We Are In Charge Of How Our Kids Childhood's Feel...That's Big
Recently I pulled a red wine glass out of the cupboard to soak one of those grow-bigger-in-water toys for my 5 year old. He surprisingly said “Oh mommy I didn’t know we had glasses for wine!” and my 12 year old just laughed because a wine glass or two were always on the counter every day before I quit drinking and I was very good at smashing them in the sink while trying to hand wash them. The fact he didn’t even know we had them was shocking! His 2/3/4 year old brain didn’t store that info I guess and I was a wee bit grateful but then the guilt struck about what my 9 and 12 year old remember so I finally got up the courage to ask them how they felt about “before” when I was drinking 2-6 glasses of wine a night after they went to bed.
Their response floored me: They didn’t really notice a difference. They knew that they liked now better but couldn’t really articulate why or how. That’s when it hit me: they take what we give them and they don’t know any different. THEY DON’T KNOW. Meaning that they are taking what we are putting out and accepting that as the only option. They don’t yet know about trying to better yourself, setting boundaries with your loved ones, not tolerating other people’s bullshit, making their life more manageable through scheduling less, working to heal traumas and self care. It’s all lost on them. Essentially they get what they get and they don’t get upset (until years later in therapy when they figure out you gave them a shitty childhood).
As parents we are always concerned about the “doings” of our kids: Are they doing well in school? Are doing what they need to so they are healthy? Are they sleeping enough? Are they doing the right after school activities? Are they doing ok in their friendships? Are they doing enough chores for their allowance? Are they doing enough homework? It’s a lot about what they are doing but not so much about what they’re feeling day to day. We aren’t thinking a lot about their experience in their childhood. Do they feel safe, stable and comfortable and loved in their home and in their family roles? Are their feelings being acknowledged and validated? Are we taking care of ourselves in a way that lets us parent them so they know this? I’ve been talking to parents for years and there’s lots of talk about the doing and that’s causing a lot of stress to do do do MORE and that is resulting in more yelling, more hasty or negatively charged family activities, more rushing, more obligations and less focus on the feeling for everyone involved.
My big kids didn’t know or couldn’t find the words to describe it but I know that when I was waking up anywhere from a little to a lot hungover every day I was irritable, impatient, unkind and generally a bear throughout our morning routine. My anxiety was sky high and any little thing would throw me into a rageful rant. I was more prone to raising my voice. I was not open to sitting still and just being with the kids in any sort of meaningful way. After work I was constantly stressed and feeling pressure to get dinner over with, tidy things up, complete a task, give a chore, anything to grip some control on what was happening inside of me but projecting that outward and onto them because they were often the people within reach on account of their age and inability to go places on their own yet.
When I realized that they don’t really notice the difference it broke my heart a little because they still loved me and chose me over all other activities even when I wasn’t being kind or deserving of it. They still wanted me to lay with them and snuggle them at bedtime regardless if I lost my temper with them an hour before. That’s the thing about kids, they just love us over and over again even when we don’t deserve it and it takes an awful lot to change that and break that unconditional trust and dependency on us. I am very grateful that I didn’t break this bond with them and that I have ample time to repair whatever damage was done when I was disconnected in wine land.
You see, I know I wasn’t being the best parent I could be for them and there is shame in that but I’ve been peeling back those layers and uncovering that much of what we are worrying about as parents doesn’t really matter to our kids in the present moment. They only need us to be there as a calm, reassuring, engaged, loving presence in the home we create for them. We think our job is to guide and shape them, to coach and manage them, but after I realized that we create our home and their life within it I uncovered that really, all they need is for us to be steady and kind and for me that means no more drinking and lots of practice to replace bad habits with kinder ones.
That sinking feeling I had when I realized I’m in charge of how their childhood feels and how they feel in our home has been replaced with hope because every day is a new chance not to disappoint myself (and them when they grow up because I think everyone realizes the truth of where they came from once they leave home). Figuring this piece out has been a game changer. They can behave however they are going to behave and I am in charge of my response EVERY TIME. Without booze I’ve been able to pause and take a deep breath more often than not and make a choice about how I want them to experience their childhood with love, with safety and with confidence that the grown ups have their shit together - most days at least - and that’s better than the alternative. Three cheers for waking up to a new way of seeing things before it’s too late.