Dear Parent of a 3 and a half year old,
I know. I KNOW. Let me start by saying that it really is as terrible as you think it is. You’re not wrong. And crying in the bathroom is the only reasonable response to the day you’ve had. That kid is being insane. Just insane. And I’m sure there is another beautiful and wise missive where we can find out all about why and come away with a stronger sense of empathy for the psychopath, and resolve to parent more peacefully, and a recipe for sugar-free sprouted wheat granola bars, but OH MY GOD I JUST CAN’T.
Right? Right. Now, the only thing to say is “yes.” Yes, your assessment that your kid is being a royal jag is right on the money. The fact that this is happening to you is real. The fear that you somehow broke your formerly lovely progeny is palpable. This is your life right now, and it’s really fucking hard. Not “starving” hard, or “cancer” hard, but still, hard. Hard in the way that knowing you’re going to have to keep showing up no matter what is hard. “Forever” – that component of parenting that can seem so beautiful has taken a sharp and sudden turn.
It’s not you. Listen, here’s how I know this: you start the day resolved to be an excellent parent. You ARE an excellent parent. You get out of bed (often, lately, amid the sudden terror of blood curdling screaming over what turns out to be a twisted bed sheet – WHY DID YOU NOT MANAGE THE STRAIGHTENING OF THESE SHEETS ALL NIGHT LONG? YOU WERE SLEEPING? UNACCEPTABLE!) and greet the day with a calm and steady demeanor. You patiently help your formerly agreeable child navigate any number of paradoxical meltdowns. PUT MY SHOES ON BUT I NEED TO HAVE BARE FEET! MAKE THIS HAPPEN FOR ME OR I WILL FREAK THE SHIT OUT! You do this for many hours. You do this while also doing many other things –- things like working, and home management, and dealing with life’s usual tasks, and general blah blah blah endless minutia. You do this while being sometimes very literally smacked in the face by the barefoot shoe-demander, whom you’ve yet to hit back because you are fucking Job. You do this every day, believing that because it is culturally invisible, it is nothing. “Nothing” is exhausting.
And if you’re anything like me, you’re feeling pretty bad about yourself on a number of levels. Let’s break it down, shall we?
- You’re not accomplishing as much as you’d like professionally. Your brain feels melty and dysfunctional and approaching even basic work tasks feels overwhelming. You were excited for the break from the (beloved, cool your jets) psychopath, but when it comes, you find yourself woefully drained and distracted. You look at the clock and realize that you wasted the precious morning while your child was occupied at day camp numbly scrolling around the Internet rather than writing like you said you would. You failed. Again.
- If you’re in some kind of co-parenting/marriage/partnership/______________, it’s not going great. You’re in the worst mood ever and perpetually irritated with your alleged teammate. Plus, they’re making things worse somehow (even though they are maybe also just trying to do their best and it’s not like you’ve got a successful solution to the shoes-and-barefoot demands, so…). At a time when you could really use a comrade, you keep pushing that person away in a state of impossible frustration. You are (feeling) profoundly alone.
- Your home is a disaster. Or it’s clean and you feel terrible about the things you did to get it that way (i.e. yelling, Pixar, popsicles). Whoever cooks the nice food is not cooking the nice food. Which is just as well, really, as the psychopath has taken to screaming about the temperatures, textures, and other objectionable realities of eating to the point that it’s not worth the effort. If you have to calmly say, “Please don’t say this food Mom worked hard to make is disgusting” one more time, you may never recover. During your family’s one daily opportunity to sit together, you stare vacantly off into space, exhausted and with hurt feelings. You’re feeling dumb for even looking forward to being all together, and now you’d give anything to be alone.
- You’re not parenting the way you’d like to. You want to play the long game. You want to establish a tone of calm and care in your home. You want loving interactions with your kid – you even have vague memories of these. They used to be regular, yes? Didn’t this used to feel easier? Are you just suddenly terrible at it? These are the questions you ask yourself as you try to make sense of the awful day you just experienced.
I want to say that it’s going to pass, and that you’re going to be fine. I want to tell you that you’re doing a great job. Because I know that these things are true. But I’m right here with you now, so I just can’t. Because it feels like forever. It feels like I’m failing every day at almost everything. So the best I can offer you here, fellow parents of 3-and-a-half year olds, is solidarity. The best I can do is to say “me too” and make sure you know that you’re not invisible, and you’re not alone. This really is as hard as we think it is. And there really are people who’ve survived it, and are now on the other side. That’s going to be us someday, guys.
Cheers. Courage. Crying.