It’s been a minute since my last #momlife post, and also (1) days with no meltdowns in Casa Pfeiffer.
Time flies when you are in a pandemic, struggling to stay sane during distance learning, dealing with adult ADD while parenting an ADHD child, evacuating from wildfires, and trying to vote white supremacy out of existence.
This is for parents who sometimes wonder if they are good enough (which means ALL parents, and yes, you ARE good enough), but also for people without kids who wonder what could’ve been if their own parents were a maybe just a smidge more supportive or understanding.
You see, yesterday Julian — my 6 year old — woke us up by coming to our bed, talking his head off as per usual: he is ON from the moment he opens his eyes at 6-ish in the morning until he finally closes them at bedtime. Julian is a million-words-per-second type of guy who asks “why” and “what do you mean” as a habit, has the brain of a middle-aged space engineer, the curiosity of an adventurous marine biologist, and the ambition and confidence of a billionaire superhero. Which, understandably, can be quite annoying in the early hours if you happen not to be a morning person.
I used to be a morning person before I had kids... I loved being up at sunrise to greet the day and slowly, calmly work up to starting whatever I was doing. Johnny, my 8 year old, is like that. You’d do well not to talk to him before he’s had breakfast and/or an hour of solitary and contemplative play in his room.
But there’s no stopping Julian, and there he was, blabbing about numbers, Animal Crossing, or jellyfish, the “sh” sounds coming out lisp-y through his missing baby teeth, his morning breath too close to my face for comfort, his cheeks so kissable and his small, dense body so pleasantly heavy on mine. And then he said it, the one thing every parent hopes to hear but rarely does.
The impromptu, genuine original child’s idea that’s been informed by years of your tireless efforts and guidance:
“I want us all to have a good morning!”
He looked at me with his big eyes, so pleased with himself for hitting a spot, because he knew this simple sentence meant so much.
It meant no stress or rushing to school, good behavior and getting along with his brother, and only doing things we enjoy, like eating a big breakfast and fitting in a few minutes of video games before we go.
I was like “awww yes, yes we WILL have a good morning!” and then we promptly went on to have a positively bad morning. It was so bad that we all cried, and it ruined everyone’s entire day.
Julian took 30 minutes to put pants on. He tried to interrupt his dad in the bathroom while brandishing a madeleine cookie through the house leaving a trail of crumbs behind, then stood up on the counter stool even though he knew it’s dangerous and not allowed. Johnny said he was hungry, but when we called him for breakfast he said he wasn’t, because he was busy playing legos on the floor. Regular kid stuff by all accounts, that would normally make for a regular family morning. But somehow, at some point, it escalated and everything took a sinister turn which prompted me to have an epiphany: my kids do not understand or care for rules and routine.
I tried to tell John— but a piece of unsolicited advice: don’t start deep conversations with your partner in the midst of a busy, stressful morning. He tried to listen, but the boys kept talking over me, as kids do, and I kept getting more agitated, raising my voice higher and higher; this made John upset and he was like, whoa, take it down a notch (in his own words), which fired me up further and long story short, regrettable things were said.
In the meantime, the kids did what any reasonable person would do—they removed themselves from the kitchen, hid in Johnny’s room, and closed the door. John and I argue occasionally, but we don’t fight, and when it does happen it’s awful in every possible sense. Of course, ugly fights between people who love and respect each other as a rule are never about one particular topic, they result from misplaced negative feelings about some other, personal issue that spills out and mares everything.
I was mad about the fact that I was having trouble dealing with the boys in the morning due to their reluctance to follow a routine. The effort it took to make them follow a routine was unpleasant and exhausting. It always is. But after all the introspection I had done in recent days and weeks, I was mentally ready to move on from being that person who spends her entire morning telling people what and what not to do.
Such evolution—creating habits via repetition—is a process, and my kids haven’t yet gotten the memo...and even if they did, behavioral changes require time to take hold and become habits, so I ended up breathing in a paper bag, John got called “a stupid idiot” by Julian, and Johnny had a crappy day at school.
I would erase this entire day if I could, do it all over differently, but I can’t. So figure it out I must, and avoid it repeating I shall.
*cue flashback music*
In the beginning, it was the physical tiredness that I resented.
The effort of pregnancy and the exertion of labor, the post-partum fatigue and sleep deprivation. My health was all but ruined and I ached all the time. Making kids drains you, spends your energy, pushes you to your very limits of survival. It was a shock to find myself in such a sorry state, and it depressed me to struggle in my own body. I knew it would be hard, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be that hard.
