I remember the day when my daughter was born. In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday. To this day, I feel a surge of emotion anytime I think about my daughter. She may not be the whole of who I am, but she encompasses such a big part that I would feel lost without her in it. The day my daughter was born I remember the doctor lifting her out of my ex-wife’s stomach and into the air. I remember carrying her right after she was born as her mother was not in any condition to be able to hold her. I remember her trying to feed on me, which was an amusing moment. And I remember the nurse showing me how to give her a bath. So many thoughts were swirling through my head, but the one thought which came to the forefront was, “so this is what it feels like to be a parent.”
Of course, at that moment, I had no clue what parenthood meant. Not in the deepest sense of the word anyway. I was staring down at a new creation. And this creation needed me. She needed to be able to eat, sleep, socialize, learn, grow, and to be protected from the outside world. And she was connected to me at the very deepest part of my being. Someone had detached a part of my soul and placed it into this person. This emotion, however, was not the “be all end all” to being a parent. Parenthood meant so much more than that. And I intuitively knew that.
So as any good parent, or geek, knows, when you need to learn something in a hurry, you go to your local library to find good source material. Or maybe you do research on the internet. But eleven years ago, when internet information was speculative, instead of the “fake news” it is today, going to the library was a safer source of information. So off I went. It began with popular pregnancy books such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting. From there it was What to Expect The First Year and the Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. All of this was in addition to parenting classes, social groups, and every new parenting fad known to man.
Nevertheless, whatever those books taught me, life always teaches you differently. You do whatever you can to make plans in life and then you are thrown constant curves. I remember hearing a joke once that always stuck with me. The joke goes,”How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.” And there is a subtle truth to that. We cannot know what we have in store for us from day to day. And adding another life into our own always creates a little more chaos.
It is in this crazy world that I have learned some lessons about parenting that I have found throughout my brief stint as a parent. I know that my parents have been parenting for 43 years now. They still parent to this day, even if it’s awkward for the both of us. And to a certain extent, you never do stop. Because how can you pretend to be something you are not?
I have only been doing this parenting gig for the last eleven years. Of course, my situation is different from everyone else. I am a divorced parent who attempts to co-parent with another person. This can be chaotic and wild at times. And yet, you might recognize some common themes in my parenting life that you can find on your own. That’s what I hope to do here. Reach out and connect with people and maybe help them along their path. Maybe, they can help me along mine. So in that vein: Here are my top ten things I have learned from being a parent.
Top Ten Lessons I Have Learned Being A Parent
10) Parents get no days off, and yet they must get time off in order to survive.
I know what some of you parents must be thinking. Especially the single parents, or helicopter parents. This man must be off his rocker. There is no such thing as a day off, let alone a few hours. And in a certain sense, this is true. You never stop being a parent. You do not get time off your job. For those of you who remember them, it’s like you are hooked up to a pager that can go off at any time. The moment it beeps, you have to drop whatever you are doing and run. Walking will only get you a failing grade.
Despite this, everyone needs their own little part that is them. If, as a parent, you are making your children your life, you are doing it wrong. First, you need to be able to recharge to give to your kids more fully. Without a recharge, you are Baymax on low battery. Sure, you can pet the kitty, but you aren’t helping the kitty. Second, kids need space in order to thrive. This does not mean that you must be far away from them. But the goal of being a parent is to make them “self” sufficient. Stepping in every time trouble occurs makes a martyr out of you, and them more impotent with every interference.
9) Adaptability is life. Rigidity is death.
These plain facts are things parents fight against. Our parents taught us to parent a particular way. Any other way seems foreign. And since it is simple, we fall into the same patterns our parents fell into. Even the books we find tell us we need to do seven simple steps, make eight hard choices or eat nine crazy donut holes. (Maybe not the donut holes.) They give lists in order to make difficult information simple for us. Even this post is a crazy oversimplification of things I have learned along the way. Given we learned a particular way, we are inclined to do things the same way.
Given our penchant for falling into that trap of parenting the same way, we grow rigid in our thinking and decision making when it comes to our kids. Unfortunately, a giant elephant awaits for us in the room. Here is a secret. As much as our kids resemble us, they are not us. Every child handles life differently. The could be shy, talkative, flamboyant, reserved, modest, loud, soft, gregarious, studious, or any one of a million different personality traits. When we fall into rigid thinking patterns we damage our kids. And ultimately we damage our relationship with our children.
