Are you new to this parenting gig? About to give birth or adopt or take on a foster placement? Or maybe you’ve had one easy kid, and are about to go to two and sense that things are about to change radically. Or maybe you have them, but you feel like you are missing something in the “how to stay sane and meet everyone’s needs” department. I want to give you the single most important piece of advice I have – which is about how not to lose your mind as a parent. I know, I know the title isn’t all that prepossessing, but stick with me.
Let’s say you just had or adopted a beautiful baby. You can’t imagine anything more wonderful than rocking and holding this wondrous, sweet creature. You are filled with joy and love. Right now she’s soothed by your motion, or taking a breast or bottle and absolutely peaceful. Life is perfect. Except for one thing.
You really need to go to the bathroom. Like now.
If you put her down, she’s going to scream. If you try and and do what you need to do, you’ll have to shuffle her around and move a lot and she’s going to scream. What do you do? You get stressed. Because either you put her needs first or yours, and yours are increasingly urgent. But if she screams, you’ll feel terrible – almost as bad as you will feel if you don’t. So what to do? What’s my wisdom? And could I hurry up with it, because remember, there’s something you have to do?
You should have gone before you became a parent. Now you can hold it for eighteen years. Problem solved.
Ok, I’m sort of kidding.
This is just the first of many times that you will find yourself in this situation – you need to take a crap, and your kid needs you right now. Or maybe you need to go to work and your kid needs to go to Little League or school or play rehearsal and you cannot miss any more work. Or you need to cook dinner and your kid needs to memorize their times tables. Or change the new baby’s diaper while your toddler is having a tantrum. Or maybe your need is less of a need than a really, really want because you are dying to take five minutes breathe all alone for a few minutes and they will not let you and if you don’t you feel you are going to scream. Whatever it is, taking a crap is a metaphor for every single moment for the next two decades in which you will find yourself struggling to balance the needs of child and adult. That very first conflict, when the baby needs you and you need to go – that’s the beginning of all the stuff that makes us feel like failures.
You may feel like if you were a good parent, you would put your needs aside. Or maybe you’ll just feel resentful that you should feel that way. Or maybe you’ll just be overwhelmed and believe that no matter what you do you are failing. You will make plans for how you are going to fit in this one thing, and then you will panic when they are overturned and it doesn’t work and feel worse. And then you will look over and someone like me, who has 10 kids and think “She must have this figured out. I’m never going to figure it out.”
Lo, young Grasshopper, I can help with this one. Because I did sort of figure it out – not perfectly, not magically, I still lose my mind occasionally (or more), but I do sort of know how to handle this one. And the truth is that probably 50% of the hard in parenting is this – when your needs and your kids needs are not in any way aligned and they are both incredibly pressing. This makes us crazy, it makes us yell, it makes us panic, it makes us anxious and miserable and convinced we’re bad. It is the root of a lot of parent crazy.
The reason I have ten kids and have not killed anyone or run away to Mexico isn’t because I don’t have experience with this – it is because I’m USED to dealing with this. You can’t make all the feelings go away, but you can manage them, including managing your own sense that you suck. So I’m going to offer some strategies for taking a crap. They will not fix everything in your life, but maybe they’ll help you do feel better while you are doing it, give up that little extra anger and frustration at yourself. Maybe it will even make your life easier. I will also assume that you are not so dumb that “get help” didn’t occur to you – either you are in a situation where help isn’t available or all or both of you are just so overwhelmed that more is not better. So let us begin.
1. Expect it to be a problem. The first thing to do is recognize the problem, and recognize that it is a real and legitimate issue, not a sign of personal failure – that is, you have to poop, it is going to happen at inconvenient times, and it is going to be a pain to deal with. You are not failing, you are just doing what parents do – dealing as best you can. Same with getting out the door to work and school. Same with helping with homework. Same with dealing with a tantruming toddler. It is going to happen, so don’t let it surprise you. If you are watching for it, you will expect it. Let’s be honest, half of your parenting life you will be squeezing something back that you’d rather let out. Half of your life as a parent you’ll be wishing you could do something else or anxious because you aren’t doing it. It is not the fun part of this gig, but it is normal.
2. Go before you leave. Imagine you are four again and your mother is reminding you to go potty every single time you leave the house for more than two seconds. Look for opportunities in your life to take a crap. Remember how when your parents reminded you to go before you left you argued that you didn’t have to? But it was still a good idea. Same principle here – try and go before it gets urgent, even when you don’t need to. Same with everything else – just because you never really thought about putting dinner in the crockpot at 6am before, and dinner seems kind of gross at that hour doesn’t mean the 10 minutes you have free then wouldn’t be well used that way. Yeah, you can do homework over breakfast. Feed the baby in the car if you have to. I put out everyone’s clothes for tomorrow and pajamas often at 7am – because that’s when I can, and it is easier than finding them at the last minute. On weekdays, dinner has to be done before lunch often – do what you can, when you can.
