My friends Terran and Julie Williams were going about life with their three delightful children, sharing regular stories of funny statements and learnt lessons and chaotic moments, when suddenly the news of a 4th child on the way… and then further news that their 4th was a set of twins… If you think three young children is hard, try to get your head around five! Terran shared this piece on Facebook yesterday and gave me permission to pass it on to you as he gets completely real about some of the harder moments of being a parent of a number of smaller children:
Permission to get SHOCKINGLY real about parenting small kids?
It’s hard. Much harder than you can imagine. Much much harder.
A few months ago a friend of mine who is a professional therapist said, ‘A family with a kid under the age of 3 is in crisis mode.’ At first I thought that was a bit negative. Upon reflection, I conclude they’re right.
Yesterday someone said to me, ‘My youngest just turned 4. I am starting to think we might be coming out of it. ’ I didn’t need to ask what ‘it’ was. She clearly meant the chaos. The crisis. The crazy zone.
My experience confirms that parenting infants and toddlers puts you under a kind of constant pressure that lttle else in life comes close to matching. To be fair, Julie and my situation of having five kids aged six and under only compounds this reality, but treat me as a magnification of what is still there for parents of fewer kids. (Besides, I know, I once had fewer kids.)
Of course there’s more to parenting nascent ones than it being hard. That’s what all the photos on Facebook are about – the sweetest things in the world, they are. Your heart walking around in someone else’ body. I get that, and it keeps me going.
However, in this post I thought I would get real about the (dark) side we don’t talk about. It’s no good running a marathon, and you’re doing uphill and you’re trying to tell yourself this is wonderful. Facing the fact of the agonizing incline is necessary if you’re going to make it.
As for those parents whose kids are all four+, looking back from your hard-earned view, it’s amazing how you tend to forget the pain. (One aspect of trauma is that you tend to forget the event itself, a kind of self-protective amnesia, I think.)
Would you mind if I get VERY REAL? Just so that I never forget, and maybe to help those of you who think something’s wrong with you as you suffer the little ones.
Here goes. Julie and I are experiencing the PHYSICAL strain of parenting. We’re exhausted. In the last two weeks, I get about 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night, but here’s the catch: it’s broken by the need to get out of bed and deal with a crying or calling kid, usually about 5 to 10 times per night.
One reason is their need for constant re-assurance. On this point, a curse be upon the inventor of the Pacifier! Our little suckers fall asleep more easily with those suckable things in their mouths, but by the time they’re 8 months they have formed a dependency on them, and every time it falls out of their mouths they wake and cry, lost in the universe. Do the maths on how many times per night a wriggling infant might lose their dummy. While writing this (5:30-7am) I ran through 11 times to put dummies back. Who’s the real dummy?
Other things wake our kids. At 4:30am this morning I got head-butted by my sweet lullaby of a 2-year old Ivy as she was waking up out of a nightmare. Unsatisfied that I was not-the-Mama, she ran down the dark passageway shouting for Julie, waking up the other kids. It’s impossible to fall asleep any time soon after that kind of ill-treatment from someone I love. (By the way, this assault provoked me to write this post an hour later.) Perhaps the sleeplessness is the real, foundational problem: all the other strains would be more manageable if our bodies and brains weren’t yearning for the unconscious state. Thankfully, we can grab an afternoon nap. Not.
And sickness. You know those new viruses that sweep the globe every year? I have to admit the original viral mutation happens in my house. Families with little kids can turn an ordinary flu that would set back a single person a few days, into a plague that loops through our entire family, two or three times – lasting a month on average, sinking us parents into our own mini-Great Depression. (Sick kids wake up a lot more, and sick parents need sleep if they are to shake off the virus they got from their kids.) In the last five years I have got more colds, flu’s and tummy bugs than in the preceding decade.
We have endured the FINANCIAL strain of parenting. Having kids necessitated that Julie and I fork out enough, not all at once thankfully, for a home more suitable for a family (bigger, garden, near a decent school), a bigger car, Mon-Fri domestic and child-care assistance and (gulp!) educational fees. Then there’s medical bills. For example, little Charlie (10 months) has cost us about 5k in doctor’s bills and medicines over the last 3 months. Next week he goes in for surgery to get grommets.
There’s also more mouths to feed. I spoke to a single dad in the beach-front parking lot of my surf spot the other day. He has one kid. He said, ‘Terran, I just got back from the shop. I am shocked by how much it costs to feed my little family. How on earth do you feed yours?’ Good question. By the time they’re two they’re eating almost as much as I do on some occasions. All these new costs are often augmented by a diminished income. In our case, Julie’s earning power went down (up till now she’s been a pay-by-the-job, part-time freelancer) at the very moment our costs escalated. That’s pressure.
There’s the MARITAL strain of parenting. On our better days Julie and I team together like Batman and Robin, but on our more stressed days, we turn on each other. Beat down people tend to beat others down if they’re not very careful. In the nights, we keep count of how many times we got out of bed, and when our number is higher, ‘gently’ nudge the other person who is pretending to be sleeping through the baby cry. By day, we play the ‘who is suffering more’ card, and sometimes have a go at each other verbally in front of these not-yet-pyschologically-scarred kids. Yes, we know how damaging it is upon a young child’s psyche to see mom and dad at each other. But the guilt doesn’t have power to stop the bickering.