Instead, we need to adapt to who they are as people and learn to handle things like, consequences, punishments, rewards, and standards differently for each child. But be careful here. Kids value fairness as well. If you have different expectations of different children, individually explain to the more gifted children that you expect more and why. Just be sure to celebrate that child when they meet expectations like you would for the kids you don’t expect as much from. It’s walking a tightrope sometimes when you deal with children. Unfortunately, trying to be rigid just ends up with you and your child falling off the tightrope together, without a net.
8) You never feel more helpless than when your kids are hurting.
Maybe this shouldn’t be something that one learns. But it’s one thing to know that you love your kids. It’s another thing to learn how helpless you feel when your kids hurt. It’s not even the same with spouses. With a spouse, you are there for them and can help them out in whatever way. This doesn’t mean that when bad things happen to them or they are hurting you don’t feel bad. It just feels like you can do more for them than your kids.
With my daughter being sick, I felt lost. I can remember all the home remedies from my childhood as possible, but they all go out the window when my daughter has a fever of 105 and is shaking. Even knowing the exact things to do (get her in an ice bath, call the emergency line, etc.) can only take you so far. And then you sit, and stare, and wait. The waiting gets to you.
7) Sorry is a word you need to become intimately acquainted with.
To be honest, one should seek forgiveness for all kinds of wrongs. I know for the generation of parents who raised children my age, sorry wasn’t a word which left their lips very frequently. They made a decision and then lived with it: right or wrong. And they didn’t like looking back at them.
This attitude propagates two bad things. One, it models bad behavior for a child. Children learn from their parents. And learning to seek forgiveness is essential in relationship restoration. Kids need to be able to do that. And truthfully, we should want that with others. Two, it makes bad decisions look more foolish. Kids are not only watching our behavior to see how they should behave. They analyze our behavior and it reflects on how they view us.
If our kids view us as foolish, how can we expect them to come to us when they are really facing difficult decisions? When they want to know about their relationships or they are facing peer pressure, to whom do you think they will turn? If we cannot own poor decisions, I guarantee they will not be coming to us when the important decisions need to be made.
6) It’s not the quantity of time that matters, it’s the quality.
I begin with the proviso that every day I want more time with my daughter than what I have. But . . . I have a much better relationship with my daughter the day I separated from my spouse than I had before that. How can I say that you ask? How is it possible when I get to see my daughter so much less? For me, this is true and not true. Literally, I would be in the same house as my daughter, but my ex-wife frequently controlled the time I had with her. This may be different for other people in divorce situations. But it was true for me. So my relationship pre-divorce was shaky at best.
Post-divorce, the relationship I have with my daughter is all about us. By no means do I declare myself a perfect parent. I have my selfish moments. I have my times that I feel guilty for days because I didn’t have the energy to engage my daughter like I would have liked. But most of the time we do. We talk about doing things together, putting together puzzles, cooking food, going to events, or different places, and so much more. My daughter and I actually spend time engaging one another. It’s not always perfect. But our relationship turned into something far better. It turned into something real.
So yes, I have less time than I might have had before. And yes, I would love more time with her and often think the situation is unfair. But I also realize that my relationship with my daughter is far better than it might have been had I continued on in my marriage. That makes me eternally grateful.
5)Being busy is not a replacement for engagement.
I know that many parents are tempted to fill all of their kids time up with things. It can be dance classes, math tutors, swimming classes, judo, cooking classes, or “how to not be mad at your parent for signing you up for too many classes” . . . . classes. We may even be doing this with all of the best of intentions. But it doesn’t make our kids better people. And it doesn’t make us better parents.
I know as a weekend dad, the temptation for every weekend is to fill it with wall to wall adventures. But that doesn’t help our relationship. And sometimes it can be too much and makes my daughter ill. Being the fun dad is nice, but that doesn’t grow the relationship I have with my daughter. As much as I love Disneyland, the time spent on The Haunted Mansion does not compare to my daughter explaining to me the battle of Lexington and Concord in grape jelly. The times we talk far outweigh any fun we may have had sliding down the ice at the Queen Mary. (Although we did love that too.)
4) Being a parent is not for everyone.
