So, I experienced a major parenting fail the other day. A parenting “ef up”, if you will.
I wasn’t having the sort of week where I felt on top of academics, summer activities, nutrition, behavior, and temper tantrums. Those are fewer and further between when you’re, well, a human being leading a normal life. I was having the sort of week where everything bled into everything else. I wasn’t sleeping well, which in turn impacted my pace at work, which then made me feel even more tired and frustrated, which then affected my self-esteem, which sort of negatively impacted my relationship, which then, of course, impacted my parenting.
Isn’t it funny how all the seemingly “little things” quickly add up?
It was a weekday morning, and I was working on math skills with my soon-to-be second grader. I know, I know, who makes their kid do math during the summer? Well, this Asian mama does, and that’s beside the point. We were working on subtraction with two-digit numbers. He had been doing so well all week. He had been picking up the skills rapidly, and even enjoying the math. In my moments of patience, we had played with quarters and dimes to practice lining them up and taking them away. I wanted to make it fun and tactile, but this day was reserved for a plain old boring worksheet.
It was off to a strong start. Relieved, I left him at the kitchen table and started focusing on other chores around the kitchen. Suddenly, in the middle of the page, he stopped. He was stuck. “Mamaaaaa,” he threw in all the aaaa’s to emphasize the whining, “I don’t get this.”
I went up to him and crouched down beside him. I used his pencil to gently point out the process, just as I had before. Soon, “I don’t get this.” turned into “I’m not good at this.” “I’m not good at this.” turned into “I hate this.”.
“Let me explain it differently.” I told him. Internally, I wondered how something that started off so well was suddenly taking a different turn. My tone was getting stiffer. I was no longer sing-songy and upbeat, but short and nervous. That’s when I know I’m venturing into frustration territory, but by then, his head was resting atop his folded little arms on the table. He was done.
“Are you really going to give up so easily?” I said. I was losing it. After a few (very) brief moments of patience, affirmation, and encouragement, I started to freak out. I mean, really freak out.
So, to be completely vulnerable and authentic with you, let me just share some of the thoughts going through my head, from the fleeting snapshots to those dangerous “spiraling out of control” cognitions.
What the heck is happening? How was 25-13 on the page before so easy, but 45-13 was suddenly so difficult? Did I teach him to subtract incorrectly? Did I do something wrong? Why is he giving up so easily? What’s the matter with him?
Then… are we bad parents? We haven’t been home much lately…is he falling behind? Work has just been so hectic. Are we giving him enough? Are we doing enough? Is he getting enough enrichment? Why is he having such a hard time focusing? Could he meet some criteria for ADHD? Oh no, I’m becoming one of those parents who thinks it’s okay to pathologize childhood. He’s just a squirmy, seven-year-old boy, right? What’s the matter with me! What if is he isn’t prepared for his new school? What if he gets distracted in class? What does this mean for the rest of elementary school? What about his future? If he’s so behind now, what will everything else moving forward look like?
The list goes on. The bottom line is, I was angry.
Though, that’s not quite the bottom line. You see, anger functions like an iceberg. Imagine anger as the tip of the iceberg with all kinds of emotions lingering underneath. Anger gives us a false sense of security and protection. It makes us feel powerful and safe. In truth, anger is an instrumental emotion covering up all our real feelings beneath. Usually, there’s a lot more to the story than what you see above the surface. Remember what sank the titanic? It wasn’t the visible stuff on top, it was the massive portion of ice floating quietly below. It sliced through the metal and ripped apart the boat. That was the part worth paying attention to.
Similarly, below the small tip of the anger iceberg lies a whole ton of emotions. Embarrassment, guilt, worry, regret, nervousness, pain, hurt. You name it. If it’s uncomfortable, vulnerable, and scary, that’s where it is. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to share it. So, what do we do? We protect ourselves with anger. We hide behind anger so we don’t have to reveal our true selves and authentic feelings. You can read more about the Anger Iceberg through The Gottman Institute here.
To share my own experience with the anger iceberg, I realized that beneath my anger and frustration was a whole lot of fear.
I was letting my fear for my son’s future at a new school get the best of me. I was fearful that our household of two working parents was inadequate. Most of all, I was letting my own fears about my parenting insecurities take over.
What I have learned about fear from mentors, working in therapy, and my own life experience is that it is both toxic and informative. It is such a revealing, fundamental human experience. Fear, however, simply cannot exist in the same space as love. When we are fearful, we retreat from life. When we experience safe and healthy love, we are at peace.
Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler Ross worked with dying individuals who were forced to face their fears head-on during their very last days. She once said that we must choose to be in one place or another, fear or love. Every moment offers a chance to pick one over the other, and like everything else, choosing love over fear is an ongoing process. It isn’t always easy.
I want to say here that emotions aren’t bad. I would be a terrible practitioner if I placed a value judgement on specific emotions. All feelings provide data, and from the data we can derive a story. We can say, “Okay, what’s really going on here? What’s this feeling actually about?” From there, we can change our behavior. We can invite new emotions into the arena. We can make more positive and healthy choices in our lives and in our relationships.
I decided to forgive myself and acknowledge that this is one of many parenting “ef ups” I will have on this journey. Unlike the other day, this morning I decided to choose love instead of fear. I love my child dearly. I love his willingness to take on challenges. I love his goofiness. I love his sense of humor and his spunk. I love him through the easier, lighthearted moments, and through all the tough moments. I love him when I’m exhausted and questioning my sanity, and I love him when we’re snuggled on the couch watching his favorite show. If I can push past those pesky fears, what I am left with is the purest acceptance and warmth. It might not be a perfect moment, but it is a moment of love that we have together