And I was angry. I spent half a decade being pissed at the price I’d paid for starting a family. It didn’t seem fair that I wanted this and I loved it, but I had to suffer through it instead of enjoy it... It was big bummer altogether, and I was forced to crawl my way out of bitterness while trying to fix the damage done to my body, a slow, painful, and at times a seemingly impossible task.
I didn’t get my body back, but eventually I did find a new way to be—there is life after babies, and it is a good life...
As they grow, the demands become less physical, and now I understand what John kept telling me: it’s the emotional part that’s truly exhausting. I used to dismiss him; what do men even know about carrying a baby for 10 months, about childbirth, breastfeeding, and leaky bladders when you sneeze?! But once I felt well enough to take stock and to be able to start processing the absolute and fundamental change from being just me to being a mother, I finally got it.
Kids are pieces of us, and we can’t help but feel everything they feel.
They are also their own people.
The flip side of empathy is the emotional burden of coping with this extra set of emotions, and one of the greatest challenges of parenting is making sure that you do that right. For there is right and wrong way of raising children, because it is entirely possible (and very much probable) that despite your best efforts you'll end up fucking them up.
None of us have escaped unscathed from childhood, without some fear, insecurity, or trauma, and it’s only reasonable to want better for your own kids. To avoid the classic projection of expectations, to provide for them everything you lacked but also not spoil them, to protect them yet teach them how to take care of themselves, to guide them into becoming decent, capable humans without suffocating them or inhibiting their desires; to help them grow confident and free to express themselves but also to learn about failure, and about coping with their own feelings.
That’s the exhausting part—the emotional development. They learn to aim better when they pee and to sleep through the night; they learn to read and write, and to tie their shoes; they learn about the real world, about friendship and heartbreak, about sharks and volcanoes, about politics, history, and stuff like death, fame, riches, and Roman numerals.
But they keep looking up to you while living their young lives, and they keep demanding attention, validation, and help throughout it all. Through fights with their brother, when having difficulty leveling up in their video game, and while they gear up to start something new and unfamiliar—they turn to you and ask questions, cry, whine, beg, tell stream-of-consciousness stories and make jokes... or just sit there and simmer in their own grumpy, angsty sauce waiting for you to play detective and try investigate what’s wrong: are they sad, mad, or just hungry /constipated?
It’s a roller coaster, the emotional side of parenting, and I want to level up too.
I want to remain attuned to, and synchronized with my kids, but start to better recognize the nuances of their demands' importance.
I want to become able to draw boundaries for the sake of my own emotional well-being.
A certain kind of scope and perspective is required to keep growing as a person as well as a parent; and I realize that in order to put a much necessary and healthy distance between my kids’ emotions and my own, I’d need to be objective—the one thing I hardly ever am as a mother.
I am a cool mom, a strict mom at times, a touchy-feely mom, a feminist mom, a fun-loving, lego-playing, singing-with-the-radio mom, and more, but whatever the label, I am always invested. I always worry. I am a rational, well educated and traveled, emancipated person, but as a parent I am anything but objective because when it come to my kids, I filter everything through the prism of love and care.
Love is what I feel for them, a huge, omnipotent and omnipresent love, and care is what I owe them, what my role is.
And here’s when things get really tricky...
It is not uncommon that we get carried away with loving them and caring for them. Navigating daily life with kids is by definition a hot mess, and most of the time we’re all winging it. It takes everything to get through even the simplest situations, and we rarely have a moment to use the bathroom in peace, let alone reflect on fundamental changes and improvements in parental strategies.
And 2020 hasn’t exactly been a calm, relaxing opportunity allowing us to step back and see things objectively. The kids are perpetually home, there is nowhere else to go, school is closed/remote, and the world out there is growing increasingly more insane and dangerous. 2020 was a setback for parents and kids alike. The side effects of the pandemic and the political crisis are regressive in every sense, and very few of us have the luxury to be concerned with anything other than mere survival.
Given that I indeed have that privilege, I also have the responsibility to utilize it and try to solve the puzzle of emotional co-dependence:
I am influenced and affected by my kids because they are the most precious thing in my life, and because I understand how high are the stakes.
My kids demand support, as it is the foundation of their emotional development.
Where does the healthy and necessary emotional boundary lie?
How do I achieve some sort of a balance between loving them and caring for them, and meeting my personal needs?
What is the key to getting less carried away emotionally to the point of frustration—which leads to exhaustion, and to remaining objective more often—which is constructive?
