I’d walk through a fire for my little boy. I’d throw myself into a pit of lions for him. But lately, liking my 3-year-old has been a huge challenge.
Typically, the struggle starts after nap time, when he awakes in the foulest, funkiest mood.
“Naps are supposed to refresh and reinvigorate, right?” I asked the pediatrician, who suggested sweet snacks, extra cuddles and more book time on the couch — a 90-minute ritual I adhere to faithfully even though it doesn’t work one itty-bitty-teensy-tiny bit.
He’s been a struggle to parent since he was an infant. Luckily, by this point in motherhood, I know enough to reject the idea that it is all my fault (or my husband’s). Quite simply, some kids — just like some adults — are born with temperaments that are a little harder to deal with, for themselves and for those around them. I don’t know why this isn’t more obvious, but somehow it seems to take a few kids to figure it out.
“Could you reheat this, pleeeze?” was one of this kid’s first sentences. At 2 years old, he politely sent a plate of pasta back to our kitchen. My husband microwaved it, shot me a smile and said, “Who does that remind you of?”
My dad — a man famous for both charming and annoying restaurant staff with his wit and his endless requests for extra marinara. This grandpa who, much like his grandson, has an artistic temperament — one running with higher emotional highs, but also lower lows. My dad doesn’t know it, but he helped prepare me to raise this magnificent child long ago.
“Love is a choice,” was one of his mantras when he was raising his six children. “Feelings come and go, but love is a choice.”
My dad’s wisdom and the fact that he’s passed on his song-writing skills to my challenging toddler are a blessing and a comfort. While my dad sings and plays the guitar beautifully and my son so far only blasts the same notes on his toy trumpet, their similarities — from the good looks to the affectionate charms — give me hope.
And I need this hope because the guilt from the struggle to parent him can be crushing. It feels awful to go through a decent patch of time feeling like you don’t really like your own child.
But I can honestly say that with God’s grace and my father’s wisdom, I exert my will to pour on the love — regardless of how I’m feeling.
Sometimes I fall short. At times I grow exasperated when my toddler’s heated demands for things like “remote control Silly Putty” drive me to tears ( “remote control Silly Putty” doesn’t exist). I’ll admit, I often have to apologize for my own level of volume in dispensing discipline. My frustration has sent me to parenting books where so much of the logic doesn’t apply to a child who clearly understands and lives within typical behavioral boundaries, but whose idea of play is inquisitively figuring out how to take doors off the hinges (he got one loose a few weeks ago).
Dr. Ray Guarendi, a Catholic psychologist and father of 10, calmed me down recently when I was once again scrolling through his online parenting tips. His insight is helping me focus on the big picture of life with my precious boy:
If you consistently parent poorly, [your child] probably will develop some problems on [his or her] way to adulthood. The key words here are consistently and probably. You have to mess up not once or twice, but repeatedly to lay the base for possible future trouble. Just as it takes time and perseverance to teach good values and habits, it takes time to teach bad ones. Mistakes made by parents who love, discipline, and care for their children simply will not ruin a child for life.
The other day, I found myself pretzeled into my son’s blanket-draped fort. His flashlight shone down on a cartoon board book in which a dolphin and a crab were swimming in a bright blue sea. The friendly crab had his claw pinched onto the dolphin’s fin.
“They love each other,” he said, “just like us.”
“Yup,” I said, smelling his sweet curls, “just like us.”
I pulled him a little closer, feeling thankful for a quiet moment in the center of such a noisy season — a season that, for better or worse, for bitter or sweeter, too shall pass.