Every month as if for the first time, the arrival of your period zaps away the carpet from beneath your feet.
You did see it coming. You waited, even yearned for it. PMS can be harsher on your emotional life than the actual five to seven days of bleeding. There are two or three days a scant week before the cramping commences during which life is inexplicably intolerable. This is the cue to check your period tracking app, and — yes! — without fail, that sudden need to murder something is duly heralding the impending shedding of your uterine lining.
When the first drops of blood appear, you chant a silent hallelujah — the anxiety and despair of several pregnancy scares, one founded in fact, seem in no hurry to leave.
After this initial relief, all you can do to keep your feet on the ground is lie down… but wait, that’s not an option. There is a child, and he needs things. Food, help with the toilet, emotional security. The omnipresent pain is just severe enough, though, that it feels impossible to do anything, it hijacks your thoughts and you mope and moan, sometimes out loud. You pull yourself together and let yourself fall apart again in the space of two minutes.
On days like these, you waste a lot of energy hating yourself for doing this to your child. For letting the hurt and frustration rip out at him.
And you expend at least the same amount attempting to patch up the wounds you inflicted on him and yourself, wondering where all your good spirits went again.
Parenting is pretty much impossible.
My period has always knocked every ounce of emotional processing prowess out of me. Keeping up with my very lively but oh, so sensitive kid is all but futile on top of just going through the motions of our day-to-day while bleeding. I always ask myself how others do it — am I just being a wimp? Should I gather myself, suck it up, take pain meds and power through?
When I was growing up, I never knew when my mom was on her period. She was there for us all day, every day. She could get loud, even angry like my dad, but I never attributed this to her having a bad day. Her anger was always about us. I never questioned it. It was my fault every time, without fail.
Unlike parenting, it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of a child doing all the emotional adjustment to a parent’s basic humanness.
Early on, I was accustomed to questioning my role in every slight change of atmosphere around me. Even now, after two years of intensive soul-searching, that time long gone, I battle hard to let others’ emotional waves wash up and over me without feeling the need to take responsibility for them. I have to actively talk myself out of drowning in their sulfur, I grab myself by the hair if I need to: I leave the room, the situation, to calm my mind and realize my own feelings are perfectly in order.
When I’m with my son, this is a Herculean task. I can’t just storm out. I do, sometimes — fleeing to the bathroom for 30 seconds of deep breathing — but it’ll only make matters worse, because he’ll come running after me, wailing, needing me. And I’ll suppress whatever is raging in there yet again.
For him, I do it gladly, no matter the cost. It’s my responsibility to take care of my needs. So if making sure his are met causes my emotions to get shoved into the deeper crevices of my subconscious, it’s on me to take the time to coax them back out and ask them what they’re here for.
On the other hand, when I’m not in danger of neglecting or hurting him by being real — as might be the case if I were an alcoholic, for instance — I’m absolutely certain this is more essential for his growth than any of the happy to neutral, lovey-dovey kiddy stuff I do with him.
It all comes crashing down at midday — already. You’ve been weeping inside since waking up at six to your son jumping on your lower belly, the pain so sharp you resorted to physically pushing him off too roughly, you regretting it immediately, and took him and comforted him and apologized a thousand times.
Later in the morning, you had to explain to him the dangers of opening the front door when his mother isn’t there. You were taking a piss right next to it, oblivious, until Liam opened the bathroom door as the delivery guy stood there — What a bad mother, his eyes said. “Dangerous…” his mouth spoke, testily.
“Yes,” you replied, terse, you don’t say! thanking the gods it was him and not one of the others that frequently find their way to your doorstep to solicit. You spoke to your kid with urgency, carefully treading that perilous line between needing to be understood and saying too much. You don’t think he got it, but you were not going to tell your not-even-three-year-old that there are people who would steal him and do horrific things to him, even if you don’t believe it would happen on this side of town, but there’s still that voice stressing — that’s what they thought too.
And now, barely noon, you’re spent. You watch some walrus videos with him, choosing the Netflix clip first without the chance even coming to mind that this particular beautiful nature show involves the hapless creatures plummeting to their bloody near-deaths down rocky cliffs that should be a vast expanse of ice. You can’t hold it in any longer, the crack in your heart widens, the tears burst forth; they have hardly receded when Liam goes to sleep an hour later.
Growing up with the knowledge that people — especially our parents — are fallible, imperfect, often even emotionally unaware and utterly fragile, teaches kids the exact opposite of those last two qualities. They become emotionally aware and antifragile.
