That’s what today’s felt like – parenting by the seat of my pants. People comment sometimes that what with being a clin psych with a wealth of training and experience with development, parenting, and families, that being a parent must come a bit easier – decisions easier to make, courses of action easier to choose.
And my mind says:
- “That’s right. I have it pretty all together. Damned proud”; and
- “There are too many options to choose from, I’m the most likely to screw ’em up” (so grateful to my partner to counter-balance me); and
- “Nup – because when it’s my own, I lack all of that objectivity that helps bring clarity. I’m too close”; and
- “I’m really hungry” [my mind gets distracted easily]
So I wanted to share with you about today, because today was not an “all together” day. Today was a “try everything I possibly know” and a “completely outside my comfort zone” and a “we’re off the map, can’t someone get me back on” day – but it was also an “it all worked out despite all that” day. So, kind of typical for being a parent, hey?!
The background: You need to know a little about my eldest boy – sufficient to say that he is my treasure and my delight – an adorable six-year-old, full of laughter and imagination, highly sociable, developing a wicked sense of humour, and sometimes out-of-the-blue he completely freaks out.
It’s school holidays, and I booked the boys into a 3hr holiday camp at a place they know well, with instructors they know well, and friends they cherish. They get up early in the morning and dress independently, such is their excitement about the afternoon. I also eagerly anticipate the time – I have some work to get done, and this is my guilt-free three hours to give it my all.
It’s 15 minutes before we leave, and my eldest comes to me struggling not to cry, and says “I don’t want to go”. I know at this moment that it’s the out-of-the-blue freak out day and the uninvited gate-crasher Anxiety has arrived. I hold him, and talk to him in the way that usually “works”. I suss out what he’s anxious about (being separated from me). I sit with him in empathy and make sure I’ve really “got” how he’s feeling, without judgement. We check in about how he manages this when he’s at school (very well); we look at what the cost will be if he doesn’t go (no fun, will feel disappointed, bored); we check out what experience tells him will happen if he does go (will adjust as soon as I leave and have a great time). I ask him:
“Given that we know this Anxiety leaves once we’ve said goodbye; and we know from experience you have a great time; and that if you stay home you’ll be bored and disappointed – are you WILLING to make room to take this Anxiety along with you so that you can go to the Holiday Camp?”
Usually he says “Yes”.
This time he says “No.”
But it’s time to go, and his little bro’ is so keen and excited, so we have to get in the car anyway, and I convince him that we at least have to drop his brother off and he can’t stay home alone. I grab his water bottle “just in case”. “I won’t need it,” he says, “I’m coming home with you”.
I use the car trip to remind him how his mind sometimes tells him stuff that isn’t true; to remind him that my mind does this too, to remind him all the skills we use to “do it anyway”. It’s not “working”. It’s an effort to get him out of the car just so I can sign his brother in.
I sit with him.
My mind says:
- The quicker you leave, the sooner he’ll get over this – just extract yourself and go; and
- It’s not his fault he’s not doing okay – maybe this is too big for him, too much, too many strangers, too unstructured – if you’re a good mum, you’ll take him home; and
- If you’re a good mum, you’ll make him stay; and
- I have so much work to do, this is cutting in to my time; and
- How selfish are you?! Be the lioness and protect your son.
I take a moment to breathe, reconnect with the present moment – my mind doesn’t need me as much as my son does – and tuning in doesn’t seem to be helping.
I take our shoes off, we go into the play area. He’s clinging on for dear life – there’s no option to leave him without him being physically restrained by someone else. I sit with him on my lap and he’s sobbing and begging me to take him home. I don’t know the right answer. I think about the How to Train your Dragon books we’ve been reading. He started them first – and loved them so much he begged me to read them. They are awesome. Sometimes he says to me “But mummy, when you get to Chapter X, let me know – it’s a bit scary and I’ll have to talk you through it before you read it”. So sweet. I lean in close and I whisper:
“Do you know what this feeling is that you’re having right now?”
“Can I tell you what I think it is?”
“I think it’s Anxiety. Do you know what I reckon Anxiety is like? It’s a lot like one of those vicious Sea Dragons – you know, it’s huge, and looks so threatening, and everyone thinks it’s going to destroy the island and kill all the Vikings – and right now, he’s eye-to-eye with you. And do you know who you are?”
He does, because he and his brother roleplay this all the time. It’s seriously adorable.
“You’re Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. From the outside you don’t look like much of a hero [Hiccup, that is – of course my son looks like a Hero] – but inside you’re so brave. Being brave is about feeling that anxiety, feeling really scared, but doing what you want to do ANYWAY. It’s about not letting the Sea Dragon tell you how you’re going to live your life. And I reckon you can bring it, Hiccup, I reckon you can look this Sea Dragon in the eye and stuff your helmet horns right in his fire holes. What do you think? Are you ready? Your dragon Toothless [that’s his bro] is right here to help you; and Astrid, Snotlout, Fishlegs, they’re all here [thank goodness for his friends]”.