Parenting doesn’t stop. It’s everything all the time.
But there must be space for reason somewhere within entropy, and a chance to make deliberate, though-out choices parallel to improvising while trying to survive the day.
With kids, every plan is next to last, this much is true. All expectations and intentions, no matter how well-meant, could go out the window the moment anything changes, and with kids everything changes constantly.
We have learned to be flexible and adapt to these, both external and internal changes, and to be ready to face most unexpected developments. I know I am tougher than I was 8 years ago. There are very few things I can’t deal with after being pooped on, kicked in the boobs, bitten, and woken up on the hour at night; after screaming tantrums in public, after runs to the emergency room and the turmoils of so many first school days; after refereeing sibling rivalry, nursing boo-boos and comforting nightmares; after explaining hard truths about life and where babies come from, and so on.
But as strong and determined I am as a mother, I find that drawing, and moreover—maintaining emotional boundaries will be somehow harder than to keep letting those emotions affect me. It’s a crazy situation!
Undoubtedly, it has to be done. It’s time. And it’s imperative: the ability to parent more objectively is beneficial to all parties involved, because it allows for emotions to be a positive driving force instead of leading to meltdowns/breakdowns due to their enormity and intensity—and potentially to long lasting trauma.
It’s a big deal for me—not to control or eliminate, but to channel my feelings, and thus to evolve from my own childhood trauma for the purposes of my mental health, and also for the sake of modeling emotional maturity and balance for the boys.
The key to solving this is structure.
I’ve come full circle to realize that time management and having a routine is what I so badly need in order to function efficiently as a parent. It the one practical thing that can provide an objective and rational framework that eliminates the emotional extremity of motherhood.
Feeling my feelings is one thing, but letting them get in the way of my relationship with my kids is quite another.
I need balance in my life. Motherhood is anything but predictable and simple, and I struggle with focusing to begin with.
Utilizing a routine that works for me could as well be the saving grace of this year.
Mostly, it’s fine. Weekends are great. It’s easy during summer vacations and winter breaks to let them be the feral creatures they are: country boys who have favorite large sticks and don’t own a pair of pants without holes in them.
My children are indeed a joy to have on a week off, when there’s nothing else to do but play, and play some more.
The big one—an outgoing, artistic child with ADHD who spontaneously bursts into song and dance. The little one—a master Duplo architect who does math for fun and thrives on attention.
Both obsessed with animals and fantasy battles and candy. They are happy children. They have a great life. We have inside jokes and family traditions. “The Pfeiffers always keep their promises!” We share and we tell each other the truth. We normalize being human (“Everyone farts, even the queen of England!”) and we genuinely like being together, hanging out, doing things.
The struggle comes when there are rules to be followed, in a controlled environment.
School work to stay on top of, house chores to help with, appointments to be on time for.
It seems like my kids are not only uninterested in having a structure or being on a schedule...they actively oppose it.
Kids are notoriously chaotic, and inherently disorganized. Those are skills they need learn in order to function as adults, and maintaining a routine is in fact an intrinsic element of successful parenting.
It provides a sense of predictability and security for the kids, and allows parents to stay (relative) sane.
But with the boys, and probably with most kids, the effort it takes to repeatedly enforce the rules—hoping they will become habits, and to manage a regular schedule—to ensure their sense of security, and a smooth daily routine (plus having some semblance of control over my own time) is driving me wild. Positively bonkers.
The emotional effort is unbearably stressful at times. It’s distracting and unsettling, as I already have trouble using my own time properly, and watching my children (happily) flail around and goofing off when they are supposed to be doing something else makes me panic.
I can deal with prepping meals and packing backpacks, with helping with schoolwork and with doing the same mundane chores over and over again, every day of the week. They are easy; I love my life, my home, and my kids, and physically caring for them doesn’t require absurd amounts of mental power and emotional strength.
But dealing with my kids’ forceful reluctance to accept, respect, and get actively involved in a routine with set rules is the hardest thing yet.
I find myself turning into the kind of parent I swore I’d never become: yelling at them to hurry, micromanaging their every move, constantly reminding them about things they keep forgetting, correcting and censoring and yes, even nagging, and generally hating every second of it.
That’s not me.
I’m not that parent, and I’m certainly not that person.
I do have bottom lines. Our family values are important. I don’t have a problem with telling them a firm, non-negotiable NO when it comes to certain things and behaviors. And I love being their mother, including when this role entails unpleasant and difficult, but necessary guidance and protection. It’s a part of the package.
