Photo: IECL

Why do I tear up every time I hear or read a good parenting book? There’s no way to experience transformational growth as fast and as intensely as when you parent a child. No one told me parenting would not only be physically and emotionally challenging, but also so psychologically revealing. I have cried, scoffed and resented my parents in every parenting article and book I read. It puts a spotlight on my own unhappy inner child and forces me to reconcile with the push-over, permissive parenting of my mother with the autocratic, demanding punitive st‌yle of my father. Learning how much they didn’t get right or better said how much I was committed to changing the dynamic and how I wanted to show up differently for my son, has not only made me a better parent, but also helped me re-parent myself and heal old emotional wounds.

No therapist has been able to trigger me and target my emotional baggage and unmet needs as quickly and as effectively as raising a child has.  In an ironic twist of fate, my kid is often just like me—forcing me to look into the mirror over and over again until I dig deep for compassion or see beauty in what may initially be hard to watch. For me, those are really inspiring outcomes. Yet there are many days when it seems like brain surgery to rewire neuro pathways and retrain my instinctual reactions that I have to activate within seconds of an unexpected fire drill.

How do you keep it all together during a sleep-deprived, rushed morning and positively manage a whining, clumsy, non-compliant, sensory sensitive kid? How do I not feel shame and embarrassment when my child darts out of the airport security line and runs for the automatic doors towards on-coming cars? How do you ignore the head-shaking disgust from other onlookers and not want to shame yourself and your child? It takes a lot of internal work, stamina, self-restraint and re-parenting to summon your composure, find a way to connect and then sternly correct the behavior with your kid and in you. That’s the honest truth that no one talks about at baby showers, in hallmark cards or even in parenting workshops.  This kid is hitting all your hot buttons and triggers that was traumatic to you growing up and fragmented your own identify and feelings of self-worth. Yet you’re supposed to leap over that land mine, summon your Martha Stewart manners and smile like a lucky Stepford wife. Ha! Juggling so many strong emotions all the while loving yourself is the magic trick of parenting.

I may never be able to get my aging parents to change or apologize for their parenting faux-pas. Instead I can choose to replay the tape inside and softly connect with that child that so desperately wanted to belong and be understood just as I would my own son.  So I am really parenting two kids at the same time and when I don’t get it right some days I remember to be just as compassionate to myself as I would my son. There will always be more opportunities to try again and change the conversation from within or with my son. I thank my effort, forgive myself, remember I can only control my reactions and then try again using my own elastic bubblegum brain. If I model this, even if it means giving myself a time out for some deep breaths, my son will also model it for himself.  With some success, I’ve learned there’s nothing more valuable than teaching my kid that mistakes are “beautiful oopsies” or opportunities for growth and connection. I don’t always lean into the vulnerability, but when I do, I make best friends with both my inner child and my son.

Some days are a roller coaster ride. There are days I feel overwhelmed, inadequate and unequipped to even handle my own juvenile emotions, and moments when I am elated to redefine what parenting means.  Inevitably my mom shows up in me and feelings of distaste come up from her permissive, unstructured parenting st‌yle and I want to scream and grab back control, but I also remember there was independence and creativity in that freedom. When my dictator dad shows up, I remember there was some security and respect in structure, rules and in saying no. I also like to remind myself that I don’t own the whole parenting process. My son will also be taught and parented by his teachers, friends, neighbors and even by nature, so I don’t need to feel like I need to lay down the hammer that hard. I never have to play the same role exactly as they played it, but I can re-frame what their roles meant and find a happy middle between the two that’s all my own and connects both me and my kid. Outsiders may judge from time to time, but I get to set the pace for my growth and know intuitively what feels right as I work to make it look easy pulling the rabbit out of the hat and other tricks of illusion.

Holding the honorable position of parent, gives me an opportunity to not just re-frame the role, but also re-experience it in a new way. For instance, instead of being thrown into the pool against my will and forced to learn to swim with anxiety at my side, I can teach my son at his own pace and nurture him with encouragement along the way. I enjoy watching him get playful in the water because when he’s playing, he’s also learning and letting go of his fears and some of mine too. When I share the outdoors with my son and point out all the beauty along a long hike, I get to let my own playful kid outside and share my appreciation for nature as I had dreamed my parents would have done with me.  Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, I get to recreate my past and turn the sour memories and experiences into fuel that nourishes myself and my kid in a much more rewarding way. Parenting is a gift in this way—forcing you to shake hands with your enemies, confront your fears and accelerate your growth and emotional maturity.

I’ll never again underestimate the job of parenting and stay-at-home parents. Working a corporate office job may be taxing at times, but parenting is relentless and so much like the environment of an emergency room where you’re triaging a constant barrage of emotional and physical wounds day and night with often no staff to help delegate or offload the work to. I have great appreciation of the parent who squeezes in self-care along with thank you notes, visual reminders, checklists, routines, habits, schedules to maintain sanity, consistency and prevent the bleeding. I read about their perfectionist ways on revenue-generating blogs, see their Pinterest pages of immaculate play rooms with white couches and watch their assembly-line, perfectly timed mornings on YouTube, but I know that structure will eventually be tested and break. Why? Your kids will eventually find a way to shine a mirror into you and cause the inner child within to breakdown. That means screaming profanities, bawling in the shower, late-night drinking, or thinking up ways to run away and quit.

They want you to grow up and branch out too. I’m convinced they push to help you define your own boundaries and values for your own inner kid. Perhaps it’s the cycle of life or it’s evolution or it’s the process of uncovering your divine purpose, but I like to think my son is really in the stands with all my role models rooting for me to get on the field and take advantage of this opportunity for transformational growth. Intuitively they know, on the other side is an experience of pure joy, confidence and self-love—the same hopes we have for them.