This is not the same as empathy — empathy doesn’t need to be taught. Babies and toddlers are already more empathetic than parents realize. What they are lacking, though, is the maturity of their prefrontal cortex, i.e. capacity for emotion and impulse regulation, and an inability to express their attunement to our emotions and carry out the appropriate actions that would make us actually feel heard. But I digress, and it isn’t in our children’s job description to show us the empathy we need; they didn’t ask to be born.
No, it’s about awareness.
Just as vision can only develop with an appropriate amount and range of stimulation, emotional awareness needs to witness and process an appropriate spectrum of human emotion to gain the experience necessary to discern healthy from less productive behavior.
Being aware that even their parents’ larger than life presence carries the full range of humanness, that they are not perfect robots that do everything all the time exactly as things are “supposed” to be — this affirms to children they are alright. They can rest within themselves. They don’t need to be perpetually perfect little angels.
On top of that, seeing their own emotions reflected by the people they trust most in the world — with their life and entire well-being — is one of the most life-affirming, trust-building things they can experience. Because they can see, right there, that to be whatever their parents are showing them in that moment is normal: It’s happening, it’s here, it is. So it’s alright. It’s human.
But for this to happen in a way that is actually of service to our offspring — and us — we can’t just dump our every ache onto them. There must still be a method to our madness.
For starters, children need the certainty that, whatever happens, their needs will be taken care of. Mom and/or Dad won’t stop loving them. We need to work just as hard to acknowledge their pain and frustration — often at us, the bearers of the original pain, drawing lines and showing boundaries — and to be there for them while they ride that wave.
Sometimes this means talking them through what they’re experiencing, giving them the words to place their feelings. Sometimes it means holding them until the tears have ebbed. Sometimes it means listening to whatever seemingly irrational thing their brains are spouting in the moment, and indulging them. Usually, going along with these things is harmless — or even so cute, we’re the ones on the edge of tears by the time it’s all over and done with.
Sometimes it means just being there physically, enduring the pain with them, waiting it out, especially if they’re in a place where they don’t want to be touched. The crucial keyword here is with — not for. The goal is for your child to gain the inner knowing that they can do this.
Stepping back even further, it should go without saying that in general, two things are essential in parenting — or else all you’re doing in the name of “authenticity” is showing your child how to have a hard life: yours.
- You need to communicate. Honestly. You need to tell your child what is happening. What you’re feeling. Why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. If you don’t know, tell them that. Tell them what you want to do about it. What you are doing about it. Apologize if you have a reason to. Tell them as much as you can, a little bit more than you think they can understand, because they’re usually further than you know, but in an age-appropriate manner.
- You need to be aware that you have shit to deal with. This surprises me all the time: People do not know. Everyone on this Earth is traumatized. The degrees vary, of course. But trauma is still trauma. We need to be aware that there will always be one more remark from our fathers to dig up and see and work through and heal. We need to know that the movies we saw during childhood imprinted a great deal of “knowing” onto us that is completely detached from reality. We need to be aware that our kids are the mirror to our deepest hurts and not take that for granted.
Only by communicating with him do my occasional outbursts become educational for my son. Only by acknowledging that there is something “wrong” with them in the first place and that he is never the source of my anger — the facilitator, at most — can I show him that others’ emotions are not his responsibility, not even his mother’s.
And just as my son is there when we clean up our messes, he sees me make amends. He sees me rebuild what I destroyed.
He’s there to see that though all of it takes work, it is possible, and that, above all, we will live another day.
Later in the day, you give up. You trudge into the kitchen and look for something easy to eat, you make tea, you take it all upstairs and place yourself into bed, not to move a centimeter until the kid needs a slice of bread three hours later. You let him feed you pretzel sticks, you giggle at him showing you how to eat them correctly — like a rabbit munches on carrots — you arrange your expression into one of mirth and horror simultaneously as he crushes the sticks into “firewood” on the sheets.
And you remember what you told him earlier when he broke down at your breakdown, as you held him and let him weep:
I’m sorry I can’t do anything fun with you today, that I’m cranky and that I get angry so easily. I’m very sorry. You need to know that it’s not your fault. Never. When you need me, I will always pull myself together for you, just like now. You shouldn’t have to do it for me, and I need to take care of myself better, so this won’t happen so often anymore. But even then, there are still bad days. Sometimes, you’re exhausted. Sometimes, you need to cry, sometimes throughout the entire day. That’s okay. Just know that it always passes. It will always pass, just like this will pass.
You remember your words, and you smile. Yes, this will pass. The pain will subside. But for now, you’ll enjoy a crackling pretzel stick campfire and let yourself be flown away by the child’s imagination.