What I hate is fighting with my own children about stupid shit, and getting all fired up about trivial things.
It so happens that life is too short to waste it by feeling like an evil stepmother to my own kids... and yet that same short life is made up of a long string of mundane daily moments, and no matter how philosophical I can be about it all, I still end up faced with the very real and frequent situation of someone taking 30 infuriating minutes to put pants on when they should be practicing spelling instead while I’m cleaning cat spit-up off the carpet at the sound of giggles/screams and something crashing in the background, all before 8 am.
Sure, I’m tough and I’m aware that this is what I signed up for when I decided to have crotch goblins, but there’s always room for improvement.
I want to keep embracing entropy where creativity and impulsivity are encouraged, but minimize the self-inflicted chaos.
I want to level up.
I want to create a routine that balances my kid’s spontaneous nature and gives us all a sense of normalcy and security, that goes further than the basic consistency of bedtime and mealtimes we already have.
The disruption caused by this year’s events erased my sense of stability, and I want it back. I’ve had enough improvisation for now; we adapted to the craziness as well as we could. We brought the kids with us to protest. We homeschooled them. We did our best to turn the fire evacuation into an adventure. We forsake the calendar all summer and went with the flow, and we made sure we were available and open to our kids’ emotional needs during this crisis.
The boundaries didn’t serve us for awhile, but now they are needed once more.
Healthy, constructive boundaries.
*even more dramatic flashback music*
I spent a lot of time alone in hotel rooms these past weeks, looking for ways to rebuild these boundaries. I’m writing again, and I’m writing a lot. Most of my writing is about my past, and it’s an amazing tool for introspection. I call it “auto-therapy”, digging deep and analyzing how the way I was raised led me to become the person I am today.
Examining my own childhood helped me trace and crystallize what motivates and drives me in my own parenting methods.
Here’s what I found:
Rational fears are, in some way, worse than irrational fears because they can really come true.
We eventually grow out of fearing getting eaten by a monster under the bed because we learn that there’s no such thing as monsters (or better yet, that they don’t live under the bed, but in the news and in the real world, and sometimes right next door).
No matter how mature we become, however, we hardly ever shake the fear of losing loved ones or seeing them get hurt — by others, or as a result of their own actions and choices.
And when we love deeply, we fear strongly.
And when we fear we worry.
And when we worry, we do everything in our power to protect our family from the world, and from themselves.
This happened to me.
Growing up in post-communist Bulgaria was difficult for many reasons, one of them being trying to survive in a deep economic crisis. The political shift was so fundamental it affected every aspect of society. Until the late 80’s, which was during most of my childhood, my family (just like all Bulgarians) was financially stable, with a fixed income and guaranteed employment, with savings and enough disposable cash to live comfortably and lack nothing in the current system (as broken as it was).
Then, just as I was hitting puberty, it all collapsed and suddenly my family had to deal with unfamiliar side effects of capitalist democracy. There was a total inflation, mass unemployment, and a raise of corruption and organized crime, resulting in poverty and inequality we never knew before. The future was bleak and uncertain, and my parents struggled to keep the family together, to provide for my sister and I, to protect us. They loved us so much, and they sacrificed more than I could ever imagine in those turbulent years.
My mom and dad didn’t have much time or energy left for anything but tough love, driven by worry—they knew that things are rough out there, and that if my sister and I were to make it, that we’d have to figure out what we’re going to do early on. And that became a problem.
I was a girl who loved rock music and was interested in making out with boys and staying out late. I wanted to develop whatever talent I had into a career in art. I was reading books and watching movies as a way to escape reality (quite understandable given how ugly reality was back then) and I dreamed up fantastic scenarios about my life as a hobby, because above all I haven’t yet figured out what or who I want to be.
Unfortunately, my parents didn’t think this was a great plan. And when they pushed me to study harder and choose a field to pursue, I pushed back. They loved me, they wanted me to succeed, and they worried about me, but instead of telling me this they, for one reason or another, decided that the most effective and straightforward way to my safety and success is to be forced into it.
My parents didn’t take the time or effort to explain why getting a business degree or learning a language would be more practical and lucrative path in a country ravaged by recession. Art wasn’t going to pay the bills, and my propensity for daydreaming and partying certainly didn’t instill confidence in them that I’ll be okay out there on my own.
And really, I get it. It was a lot for them, a painful whole lot. I don’t hold it against them, but the fact remains:
my parents failed to consider letting me try it my way, and they outright refused to support my endeavors, however immature or impractical they seemed.
