Sometimes it feels like everyone wants you to believe that you're a terrible parent. Everywhere, haters sow seeds of doubt. Older relatives try to convince you that you’re starving your baby because you don't give her steaks. Moms on parenting boards think you’re actually reincarnated Hitler because your child’s car seat chest clip is three-quarters of a centimeter lower than they think it should be in that picture you posted. But you know who your biggest underminer of them all is? Your child. You will inevitably doubt your parenting because your toddler is acting like a jerk. And "jerk" is putting it very, very nicely.
It’s tempting to think of our children as unmolded lumps of clay and, as a result, to think of ourselves as artists shaping them into something beautiful. So when the little moppets become raging assholes, it’s difficult if not damn-near impossible to keep yourself from thinking, “What have I done? How did this happen?” I mean, at the end of the day it's always the parents' fault, right?
As the go-to caretakers of our sometimes exhausting spawn, we spend so much of our time and energy determining the best ways to help our children adapt to and thrive in the world around them and in a way that makes them feel empowered and happy. How, with such pure intentions and noble, tireless efforts, can things go so horribly awry? While I can’t know why things happen that way, I can tell you how it will all go down.
Stage 1: The Slow-Motion, Stomach Churning Realization That Something Is About To Happen
You never quite know what’s going to trigger your toddler, but you always know approximately 10-30 seconds before it’s going to happen. Those few dozen seconds are the longest any parent can experience. Because you know you’ve already crossed the threshold of disaster. Clouds are on the horizon and there is no escaping or preparing for the storm. All you can do is wait and pray that maybe, just maybe, you’re wrong. Or, even more unlikely, that your child will be triggered but will somehow rise above the situation and be OK.
Stage 2: Your Child Does Not Rise To The Occasion
But hey, don’t let that stop you from believing in miracles.
Stage 3: Calm Panic
You’ve had 10 to 30 seconds to realize this was going to happen, and you wisely spent that time accepting the inevitability and that has brought you to a place of calm. It hasn’t, however, erased the panic you feel about the fact that it’s happening. Still, you start off strong. You get down on your child’s level and respond in the appropriate manner to the situation. You are calm, you are direct, you are absolutely noticing the people around you who are watching this unfold, which makes you even more panicked, but you’re doing this.
Stage 4: Embarrassment
The people watching you are whispering to one another now. At the very least they are giving each other “the look.” Even if you’re doing everything right, everything you’re supposed to be doing, you are failing: your kid is still screaming, or crying, or kicking, or spitting, or screaming, crying, kicking, and spitting… like a jerk.
Stage 5: Annoyance
At your child especially, but at everyone watching this unfurl. Because don’t they realize you are doing everything you possibly can to make this right? Do they not appreciate how you are validating your child’s feelings while remaining firm with them as you attempt to remove them from the situation so as not to annoy other people with their caterwauling?
Stage 6: Anger
F*CK YOU, JUDGMENTAL OBSERVER! AND YOU AND YOU AND YOU AND ESPECIALLY YOU! I AM A GOOD GODDAMN MOTHER! I AM DOING A REALLY GOOD JOB HERE! IT’S NOT MY FAULT IF MY KID ISN’T COMPLYING WITH MY EXCELLENT PARENTING! I AM UPHOLDING MY END OF THE DEAL HERE!
Stage 7: Desperation
This can take a few forms. Angry desperation. Sad desperation. Dead on the inside desperation. But you are aching for this episode to be over.
Stage 8: "Why Are You Being So Mean To Me?"
In this moment, you are convinced your child is acting out just to hurt you. Because it is damn hard not to take this sh*t personally.
Stage 9: One More Attempt At Serenity
That’s just silly. Of course your child isn’t doing this to hurt you. They’re a child. You’re the parent and you have got this. It’s going to be OK, you just need to re-center yourself.
Stage 10: Child Ups Their Game
You can’t even begin to comprehend how this just happened, but somehow you becoming calmer has caused them to spiral into an even deeper whole of asshole behavior. You didn’t think their behavior could get more assholish, but there you are, staring into the gaping maw of your miserably behaved child as you feel your soul wither and die inside of you.
Stage 11: Giving Up Entirely
This isn’t working. Your child is horrible because you are horrible. You have done everything completely wrong. All those obnoxious people who have given you unsolicited advice about how to raise them were right and you were wrong. You’re stupid and awful and your kid is going to grow up to be a serial killer with a bucket full of fingers in their creepy barn because of this moment. Just go find a hole to die in.
Stage 12: Guilt
Now you feel guilty for literally everything. For thinking your kid is an asshole (even though they totally are right now). For not stopping this (despite the fact that you tried so hard). For losing your cool or for not being firm enough or for literally any other thing you did. Because this is how women are trained to deal with everything: internalization and shame. Yippee!
Stage 13: Self-Soothing
This can be sitting back with a cup of tea, or screwing around on your phone as you give your kids more screen time than usual because you can not even any longer. For me, this is often a glass of wine at the end of a particularly stressful day. You do you, mama. It's hard out there.
Stage 14: Silent Promise To Try Harder Next Time
This is really what parenting is about a lot of the time, right? Learning from our mistakes? Realizing tomorrow is another day? Knowing that for all you do imperfectly you’re still kind of kicking ass at this and you know you’ll only get better with time? We tend to focus on what we’ve done wrong rather than acknowledge the million and seven things we do in a day that keep our children safe, happy, and thriving. The fact that we take awful moments like this so hard probably has a lot to do with the fact that we know what we are capable of as parents, and it’s disappointing when things don’t go the way we’d planned or hoped.
But that's OK. We're going to do better next time. And we do! Because we learn and we grow.
Stage 15: Repeat Cycle
Shhh. Don’t cry. It’s not your fault.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.