this with children, especially if we’re convinced that what we want and what we believe is “best” for them. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I know what’s best for my kids.
I owe it to my kids to learn as much as I can about what they think is best for them and what it’s like for them to live their world. I don’t think I ever really got this from my folks. But I don’t have to be stuck in the patterns my parents modeled for me. I have permission to model something new.
As a parent and as a husband and as a therapist, I hope empathy is at the core of that modeling. I firmly believe that it’s the the secret sauce. The essential, complicated, hard to learn, especially when you’re distracted and tired and ill-equipped, secret sauce.
So…where does that leave me? What would I say to me if I came into my office and said, “I think I’m a terrible parent”?
I would say, to me, “Take it one day at a time. Relax. Calm down. Give yourself a break. With parenting (and with relationships) slow and steady wins the race.”
That said, be intentional about your moments. Put the phone down. Turn off the TV. Check your email later. Practice self-care. Get some sleep. Drink plenty of water. Exercise…maybe even with your kids.
Pay attention. By all means pay attention. PEPS caters to those first few years, but man do they fly. If my girls leave home at 18, I officially have less time with them than I’ve had. And it happened like this. Snap.
Pause long enough to become aware of and enjoy the moments and the emotions that make parenting so challenging and wonderful. And maybe try a little bit of reverse empathy. Take a minute, or several, to see the world through your children’s eyes. Chances are they think you’re a pretty great parent.
About the Author
Zach Brittle, LMHC and author of The Relationship Alphabet, has been teaching, coaching, and counseling couples for over 15 years. He is Certified Gottman Therapist with a private practice specializing in evidence based couples therapy. Zach and his wife have been happily married for 17 out of 18 years. They live in Seattle, WA with their two daughters. They own a mini-van and most of the silverware they got as wedding presents.
Good stuff Mr. Brittle!