Monday, February 13, 2017

giving myself grace: happy valentine's day to me.

So I've been stuck. And I got myself into trouble this weekend.

I somehow got sucked into a cycle of getting really down on myself lately. I'm struggling to do anything beyond sitting on the couch and stuffing my face. I feel like I haven't been doing all the things I love to do with and for Rowan - playing outside every day, coloring together, teaching her board games. I'm disappointed in myself for giving up a writing position that I was enjoying because it was taking wayyyy more time than I had to offer. I made a huge mistake and way underestimated the cost of getting a new bathtub for our only full bathroom - the tub is crumbling and it's non-negotiable at this point whether we get it replaced, but I had no idea installation was going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars. I'm annoyed that I can't do the installation myself (at least of the tile surround and a new cheap floor), the way we did with the kitchen, because I'm pregnant and tired and not willing to sacrifice our bathroom for a month while I get it done in sporadic thirty-minute chunks. I'm especially pissed at myself for not bringing in enough money to our household to be able to afford the cost of replacing the stupid bathtub. I'm ashamed that I keep focusing on all the negatives of having this baby, that I can't seem to see past the inevitable sleep deprivation and stress spikes and get excited about a new squishy human to love.

All of this culminated in the worst thing of all. On Saturday night, I was running the dinner-bath-bedtime gauntlet while J.J. was at work, and I. Was. Exhausted. There was no good reason for being exhausted beyond the typical stuff - stressful week, long day, vampire fetus sucking all my strength, etc. Rowan didn't nap that afternoon, and so the evening was a series of tired tantrums for her. She didn't want what I served for dinner. She didn't want to use the potty. She didn't want to come inside from playing on the swings. She didn't want to take a bath. She didn't want to use the almost-empty bottle of bubble bath, she wanted to use the NEW bottle of bubble bath - and when I reached over to grab the almost-empty bottle instead, she jumped up and down in a fit of rage and her skull connected with my cheekbone, hard. I dropped the bottle and snapped, "Rowan! Seriously, STOP IT!" She started crying, frightened by my tone and mad that I wasn't giving in to her, and I honestly didn't care. I ran the bath and poured the bubbles (from the almost-empty bottle) in. Then she didn't want THOSE toys in the bath, and then she didn't want the bath to end, and then she didn't want the towel I handed her...

By the time I was getting her lotioned up and helping her put her pajamas on, we were both at the ends of our ropes. Rowan was wiggling and falling and turning in circles and being uncooperative, and my voice was getting louder and louder. Hers did, too: "No, I WON'T stop wiggling! I WILL wiggle!" She turned away from me, wiggled more, and pulled the one leg that we had gotten in the underwear back out of the underwear.

I finally lost it. "Rowan! STOP!" I shouted.

And I swatted her bottom.

She turned to look at me, her eyes confused and instantly full of tears. "Mommy! You're not supposed to bonk me!" she cried, her tears spilling over.

I felt like shit, wholly and immediately. I have never spanked her before, not even really come close. She collapsed in my arms, crying, and I apologized. "I'm sorry, Rowie, you're right: I'm not supposed to bonk you." I squeezed her tight. She replied, "That's okay, Mommy."

I drew back from her and looked in her wet eyes. "No, that's not okay for me to bonk you. That's not what we do when we're frustrated. I won't do that again, I promise." We hugged a minute longer, then finished lotion and pajamas and continued with the bedtime routine like normal.

But I didn't feel normal. I felt like a monster. Look, I know a swat on the bottom is not the worst thing in the world. I know there's someone reading this and judging me harshly for laying a hand on my child; trust me, I'm doing the same thing. There are also people reading this who think I'm being melodramatic, that I'm overreacting big time. They're probably not all that wrong. But I'm pregnant and hormonal and already feeling like a sub-par person and parent, and, yeah, swatting my three-year-old did nothing to help that. 

