5 Vital Parenting Lessons Learned the Hard Way

parenting lessons

I started a family later in life, but when it happened it happened fast.

It felt like an insta-family-just-add-water situation. In the span of a year I gave birth to my daughter, Piper, and gained two stepsons, Gunnar and Sawyer.

Having spent my twenties married but without kids meant I had tons of discretionary time and money. I did a fair bit of traveling, played a lot of video games, spent late nights out with friends going to cool kitschy bars and microbrews, and paid an egregious amount of attention to myself and my own problems.

I’m not gonna lie. It was good times.

After my relationship with my first husband became complete, within a couple of years I met and fell madly in love with my now life partner, Joel. Joel came with luggage in the form of two sons (ages 2 and 4 when we first met) and a caustic relationship with his first wife. I’ll let him tell the story of his relationship with his ex-wife should he ever want to someday, but I do want to indicate that it’s not been an easy time of it. And that, of course, influences both his and my relationship with his sons.

Initially the transition felt like someone had strapped weights around my ankles. Every little mundane thing in life felt like it took ten times longer. And the infrastructure needed was incredible! I’d always left the house with only a phone, my license and a credit card in my back pocket. Now I was hauling strollers and car seats and huge bags filled with diapers, toys, and breastfeeding accoutrements.

So much of early childrearing was boring to me. It was not only a massive energy hog, it was a boring energy hog. Hell, just typing all of this out is boring. I don’t know if most mothers can sympathize with that sentiment. I used to check in with other moms, gently probing if the boredom was getting to them, too. None of them seemed to know what I was talking about, and in fact were a little offended at the thought. I chalked it up to #ENTPMomProblems.

Being a new natural mother as well as a new stepmother took its toll on my psyche. I’ve been into personal development for a while and I’d been able to get pretty zen about most stuff. But parenting disabused me of any notion that I’d ‘arrived’.

In fact, in some ways I felt massively regressive. I said things to Piper and to my stepsons that I couldn’t believe exited my mouth. Words based on frustration and stress and exhaustion. The stakes felt so high and I felt so unqualified. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but that didn’t mean I could bow out.

I remember watching a video that had gone viral of a young mother hitting her baby with a pillow while he cried. The video had caused global outrage. And while it was definitely disturbing to watch, I remembered the three weeks that Piper was collicky, routinely waking up at 2:30 a.m. every morning screaming and not stopping until about 6:30 a.m. I remembered the numbed out feeling I had, the anger that rose inside of me when the screaming would start. There were times when I broke down crying from exhaustion. As I watched the video that went viral I thought, “There but for the grace of God…” Joel’s patience and guidance were a lifesaver.

The biggest challenge, however, was getting accustomed to two new kids who didn’t really know what to make of me. I wasn’t their mom, but I seemed to have a bunch of rights and privileges reserved for parental units. Were they supposed to listen to me? Obey me? Love me? Pretend to love me? Think that I loved them? I mean, what was going on here?

By the time we really established any relationship, Gunnar was five and Sawyer was three. I had no idea how little those ages were, and they threw me off by being super smart kids. I expected more out of them than was reasonable simply due to their extraordinary language abilities. Especially Sawyer, who at three years old was so articulate.

I’d never really been around kids and didn’t get the concept of picky eating, low thresholds for walking long distances, getting creeped out by ambient music, etc. It felt like all three kids had colluded just to make my life miserable. I could see their little heads hovering over a schematics sheet, Gunnar delegating different tactics to Sawyer and Piper.

Every time I lashed out in frustration or anger I would regroup almost immediately and think, “This is NOT me! What is going on here?!”

When I finally let myself realize the truth, I started to turn it around. That truth? Yup, that IS me. If it wasn’t me, or at least a part of me, it wouldn’t be manifesting.

More accurately, my frustration and anger were the emergent of a system running – one that I had let set in and take over. I had to break down the parts of the system and determine which components were in my power to change.

These were the parts I identified:

I was exhausted. I hadn’t been taking care of my basic needs. I wasn’t eating as well as I should have been, I wasn’t drinking enough water, and I definitely wasn’t getting enough sleep. I had anchored the time period when Piper was collicky as why I was so sleep deprived, but that was only a three-week span during her third month of life. Once we’d handled that she mostly slept through the night. But I had a story about being sleep deprived, and I let myself fulfill that story. I simply needed to get a handle on my basic biological needs.

First, I made sure my food was more nutrient dense. While I was breastfeeding I justified eating everything in sight (since I always felt hungry), and I had to conscientiously take back control of how/what I was eating. I got back to making morning smoothies (which we still make faithfully) and I made sure to drink tons of water.

