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Parenting highs and lows – you can’t be happy all the time

Parenting ups and downsYou must feel sad. Human emotion is not capable of being monochromatic; one must to accept the full spectrum of brain chemical combos. You cannot feel happy without allowing yourself to feel sadness as well.

Something that I found terrifying about motherhood was the unexpected anxiety and despair.

Everyone promised the oxytocin highs, the love, the desire to cuddle and hold, the blind admiration of this human I created. I was not braced for fear of loss, the wild anti-fantasies of freak accidents which might harm my daughter, the sheer exhaust of caring for a person more than myself, the neglect of my own needs and subsequent suffering.

Parenthood is idealised in our culture. Everyone told me I would love my maternity leave but no one said anything about the possibility of me missing my career. The adjustment of being a respected professional who, while not highly paid, had really good paid holidays to a novice mother with no income and very little intellectual stimulation or social interaction was challenging. I cut my leave short by 5 months.

Something are good things: There is a tiny human on the outside of my body who wants to hang out with me, just because I’m me – relaxing, exhilarating and completing.

Something aren’t: The alarming feeling of realising my heart is walking around outside of my body, was akin to losing my sense balance – nauseating, exhilarating and terrifying.

In a culture that is obsessed with ‘Happiness’ (note the capital ‘H’), we often forget to allow ourselves to mourn or be bummed or know that our feelings are fleeting. They come, they go. And I think we are forgetting to teach our children these skills of resilience, too.

A member of my antenatal group didn’t like to sing past the first verse of If You’re Happy and You Know It because of the bits about feeling sad and angry. To be fair, it does seem out of place to cheerfully being singing about being sad and clapping your hands…

Another friend of mine’s 21-year-old step-daughter called her in tears because she wasn’t feeling happy all the time and thought she’s made a mistake in following her career over the ditch to Australia. She was living the dream but it didn’t feel like a dream. My lovely, sparkly friend replied, “Oh, honey. In real life, you are not supposed to feel happy all the time.”

A simple statement but genius.

Happy all the time? Ridiculous. Why are we so uncomfortable with feeling other things? I blame TV, big-name greeting card companies, and commercial advertising. If we’re not happy, we can certainly spend enough money to become happy, right? What kind of expectations are we putting on our kids and ourselves?

There is a full spectrum of things I want my children to feel: satisfaction, ambition, curiosity, pride, adventure, adoration, gratitude. I want them to be moral creatures and good humans which involves feeling a range of not-so-sought-after emotions like disgust, outrage, betrayal, empathy and a little bit of fear or guilt are not a bad thing either. What with the happiness obsession?

So how do we build emotional resilience in ourselves and our children?

  1. First, we need to adjust our expectations. Sometimes babies cry, sometimes they don’t eat well, sometimes they need some quality time with their other parent/aunties/uncles/grandparents while we go for a walk or have a glass of wine – OUT OF THE HOUSE. Also, we independent types need to adjust our expectations of how frequently this might happen (Hint: less often than when we had no kids).
  2. Second, feel the sad. If it’s a bad moment, say it. Have a cry. Acknowledge how you feel to yourself and to someone else, just for good measure. Give yourself an appropriate amount of wallowing time and then seek some antidotes in the second half of said time. For general ‘bummedness’, I think two hours for wallowing, a cry, a complain, followed by hot bath/reading/a quick reminder to self about three things you’re grateful for/get some fresh air/have a stretch is a fair trajectory timespan. Note the wallowing and solving are not quite equal parts. The grass is greener where you water it.
  3. Thirdly, know that this too shall pass and pass that message on to your kids. My daughter gets angry, or has a cry and then tells me about it. I could rush around trying to solve it (though often, it has to do with something I did – like say no) or I can listen and validate her feelings and then talk about these feelings as a fleeting part of the human experience. Sometime she just needs to be told, “You won’t feel like this forever.”

One of the most alarming things ever to come out of my stepson’s mouth was, “It’ll never be right again.” As an educator in a country with one of the high suicide rates for teenage males in the world, I cannot express how much that phrase broke my heart. Of course things can be right again, maybe not the same, but things can feel right again.

Like being a child or a teenager, parenting has some pretty sweet highs and some fairly tragic lows. For everyone. So enjoy the whole ride.

Celebrate the peaks, find solace in the troughs and know you won’t feel like this forever. Take it one minute at a time but keep an eye on the next.

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