Parent the Child You Have
Many parents start visualizing who their child will be and what their future will look like well before the baby enters the family. They know to expect plenty of surprises and challenges, but it’s so exciting to imagine all the possibilities coming along with the arrival of the baby. Eventually those visions become reality, and it’s not always as we expected.
I got my first motherhood reality check when I went into labor five weeks before my due date. I was facing an unanticipated situation, and I had to readjust all my plans. I wasn’t prepared to care for a premature baby. I wasn’t prepared to share my bonding time with nurses. I wasn’t prepared for how disappointed I felt. The truth was I missed my baby bump, I wanted to have that last month to finish projects and relax with friends, and I thought I wasn’t ready to fully love the baby in my arms.
At the time I didn’t realize I was feeling grief. I was mourning the time to myself that I lost. I was mourning the birth experience that I had prepared for. I was mourning the big, fat, perfectly healthy baby I thought I would bring home a day or two after giving birth. Many people understand grief as an emotion that only happens when you lose something you had. Grief also washes in when you don’t experience something you were wishing for and hoping for. The lost opportunity of what you expected.
The birth experience of my daughter was just the beginning of many lessons in accepting what is and grieving what isn’t. Parents have so many notions of what is in store for themselves and their children, and then reality paints a different picture. Whether it’s discovering your child has a physical disability, a health condition, any kind of diagnosis or developmental delay, or simply shows a personality that you never imagined, I believe it’s up to the parent to acknowledge the reality and choose to embrace it.
At any point along the parenting journey we can be faced with a reality that brings frustration, anxiety, guilt, or rage. I wish I had a toddler that just played with toys in her hands, but I parented a daughter who put everything into her mouth. I wish I had a preschooler that stomped his feet in anger, but I parented a son who would spit and kick and pinch when he got mad. I wish I had even-tempered kids who pout and fuss, but I parent a sensitive child with epic meltdowns and a stubborn child with nerves of steel. When I allow myself to recognize who my children truly are, right here, right now, I have a much better chance of connecting with them and supporting them in the most effective way.
My background in education gave me a head start in the realm of accepting who you have.
Teachers don’t get to pick and choose who enters their classroom, and they still have the responsibility to care for each student and support them to reach their full potential. I witnessed firsthand the difference in a child’s growth and happiness when the parents accepted the challenges in their child’s life and chose to gather the resources they needed. It’s not about finding all the answers or fixing all the problems; it’s about showing up for your child with acceptance and compassion, and remaining committed to loving them unconditionally, exactly as they are.
As with all aspects of parenting, this is not easy. This is actually really damn hard. How can you catch yourself avoiding the truth of reality? Notice when you are thinking:
“I wish they would just…” or
“It’s just not fair that…” or
“It would be so much easier if…”
Notice these thoughts as wishes for something different. Although wishing for something to be
true doesn’t make it true, naming our desires starts the process of accepting our reality with courage and authenticity. Allow yourself the space to feel grief for what you don’t have, grief for who your child is not, and grief for that vision that has not become your reality. Grief is an emotion, not a state of being, so feel it and move through it by journaling, talking to a friend, or even meditating. This opens the door for healing so you can parent from your whole self, rather than your wounded self.
On the other side of grief you find the light of peace, optimism, gratitude, and hope. Practice shifting your thinking into curiosity and open-heartedness:
“I see that my child needs…” or
“I love my child for being…” or
“I can learn so much with my child about…”
This is the work: choosing to see your child as the beautiful miracle they are, not the limitation, diagnosis, or temperament you see on the surface. As you do this work, give yourself grace and compassion, too. You deserve it.
Parenting is not about knowing it all, doing it all, or having it all. Parenting is a humbling and rewarding journey through hills and valleys. We celebrate our children, we mourn what we will never have, we offer love, we receive joy. We keep going because our children need us every step of the way, embracing the raw experience of unwavering love, for ourselves and for them. When we choose to parent our children as they are, we teach our children to love themselves as they are.
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