Second, I stopped staying up late to recoup the “me time” I’d lost during the day. This was the hardest one as I’d spent most of my adult life having “me time.” Instead, Joel and I worked out a schedule where both of us could enjoy alone time without staying up all night to get it.

I had not yet made peace with being a mother. That is, I was resisting the reality that my life had permanently changed. As I was growing up my family moved on average every eighteen months to two years. “Change” was a way of living, and if I didn’t like something in my life (i.e. the school, the house or the town in which I lived) I’d just wait it out. But you don’t ‘wait out’ motherhood unless you’re looking forward to death. My brain had not yet reconciled that this was it – I was permanently attached to these little guys. Instead of living in the moment I kept resisting the moment and hoping it would be over with soon.

That mentality goes against every principle of personal development. I’d lost my ability to be in the present, to be zen and work with flow. The solution was to apply all I’d learned in other contexts to this situation. In fact, the challenge of doing so upped my game tremendously. When three kids are simultaneously screaming in the car at you, when a baby has a diaper blowout or vomits on your shoulder for the hundredth time, and when 3/5th of your family is telling you that the meal you cooked is ‘gross’ and not fit for human consumption being able to be present, in the moment and zen about it is, like, Buddha level shit right there.

I implemented Eckhart Tolle’s presence work recommendation from the Power of Now. I pretended that whatever it was I was doing at the moment – even if it was listening to the ear piercing screams of prepubescent voices while trapped in the metal cage called a ‘car’ – was the only thing I’d be doing for the rest of my life. I found all the ways in which my experience wasn’t good or bad, but neutral. I became grateful that I had ears to hear the noise the kids generated, that I had the ability to have kids and impact their lives for the better. I grounded myself in gratitude and the Now.

Also, I started carrying earplugs.

I had no education on the topic of parenting. There are certain skills people believe we’re automatically wired to possess. Being politically savvy is one, always being in the right as a spouse is another, and knowing what you’re doing as a parent is the ultimate skill. Of course, our inner wisdom knows better. Deep down most parents are incredibly insecure about their parenting. And yet somehow that doesn’t translate into seeking education around the topic. I mean, we’ll read books on how to get our babies to sleep through the night. But we assume our instincts will get us through things like discipline and transferring good habits.

I quickly learned the error of that thinking. One of my friends and colleagues, Rhea Lalla, helped quite a bit to teach me a new way of thinking about parenting. Through casual conversation, she directed me to a lot of great resources and materials, and her reframes were incredibly important. Simple things like, “Don’t do time outs, do time ins” to check in with your kid and figure out what needs are going unmet which lead to acting out.

I recommend checking out Rhea’s stuff at BuildGreatMinds.com.

I was projecting my feelings about their mother onto my stepsons. These two sweet little boys became a constant reminder to me of the dynamic struggle we had with their mom. It was as if I could ‘right’ all the things I saw wrong with her if I could convince her sons to stop parroting her words and behavior. If you don’t have stepkids and/or if your relationship with your stepkids natural parent is positive you may not be able to resonate with this one. I like to think it’s an easy trap to fall into, but that’s only because I fell into it. All told, it doesn’t really matter. I had dug myself into a pretty delusional hole and the manifest behaviors weren’t serving anyone.

My Thinker tendency to see people in a utilitarian manner was not serving me here. The boys weren’t utilities to accomplish a purpose (to teach their mom a lesson vicariously through them). It was dehumanizing to see them in this way, not to mention delusional. It made no sense to keep this perspective. Simply recognizing this was enough to jolt me back into reversing course.

Once I became aware of my attitude I traced it back to a feeling of powerlessness. I couldn’t solve the actual problem, which drove my ENTP mind mad.

But then I realized that there was no ‘problem’ for me to solve. There were only emergent properties of systems, and some of those emergents were irritating to me. Reframing the situation from ‘objective’ problem to ‘subjective’ feelings was extremely helpful. Everyone in the dynamic was doing the best they could with the tools and information they had at the time. Some people came equipped with more tools, others less.

Regardless, the best go-to tool in my toolbox was (again) appreciation and gratitude. I recognized my stepsons’ natural mother works hard to maintain harmony despite feeling oppressed by us. She’s doing her best to maintain that harmony without hypocrisy. I truly appreciate that quality about her.

As the boys have aged – Gunnar is now 10 and Sawyer is 8 – I see a lot of greatness in both of them. That means all of the adults in their lives are contributing something good, and I appreciate that I get to be a part of fashioning their experience.

I had to get over feeling parenting was boring. My idea of a good time is a glass of dry white wine and endless conversation about how ethical Existentialism can be a node in the system of repairing race relations while getting the world to think ecologically and repair the global economy.

It is not fighting over my right to have my own Strawberry Shortcake coloring book page while a three-year-old tries to mess up my progress.