I also have to say that I know there are families out there who employ spanking as a matter of course, a regular tool in their discipline arsenal. And I know there are so many people who believe spanking is actually a necessary form of discipline, that otherwise your kid ends up a spoiled snowflake. Here's the thing, though: I am, by education and profession, an early childhood specialist. And based on thorough reviews of a variety of studies, I flat-out disagree that spanking is necessary or beneficial. A professor of mine in grad school is one of the nation's leading researchers on spanking. Last year, she published a meta-analysis on spanking that showed, as conclusively as research can, that not only does spanking not help reduce misbehavior, it also has detrimental long-term effects.

I was spanked growing up, and I wouldn't say that it did me long-term, irreparable harm. I was lucky enough to have a host of protective factors guarding against that, not the least of which was a loving and positive relationship with both of my parents. And no, I don't think one spank automatically turned Rowan into an anti-social tyrant. But still. I introduced into her innocent life the concept that grown-ups are capable of hitting children, and that makes me feel awful. She needs to know that hitting is never acceptable, and that she doesn't have to say "that's okay" just because she loves me and I love her.

I spent the rest of the weekend thinking about all the people in Rowan's life who would never dream of hitting her, or who would be angry with me for hitting a girl they adore, and feeling like a savage in comparison. I felt like I'd changed the nature of my relationship with my daughter in a real and demonstrable way. I thought about how I've never hit a child I've worked with, even the ones that hit me first - with their hands, or a sled or a block or a chair. That's all happened, but I never hit them. Of course not. I thought about how my professional life is dedicated to helping teachers and parents manage their stress and emotions, and that I let mine get the best of me. 

I did all this thinking, until, finally, I started asking myself what I would say to a parent in the same position as me. Like, what if one of the moms in my mom group came to me in tears, wracked with guilt after spanking her child? I know exactly how I'd respond. First and foremost, I'd say, "It's okay. You are still a good mom, and you didn't wreck your kid." Then I'd continue: "Yes, sometimes we lose it. Sometimes our kids are being terrible. TERRIBLE. But there are better ways to handle ourselves when we lose it than spanking. The trick is to remember that next time, and to know how you want to respond instead." And I'd counsel them through letting go of the guilt.

I'm attempting to extend the same grace to myself. And not just with regards to the spanking incident; to myself in general, the person who stays home full-time and works part-time and tries to balance a marriage and family and friendships and parenting and gestating and self-care. The guilt? This whole routine of beating myself up because I'm not living up to my own subjective standards? It is serving no good. It doesn't inspire me to change or do better; it just loops me back into the negativity spiral and keeps me stuck there. I can't take back the spank, and I feel guilty as hell about that. But I am giving myself permission to let it go. I've acknowledged that the guilt is there, and now I'm letting it go.

The point of confessing all of this is not to come off as some zen master who can pull whatever stupid shit she wants and then magically release the guilt, free of penalty or recourse. It's also not to lambast parents who do spank. But I messed up. Our family does not hit, and grown-ups in our family don't use physical force to intimidate or to impose compliance. So this is more about reminding myself that I'm going to mess up. In every area of my life, I'm going to mess up. Something I try to tell Rowan when she makes mistakes is that the mistake isn't what matters so much as how we respond to it. I'm not going to blame Rowan for me spanking her ("If you weren't wiggling around so much, I wouldn't have bonked you!"). I took responsibility for it, as well as for coming up with better ways of handling my stress and frustration. I apologized to her, sincerely, and let her know that I made a mistake. Yes, spanking her felt like the opposite of everything we try to teach in our family, but that doesn't mean it negated everything she's already learned.

And now I'm going to move on. Forgive myself. Learn from it. And let it go. Because I want to be the best person I can be, and unchecked guilt does not further that goal.

In case you need permission to do the same, here. Permission granted, grace extended, love offered. Happy Valentine's Day.

This girl ran into my arms today and whispered, "Will you be my
valentine?" Then she told me she wants to make a special
valentine for her daddy, "because he's just so special in my heart."

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