I was a teenager in the 90’s, and rebelling against authority was the thing to do. Remember? The future was dead. Nothing mattered. Nihilism was in style, and rejecting the values of previous generations.
So when my parents’ worries became expectations, the expectations became a burden, and their originally well-intended hopes for me got lost in translation, and it was a mess.
It’s the oldest story in the book, and it would’ve been funny in a very particular, bittersweet and grungy, way if it didn’t fuck me up for decades to come. Not only I did a lot of stupid shit to spite my parents when I was young, but I also had to deal with the emotional weight of their unmet expectations.
We have a wonderful relationship now, for much more happened since, and a lot of it was good, and we are long past this old conflict. Yet it did something to me. It gave me a long-lasting complex I just recently started to overcome.
I am almost 40, older than my parents were when I was a teen on the path of self-discovery, and still I fight against the implications of their disappointment.
When I wanted to paint, write, or be in a band, my parents discarded my ambitions.
When I wanted to experience different things, meet people, or try something new, they criticized and condemned my behavior.
I didn’t receive the moral support or emotional validation I craved back then, and this gave me a message: “you are not good enough”.
Moreover, whenever I tried to reach for my dreams, without my parents’ permission and despite of their disapproval, they were upset and hurt.
This negative reaction coming from the people I loved the most made me believe deep inside that if I went my own way and did my own thing, I will fail.
We have always been a close family and we always loved each other strongly. As a small child, I never lacked affection or confidence in how my mom and dad felt about me. So once my parents stopped believing that I will be fine, or even more than fine—successful—thanks to my own methods and efforts, I was heartbroken. Their opinions were important to me, and I depended on them to trust me and stand by me while I grow and develop. I needed their protection and their guidance, but I also wanted the freedom to make my own mistakes and learn from them. Their heart was in the right place, but the way they showed their concerns was detrimental.
I know that now. And I accept it, and I forgive them, because I turned out alright.
But it has to be said:
It is not right to try to prevent your children from being who they are and doing what they love just because you worry for them.
Wanting the best for them isn’t a good reason to force your own ideas on them, and discredit theirs.
Making mistakes is human and love should not be conditioned upon success. When parents withhold love and approval, they are effectively punishing their children for trying.
The trauma of failed parental expectations teaches kids that the way they do things is wrong, that the things they do aren’t meaningful or valuable, and that they themselves aren’t capable or worthy. And worst of all, that if they dare to go against these expectations anyway, this will cost them the love of their parents.
I’ve been fighting against my own insecurity forever, and it’s exhausting.
I had to prove myself to myself so many times before I finally believed myself. I had to realize that the only approval and validation I needed was my own, and that I am to live as I wish, and do whatever I want, the way I want, free from the burden of how that would make others feel.
There was a lot of shame, a lot of sadness. But I did it. I became my true self, a person I can look in the eyes in the mirror and not feel the urge to flinch. And I did it by following my own rules, by learning from my own mistakes, and by giving myself permission to feel grace and joy in the process, not guilt.
I don’t have to pretend anymore, or be someone else in order to be accepted and appreciated.
I still have a lot of work to do, but I am at peace.
I used to equate love with debt, responsibility with pain, and success with giving up on my dreams. I was so wrong! I was afraid to fully devote myself to writing, to art, to life because I believed that if I do, I will mess it up and lose it all.
It’s exactly the opposite, and this is the most precious thing I’ve learned both as a person and as a parent:
Our kids will be okay.
They are their own people. They make their own choices. They need to, and they simply have to live their own lives. This includes making mistakes and failing, getting hurt, putting themselves out there.
We as parents have one job, and one job only—support them, cheer them on, believe in them, be there for them, help them and protect them, and provide for them, and just love them through it all.
Love them hard.
No matter our worries and expectations, no matter our hopes for them or even our opinions for what they do, love them.
Make them trust that they are good enough to be happy, and trust them enough to let them enjoy their happiness.
I understand now that a lot of my frustration with parenting comes from inadvertently projecting my feelings onto my kids, and that my inability to be objective comes from the complexes I used to harbor.
I trust my boys. I respect them. I admire their abilities and I appreciate their ideas. They will be okay.
Maintaining emotional boundaries is only possible if and when I stop trying to teach my kids who to be and how to live, and start helping them do their thing, and how to freely and fully be themselves.
And that, my friends, is hard and scary, but is worth the world.