My first tactic was to make my kids play stuff I enjoyed – Lincoln Logs, Legos and the like. That works sometimes, but often there was a conflict of desires and I fell back to square one.

Once again, Tolle came through for me. I learned to simply “be” while playing with Piper. I learned to simply “be” while trying to herd three kids through Disney World. I realized how many details I had been missing before. How adorable my daughter truly is and how advanced my stepsons’ questions are. I’m not going to lie – I still would prefer highly abstract conversation to playing baby dolls. But I’ve reached another level of being-ness. And there’s nothing that says I can’t have a glass of dry white wine playing ‘gramma’ to a bunch of naked plastic dolls.

It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life, there are going to be challenges and sacrifices made. In parenting, the worse your attitude and outlook the more likely your kids are going to be talking about it at $200/hr with a therapist.

For me, the key was realizing that parenting affords me personal development opportunities I would never have had otherwise. A light was shone on some pretty dark places, and I’m infinitely grateful to all three of them for providing such an amazing service.

What about you? What has parenting taught you?

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Showing 6 comments
  • Elena
    Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this. Long story short, I know someone going through this dark valley. (She’s an ENTP mother of a two-year-old.) This person lashed out and stopped speaking to me about a year ago, and it’s possible that she may never change, but reading your thoughts was really helpful and enlightening to me. Thanks again.

  • AK2
    Reply

    Thank you for #ENTPMomProblems. I thought I was the only one and that I was a horrible parent. Luckily my kiddo has learned to adapt and overcome and be an amazing 11yo so far. I’ve done all the terrible things you’ve mentioned, and just recently had it confirmed from several outside sources I am indeed ENTP (the amount of laughter from people who thought it was funny I considered being anything but is just, well, grrrrrr. But yeah. Especially when in unison they go “How very Ravenclaw of you!”). Anyways, need to read up on your sources and improve. Good thing I gave birth to a mini adult =P

  • Caroline
    Reply

    Your story is very similar to mine: enjoyed my 20s thoroughly and had no thoughts of marriage and children, married in my 30s, 2 stepdaughters (ages 2 and 4 when I met them too), our son came very quickly after we got married and my husband did not get along with his ex at all. I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in the “BANG you’re a mother of 3 but only have a real say over 1” department. I found meditation and that led me to realize the power of letting go and just being. I will check out your link though because the discipline thing still boggles my mind a bit (lot). Thank you!

  • Tt
    Reply

    It is quite refreshing to hear your experience. I am an INTJ woman with 3 children and the baby stage drove me mad. I hated it and I am really glad I don’t have to go through that again.
    I also enter into problem solving mode when I encounter any difficulties, but unfortunately children are not problems that you just solve. The same rules don’t apply…
    In my case I had postnatal depression twice, first time round quite severe. I felt so much mental pain from my overactive-problem-solving mind… I couldn’t stop thinking and as a consequence I couldn’t sleep. If you read enneagram 5 levels of health, I was on the bottom one, ready for annihilation…
    To get out of it I also practiced being in the now / mindfulness. It’s the only way.
    The good news is that I learnt so much from it. I am very resilient now because of what happened. I know how my mind works on a situation like that, so I can stop it.
    The good news is that with children it only gets better! Once they can talk they are a joy to be around. Although I still refuse to play cars and dolls.

  • Melissa
    Reply

    Parenting…..joys and lows…
    #INFJ brain here.
    I’m finding it harder as the kids get older, because they don’t talk it out with me anymore. I have to leave them and I can’t get everyone’s needs met. I have to allow my kids privacy, I have to allow them to make their own mistakes and it’s quite inconvenient to my order.

    I loved it when they were babies, I adored their snuggliness. Hated not sleeping, totally there with you on the “but for the grace of God” statement.

    Having me time, must say I am actually getting it now though, forgot to implement it when they were growing, total ‘helicopter’ parent. But I must say, it hurts not to be able to fix everything and be the one to get everyone’s needs met. And to know they don’t want me to.

    I think I’ll enjoy the grandparenting better….if they decide to have children. Hopefully I haven’t messed them up so much and that they actually do want to be parents!

    Thank you for sharing

    • Charis Branson
      Reply

      Thanks for your perspective Melissa! I don’t think choosing not to have children is a sign that someone was messed up by their parents. I think it is a choice everyone has the right to make. I chose not to children, but it had nothing to do with my parents. They were wonderful parents! I knew I didn’t see a future of parenthood when I was still in grade school. And as I grew up and friends would get married and have children, it just cemented my resolve to remain childless. It had nothing to do with my parents messing me up. So, if your kids decide not to have kids don’t take it personally. Be happy that you raised children who know their own minds and aren’t afraid to stick to their guns in spite of societal pressure.

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