This paragraph for the guys: there’s also little and sometimes weeks of no sex. Since it’s public knowledge that Julie and I have had sex at least five times (once on our honeymoon night, and four times for our five kids, the last arrow splitting into two), I feel the liberty to make this point. No seriously, pregnancy means less sex. Birth-recovering and breast-feeding moms (sorry Julie, I don’t know what other words to use) means no sex. The smells and sights related to changing nappies and wiping toilet-training bums mitigates against the daylong foreplay-messages that spice up a marriage. Stress and exhaustion work against one’s sexual capacities. As for the rare moments when the stars align, I am thankful that the Flight of the Conchords are right: two minutes in heaven really is better than no minutes in heaven.
There’s the SOCIAL strain. Friendships go into maintenance-mode. We have hardly anyone round. For all kinds of reasons: our house is a mess, we will be embarrassed if people glimpsed the real chaos of our lives, we keep telling ourselves that on the day we stabilize we will open diaries and think who to invite over for a meal. Would you be my friend?
There’s the SPIRITUAL strain. Maybe you can’t relate, but since I was a teen, early mornings have been a sacred time for me to tune into God so that I can keep sensitive to his promptings and stay within reach of his power and guidance throughout the day. Now that I need this kind of spiritual alertness and empowering more than ever, I seldom get the time that I need. I know God understands and loves me anyway. But I also know that not spending this daily time with God tends to put me out of frequency with the Spirit’s energies and nudges, setting me up for yet further stress-inducing errors of judgment and lapses of sanity.
There’s PROFESSIONAL strain. In the last decade, I have had two notably under-performing years in my work-life. My lack of sharpness has been evidenced in emails not responded to quickly enough, under-preparedness for critical meetings, increased strain from less quality attention to fellow-workers, and a tendency to lose composure when leading people requires that I stay calm. Those two years just happen to be the ones that immediately followed the birth of my third, and now the birth of my twins. (Would you let a pilot fly you if you knew he was bottle-feeding one baby, while trying to tame a volcanic tantrum in a toddler running amok in the cockpit, threatening to push ‘eject’? My policy: smile and wave boys.)
There’s LOGISTICAL strain. Our house is a mess almost all the time. Julie and I who are not A-type when it comes to neatness, but we start to come undone with the constant mess. Trying to keep a kid-inhabited house tidy is like trying to shovel snow while it snows. As for leaving house as a family: for every kid you have, add another 30 minutes to get-ready time. (For our first few months after the twins came, I was okay with us not having a car big enough for seven. I thought to myself, ‘Where can we go with this many kids? And when we get there, what will we do?’ So we just stayed at home.)
Air travel is another story. The fact that kids under-2 fly free makes bargain-hunters like me want to capitalize upon this fleeting opportunity. Bait for us fools. We just flew our family to another part of the country. It was as simple as one, two, three. One day of packing. Two cars to take us to the airport. Three tons of stuff. You have never seen people in a plane praying as much as when we queue in. ‘God, please no! Not next to me! No.’) When I notice enough people doing the count, and mouthing a silent ‘five’ to the person they just elbowed, I usually break the ice with one of my two jokes: ‘Yes, everyone. There are five! Our TV was broken.’ Or, ‘Who’s the lucky person who gets to sit next to us?’ The cabin laughter at that moment helps us all for what is about to happen in the next two hours.
There’s EMOTIONAL strain. Parenting introduces a panoply of negative emotions that are new to the lifetraveller: new fears and anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, the crippling curse of comparison, and post-natal depression for some moms.
In my view the most emotion-intensifying thing about family life is that we tend to absorb each other’s emotions. If we were all emotionally self-contained units, that would be easier. But as it is, every tantrum and tear and sibling-tiff emits an emotional toxin that the try-hard parents tend to take into their tender hearts. Our kids bounce back remarkably, but we parents, the emotional filters, are left with the residue. Keeping your head while all those around you lose theirs is easier said that done. I once came across a best-selling book on parenting titled ‘Keep calm and parent on.’ It’s one of those titles that say so much, you don’t need to read the book. That title is probably the best advice there is. But also the most unachievable advice there is. It’s like telling a person who is tumbling down a mountainside to keep calm and enjoy the ride.
My point? Parenting the youngest of humanity is not for the fainthearted. It’s brutal at times. It’s incessant in its challenges. To complicate it all, these strains – physical, social, financial, spiritual, etc – have a domino-effect, one causing or exacerbating the other. The result: life in a fully fledged crisis mode. A trauma being inflicted in slow motion.
It’s true. Parents of little lives are in nose-dive.
I don’t want to sound like I am complaining. Some of you have it much harder. I think of parents who lose their income, or single parents, or kids with severe disabilities. You guys are the masters of the universe. We are in awe of you. Some of you don’t have it as hard. The thing so many parents say to us is, ‘You know, when Lee and I are freaking out as parents, we think of you with five, and that helps us. So thank you!’ Glad we could help.
Do I have any perspective to share for the fellow-traumatized? Other than ‘Keep calm and parent on’? For starters, one thing I can say: You Are Not The Only One. Parenting is hard for almost all of us. The other thing I can say is that You Are Not Alone. A small verse hidden in the massive book of Isaiah says ‘God carries us close to his heart, especially those who have young’. It has helped Julie and me when we’ve been at our lowest. It reminds us there’s a Parent in heaven who’s there for you as you parent another. Our vulnerability, as we rear the most vulnerable, catches the loving attention of One Above. We might feel alone, but in reality there’s a Heartbeat as close to you as your child is to yours.
(Permission given to share with the so-journers who can identify.)