I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. Look at me, all metaphorical on the spot, using relevant imagery. How powerful. How incredible. I am THE mum. YEAH!
Hang on. He’s still clinging to me. He still won’t look around the room. I still can’t peel him off. Wasn’t he listening? How could he not be MOVED?! FUUUUU….. [I don’t swear around my kids – but inside my head – that’s a far different story]. My mind pipes up again. It says:
- You’re a F*cking Psych, anxiety in kids is your BAG, how come you haven’t got this sorted yet? [thanks mind]; and
- Take him HOME, take him HOME, take him HOME; and
- If you take him HOME the anxiety WINS and what kind of lesson is THAT; and
- What would you tell a client to do (I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, where’s my objectivity)?; and
- I’ve already lost HALF AN HOUR. Am I going to spend the whole three hours SITTING ON THIS FLOOR??!
My mind gets shouty.
I try for a bit longer to convince, cajole, anything I can think of. I’m getting no where. I explain that if he comes home, I have to work – that he will have to occupy himself completely by himself, in his ROOM, where there is no COMPUTER, PHONE, TV – it will be totally BORING – but if that’s what he really wants, if that’s the choice he wants to make, I’ll take him home.
He chooses to come home.
We walk out to the car. By this point, I’m not being all that mindful. I’m not being all that compassionate and empathic. I’m not too closely aligned to my parenting values. I’m cross, and I say words like:
- Just so you know, that’s a waste of $X that I paid for you to attend that camp; and
- I’ve already lost half an hour of the time I needed for the work I have to do; and
- We’ll get home, and then you’ll have that totally boring time in your room; and
- Now you’ll see what it’s like when you let the Sea Dragon of Anxiety win.
And then I notice how much I’m not being the mum I want to be and thankfully I shut up. I focus on my breathing. I focus on bringing myself back to the present. We’re three-quarters of the way home, and I notice he’s looking pensive in the rearview mirror. I say “Are you sure you want to go home?”
“I’m sure.” Then, “Wait – I mean, I DO want to go to the holiday camp.”
“Are you SURE? If I turn this car around, are you going to go in there, and be Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third?”
“Yes,” he says.
I turn the car around. I resist, resist, resist the urge to rant at him. I really, really want to. Instead (and it nearly sticks in my throat), I say “I knew you had it in you, Hiccup”.
We get to the camp. We kiss goodbye, and without a backwards glance, in he goes.
I don’t know what won out today. I don’t know for sure in which moments I helped him, and in which I hindered. I don’t know if he went back to the camp because his bravery won out when he experienced the disappointment of really not going; or if it was the threat of boredom and a cross mummy that made him change his mind. I hope for the former – the latter is rather inconsistent with how I want to do parenting. But I don’t know yet.
How is it for you? Can you share here what your “parenting by the seat of your pants” moments look like? I’d love you to leave a comment below. Let’s be human in this together.
Wow, what a great day that turned out to be. Reading all your thoughts and actions was a great reminder for me of the things i should be doing each time my little 6 y.o. man has his melt-downs. I’m trying and things are working, but hearing from you in action really helps consolidate it all. Then while reading about your day, I get the gentle reminder that there is another child in our family besides the at-times-troubled little man. My strong and successful 9 y.o. girl!! She has her own little bag of troubles that start up at bed time and I too often forget about her with the focus all too often on my little man. So when she revisited me then, right in the midst of reading about your day, for the fourth time since bed time, to tell me of her ongoing, every night, headache, back ache, leg ache, eyebrow ache, anything-just-so-i-can-go-see-Mummy-ache, I took a big deep breath before responding. I took on board the gentle wisdom in your story and quietly hugged her (instead of shouting and being angry) and gently walked her back to her room (instead of sending her on her own sobbing), laid her down in her bed (instead of on the floor where she can end up some times), held her for a little while (because I’m thinking she’s feeling a little like a hug) and then kissed her good night and left her there.
Great timing to finally link in to your blog. Thanks for the gentle guidance your story gives me for the little man, and thanks for the coincidental support it gave my daughter.
Melinda thanks so much for sharing some of your story. Parenting is such a tough gig, hey?! What an in-tune mum you are. I’m glad there was something helpful in here for you, and I so appreciate that you took the time to comment.
Thanks Tiff. My son has been anxious about school and I have been busy with life and this has pulled me up and made me realise I should address it and help him to see it for what it is. Something that can be scary and that’s ok , but turns out to be something fun and exciting.
What a great story of a child’s capacity to be brave and the unsung role parents can play in leading the way. Nice one Tiff – Nicci Whitehouse.
Thanks for your kind words Nicci, and thanks for having a read.