3. Accept that the best laid plans of Mice and Moms gang aft agley. You want to know what makes my spouse insane? Breakfast. Not so much providing it to everyone, but when he thinks he’s finally provided oatmeal, cereal, toast, whatever to all the relevant children and can finally, finally eat his own breakfast – and someone needs seconds, or spills their oatmeal, or throws it at their sister. You know when you have a plan in mind, and you are super committed to it, and you are almost there and it gets derailed – and you go completely nuts because you have worked yourself up into the feeling that it has to work this way? Yeah, me too. But if you go into ita figuring that you are going to have to wipe up at least one bowl of oatmeal and stick the toast seconds into the toaster anyway beforee someone asks, you might just get to eat. Same with taking a crap – you’ve convinced yourself that you just have to get this one thing in before everyone is back from school and it doesn’t work….panic. Instead, have a couple of mental backup plans – then you’ll be pleased if you get to the bathroom before the bus comes.
4. Is this a real need? Prioritize. Seriously, how bad do you have to go? Sometimes, you really have to. And sometimes you are just accustomed to doing it now. If you have to, you have to. But remember, if it isn’t an emergency, don’t treat it as one. Similarly, you may HAVE to go to work, but getting the dishes done before you go to bed is a want, not a need. Sometimes we get more worked up over wants, and that’s normal, particularly if you’ve been deferring your wants for a few years or decades and it feels like “This one damned time, I just want to…” but do remember it is a want – and there’s probably a time when you CAN get that want met, even if it isn’t right now.
5. Your child will learn to live with the disappointment. You know, if you put your baby down on the floor or in her carseat or in the infant chair to go to the bathroom, and she cries, she’ll be ok. I know that if this is your first and you are struggling that you want to be a good Mom it may not feel that way, particularly if you are taking a while. Moreover, if anyone is watching you or around, you may feel even worse.
Here’s the one thing that parents with more experience have up on you – we’ve already screwed up a whole bunch of times. We’ve already messed up enough that we can listen to our child fuss and feel “Hey, I wish I didn’t have to do that, but this is not the worst thing I’m going to do to you by a long shot.” So you can treasure your guilt, and enjoy for the moment that you’ve made so few parenting mistakes that this is an important one, or you can let go and accept that you too are probably going to do way worse than this over the years. Same with not making it to Little League on time, or not doing the reading homework the teacher sent home or helping enough in the classroom. Maybe you are a better person than I, and the worst thing you ever, ever do to your child will be to disappoint them a little because you aren’t SuperMom. If so, I have nothing whatsoever to teach you. Speaking as someone who regularly screws up in much more dramatic ways, however, ultimately better you worry about those big things than this. Seriously, if you parent you will probably do some things that you really do have reason to be ashamed of – no point in adding anything you don’t have to include on that list.
6. Take ’em with you. Seriously, sometimes that’s the answer, even if what you really want is five minutes alone with a magazine and the silence. Find a way to cook dinner with the child. Find a way to get the project done, even if you have to let them make a horrible mess in your office. Say the hell with everything in make it work when you have to. Keep a stash of emergency plans here – can they wash the dishes in a bucket with towels on the floor? Can they help you cook? Can you have them read you the assignment while you are driving? Will the cat really mind if the toddlers smear glitter on it if it gets you through the 57 emails you missed when you were home sick with them?
7. If what you are mostly worried about is other people’s values, the answer is “La la la, I can’t hear you.” Sure, good parents don’t give their kids cheetos – except that most good parents do sooner or later. Or they do something else just as bad. So yeah, ignore them and do what you have to get through. Same with your kids. Sometimes the only answer if they are safe is to not hear them while they cry at the door so you can take care of business. Silence the voices – outside the door, on the internet, among your friends, and even the little guys in your head with names. Tell them to shut up and move on.
8. Frankly, you will be a better parent if you are not spending all your time clenching your butt cheeks together so you do not soil yourself. Ultimately, you can be more loving if you are not spending all your time trying to hold it in or be the perfect parent. Let go. Let the baby cry and then be able to give her your full and loving attention in a relaxed manner. Because no one enjoys hanging out with someone whose entire focus is on being perfect. Sometimes going back to work or taking a break or making your kids a little less happy is ok, because it gets you to where you need to be. We parents of many mastered this one already. Let go. Meet your needs, and then come back and meet your kids’ needs. And unclench a little.
It is going to happen over and over again for at least 18 years and probably forever – your needs, your kids needs – bang! You can do this – you have my permission, and, I hope, your own.