Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Stop Ignoring Your Children": Guilt, Love, and Exhaustion

This afternoon, the fates aligned on one of the days where I finish teaching early, I didn't have a committee meeting, I don't have a presentation to give later in the week, the grading is caught up (enough), and tomorrow's lessons are planned. The sun is shining, I don't have a cold, and it's neither 20 nor 90 degrees. My dissertation is certainly in need of work, but I'm awaiting feedback on my last submission and feel sufficiently accomplished enough to take an afternoon off without writhing in anxiety.

All of those serendipitous things lined up, and I went for a run.

A run is a wholly self-centered act in the best sense. It is an act I do for multiple iterations of myself. When I run, it lets the present me relax and work through the mental stress of tasks and deadlines and lists. It is also a gift to my future self, a promise for tomorrow's strength. I run for me, and it feels great (even if I don't always recognize that red-faced and mid-stride).

On my way back to my house, I noticed this stop sign and accompanying sticker:

"Stop ignoring your children." 

Well, shit. 

That momentary passing caught me off guard and I was suddenly flooded with guilt, then anger at having been made to feel guilty, then confusion at trying to sort through the two. 

See, there are some things going on. Every morning on Saturday or Sunday (or sometimes both), I get up at 6 so that I can go work in a coffee shop on my dissertation for two hours before my husband and daughter wake up. I try to be home by 9, which is about the time they'll really get up and moving. If I'm not home by 9, I feel absolutely wracked with guilt. 

Why? It's not because my husband cares that I'm gone and thinks I need to be back to take care of the household. He has even told me to get a hotel room and write for the whole weekend, a move in support of my educational goals that we're working toward together. 

It's not even that my daughter particularly cares that I'm gone, though she does always greet me with "Mommy, I am so glad that you're back!" and a big hug, but then she's right back off to fighting imaginary enemies or braiding the hair of imaginary ponies. 

The guilt is internal. It's my fault. I put it there. I feed it. I help it grow. 

But I didn't do it alone, and this defaced stop sign proves it. 

I can't know the motivations of whoever enacted this socially conscious graffiti, but I doubt it's a personal attack. My daughter is loved, adequately supervised, and more than adequately entertained with toys, games of hide and seek, and trips to the playground/museum/whatever. I don't, in a very objective sense, ignore my child. 

But when I saw that sign, the first thought that ran through my head was, "Maybe I should have picked her up early from daycare and taken her somewhere." Then I rationalized that it was nap time until 3 anyway, and there was no reason to rush. Then I further guilt tripped myself by wondering if, instead of being out in the sunshine running, I should be at home reading the book I just ordered on how to more effectively communicate with children. At no point in this ping pong game of emotions and internal demands was I ignoring my child; she was foremost in my mind even when she wasn't present. 

See, we're having some "challenges" with my daughter that seem to stem from a  cognitive-social disconnect. This means that my four-year-old child throws tantrums like a two-year-old while using the vocabulary of a sixteen-year-old. It is exhausting. Sometimes I cry. 

We're taking several steps to redirect, address, and otherwise survive this obstacle, and I'm now reading on effective communication, which I thought was silly since I've taken multiple graduate-level courses in communication but am now realizing that all bets are off when you're talking about a child. I can explain ethos, pathos, and logos to her all I want, but she's still not accepting the fact that the dog ate her favorite red cup and that bedtime exists. 

Each day that I pick her up from school and hear the report that she threw a fit or was rude to a classmate or refused to cooperate at lunchtime or kicked her shoes across the room at nap time, I feel like a failure. Every time. And there are a lot of times. 

I hold my breath when I pull up into the parking lot, hoping that today will be a good day, that today the report will be positive, or even just neutral. 

And when it's not, I start to examine every moment of the past few weeks. Did I read enough bedtime books? Was I firm enough in sticking to the consequences? Did we play outside often enough? Were there plenty of structured activities? Unstructured activities? Did I leave her enough room to make her own decisions? Too much room? Had I let her listen to a Rage Against the Machine song on the way to school? Did that trigger her anger? Was the house too messy? Did she feel insecure in it? Was dinnertime too varied? Did she hear me complaining about the work I had to do? And on, and on, and on. And it is exhausting. 

The findings of a parenting study took my social media feeds by storm last week. This study found that the quantity of time spent with a child had no real bearing on their overall outcomes. In fact, the only thing that really mattered was that time spent with the child while "stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty, or anxious" was detrimental. 

Again: Well, shit. 

And while many commenters took this revelation to be a freeing one, all I could think about was how reading this was making me feel even more stressed, guilty, and anxious about all the times I'd spent with my daughter while stressed, guilty, and anxious. I was stuck in an Escher painting of parenting woes. 

Like this, only behind every door is a room where Doc McStuffins blares at full volume
and the floor is covered in particularly sharp-edged Legos.

Then today I came across this article by Jen Hatmaker (born in 1975) who reflects that her own mother didn't face these parenting standards of perfection and simply forced the children outside to roam the neighborhood freely "like a pack of roving wolves." 

And there's something comforting in her "return to our roots" parenting philosophy that reasons we survived what would now be considered neglect and so should stop worrying so much. But at the same time, those actions are now legally questionable and our decisions exist in a different social climate. 

Even so, I can't rightfully compare my own childhood to my daughter's as the two are so drastically different as to be nearly incompatible. I grew up in the middle of nowhere with acres and acres of lawn and forest. She's growing up in the middle of an urban neighborhood. I grew up first with a stay-at-home-mom in a working class family and then in a single-mother household in poverty with no transition in between. She's growing up with married parents who both work in professional fields. I never even went to preschool. She's been in daycare since she was seven weeks old. I was painfully shy and quiet around strangers. She's an outgoing daredevil who asks embarrassingly personal questions of strangers in line at Target. I don't even know how to compare what was normal for me to what should be normal for her, and attempts to do so often leave me even more distressed than I was when I started. 

Then there's the fact that, at it's core, this is an emotional (not logical) debate for me. I know, without a doubt, that going for a run this afternoon made me calmer, more focused, and less stressed and that all of those things make me a better mother. I am absolutely certain that taking time for myself is not only okay, but necessary. I would not hesitate for a moment to tell my other parent friends to do exactly what I did and more. Self-care becomes a radical act, and I'm all about revolutions. 

But I'd be omitting an important part of the story if I didn't tell you that sign stopped me in my tracks and brought forward the ever-present guilt that I try to stuff down with animated readings of Green Eggs and Ham and dining room dance parties to Katy Perry songs. 

Eventually, though, I had to stop looking at the sign and walk the rest of the way home, one step at a time and on legs shaky from the first real run they'd had in a while, and in the end that's exactly how I'll move through it all.

No comments:

Post a Comment