It is my belief that one of the biggest challenges in parenting is remembering that our child is an individual, separate and unique from us. They are on their own path and developing their own self that is outside of their relationship with us, their parent. When we hold this truth, our interactions with our children change drastically. We can see their own struggles as steps to their own successes. We can see their own emotions as valid and important. And we can step out of the way so that we can support them in their growth, rather than getting entangled and stonewalling them based on our own struggles and emotions.
But, maybe the second biggest challenge, next to honoring our child’s separate identity, is honoring our own.
We have to ask ourselves, who am I as a mom? What does it mean to be a parent? Where did the person I was go and where will the person I turn into come from? Who am I? What drives me, defines me, what makes me have a good day versus a bad day?
Having kids changes everything. We are probably all in agreement with that. We are forced to rethink how we operate in the world, what our expectations are and how we thrive. For some people this seems to happen flawlessly. Some new parents seem to naturally embrace a whole new identity, and others seem to have some superhero ability to balance parts of their previous lives with their new worlds. For many of us, however, it isn’t so easy.
Why is it that some of us cling tightly to our old selves, even if they don’t seem to fit anymore? It’s like those old jeans in the back of the closet that remind of us the way life used to be. You know the ones. The ones that made you feel sexy and young and vibrant. Because you were sexy and young and vibrant. But they will never, and I mean never, fit right again. Not that we are not sexy and vibrant. And maybe we are still young. But we are different. Our bodies are different, our sleep schedules are different, our responsibilities are different, our finances are different. Everything is, well, different. And those jeans? Well… They. Just. Don’t. Fit.
Some of us hold tightly to the idea that those jeans, and all the things we used to hold to be true in the past, are the only things that define what it means to be vibrant. While some of us see a completely new world of vibrant. And herein lies the difference. When we try to hold on to our old ways, we are prone to feeling alone, resentful, hopeless. When we fail to fully embrace the current path we are on, the old path becomes more and more enticing. We stay acutely aware of the path we are NOT on, and, while our attention is locked in on what we are missing, we miss what we have in front of us. We become blind to the beauty of this path.
So, how do they do it? How do those parents who slip gracefully and fully into the role of parent actually do it? There are some common threads that help these parents hold their new lives to be as vibrant as their old lives. Here are four that I think are particularly important:
1) These parents build a support group of other parents who are at the same stage as they are. This is not to say that they lose all connection with other friends and family. They may keep those too. But, almost across the board, those who are thriving in parenthood spend lots of time with other parents. Daddy groups, mama groups, play dates. It’s less for the kids and more for the parents. New parenthood is a tricky developmental stage for us and we need our peers to help us negotiate through it.
2) If asked to list out who they are, these parents put “Parent” in the number one spot. However, it is not the only spot. Parent, wife/husband, professional, friend, rock climber, poet, shopper, runner, jokester, whatever, the list remains long. But parent comes first. These parents seem to be able to make time and space to support and embrace their passions and identities outside of their children, but don’t get burdened down with resentment when the kids have to come first. Which they do. A lot.
3) These parents spend time talking about the good stuff that parenting brings. Venting, complaining and talking about the hard parts of parenting are tempting. But negative narrative begets negative feelings. The more we talk about how hard it is, the harder it feels. The truth is that no matter how hard things feel, there is always something good that we could be focusing on. Happy people tell happy stories. Sad people tell sad stories. Parents who embrace their lives as parents talk more about how great their kids are.
4) These parents build new family rituals and traditions. Pre-kid life is full of rituals that parenthood interrupts. Whether it was Wednesday night wine with the girls or Sunday golf or morning coffee at the shop before work, these rituals often get interrupted, put on hold or just plain forgotten. But, just because kids change the structure of our lives, doesn’t mean that we can’t find new rhythms and create new rituals. Rather than pining away over interrupted routines, these parents find what works with the new family system, kids included.
So, what do these four things have in common? Identity. They all anchor our identity as a parent. I often read lists of things that parents should do to take care of themselves. Find time alone, get a hobby, take a bubble bath, get sleep, ask for help. Absolutely. We should be doing all these things no matter who we are. But if we want to really thrive in parenting, if we really want to LOVE parenting, we need to find out who we are as parents. We need to embrace our identity as parents just as much as we need to embrace our children’s identity as individuals. We may not be able to fit into our old jeans anymore, but we certainly can rock the new ones!