Before I became a parent, I assumed that everyone at some point in their life would want kids. And even if they denied it now, they would change later on. Certainly, for many people, they do change their minds. But I would ask if it’s always for the right reasons. Having children and raising them is a lifetime commitment. If you cannot commit to that, you might need to rethink what you are doing.
For others, the issue is temperament and not whether or not they could commit to it. Some people just do not do well with children. They are more of a burden or an accessory to their life instead of a living human being that needs love and dedication in order to grow. If your idea of having a child becomes more about you than it does about the child, rethink your priorities. And if you cannot, rethink having children.
3) There is no minor league parenting.
I know many people think that walk into parenting thinking they will have their first child, working out the kinks, and then do better with the second child. Or if not the second, then the third and the fourth. Every child you have, you are responsible for. When you act like you can practice on one child, you mess around with another human life. And you do that life damage. While it doesn’t require perfection to be a parent, it does require understanding that your children are not the equivalent of a test kitchen. Plus, when you screw up the first one, the chances you do the same thing or worse to the second grow exponentially.
2) Having a child brings out your best, and your worst.
Children bring such beauty and joy to our lives. You might understand how they bring out our best. But how can they bring out our worst? I would say that children take a measuring stick to who we are as human beings. They push every one of those boundaries. If you struggle with patience, try dealing with two fighting siblings after you have barely been able to sleep the night before because Johnny woke up with a nightmare. Two hours of sleep and loud screeching noises are not a good recipe for patience. If you struggle with self-control, how do you respond when they bother you all day and prevent you from finishing a major project at work? Do you keep it together?
All the while, I say that they also bring out our best. Maybe you are successful at these things. Or you reveal yourself to be more selfless than you would have ever been beforehand. You spend all hours at hospitals taking care of your kid. Or you end up doing something to protect your children that injures you because you are the parent who would take a bullet for your kids. Ultimately, kids do not push us to be one thing or another. They are merely a reflection of the type of people that we are.
1) Parenting is a team sport, even when the team is dysfunctional.
If you have a favorite sports team, you know that in order to win, the players must be performing at their peak performance, and be on the same page. A pitcher does not throw a knuckleball to a catcher when he expects a fastball. The offensive line in American football cannot decide to take a play off because the quarterback has called too many run plays. The goalie in soccer cannot just walk away from the goal because he believes his defenders can hold off the other teams forwards.
As a parent of a child, you have another parent, or you have other people in the child’s life that represent important figures in their life. All of those people participate in the life of the child in order to help them grow and become healthy members of society. In order to do this, everyone must be committed to having that child grow up happy and healthy. You can debate what this looks like with other people, but the child’s growth must be the focus. Everyone has to have the same end goal.
This doesn’t change, even when your relationship with the other people participating in the child’s life is dysfunctional. For me, that means that even though I am divorced and have a severely dysfunctional partner who should be co-parenting with me, my focus cannot change. And I cannot simply kick her off the parenting team. We should be bonding over end goals as we cannot get a redo in our partner.
The greatest team analogy has to be like Shaq and Kobe in basketball. Those were two people who didn’t get along. But they forced themselves to do so as winning was paramount. This led to amazing things. Of course, they didn’t last forever. Their dysfunction eventually wrecked the team. But now you listen to the both of them, and they respect each other immensely. They see the other’s talent and can respect the role they played for the team.
That’s my hope with my co-parent. As difficult things are, I think that learning to respect my co-parent and her contribution to our child helps our daughter grow. I have limitations as a person and as a parent. I know that my ex-wife connects with my daughter in ways that I cannot. This is something I need to realize and appreciate. Fighting that only brings this parenting team down.
If you are a single parent with no partner, then your team consists of the other people important to your child. Encourage your children to engage in healthy ways with these people. Because they can help your child grow in ways that you might not be gifted in. Good parenting means dedication and giving to the child selflessly. We need other people to help. And that’s the way it should be.
Continue the Conversation
So these are the top ten things I have learned while being a parent. The wild and crazy adventure of parenting continues daily. And there is no raising one’s hand because you are about to vomit. There is no getting off. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So what things have you learned from being a parent? What things did you wish you would have known beforehand? What skills or attributes did you have that were untapped until you had kids? And if you don’t have children, what are your biggest fears or concerns about being a parent? I would love to hear from you.
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Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life