Notes on frustrations and solidarity in big family parenting.
Let’s get real
Having a large family, whether by choice or by (divine?) accident, is one of the most beautifully challenging – or challengingly beautiful – experiences I can imagine.
With Above Average, I never want to whitewash things. Nor do I want to “blackwash” any situation. (Is that a word?) Nothing is actually as dark as it seems, especially with the perspective of time.
So, today I’m going to share some of what Sarah and I have been discussing lately. So please note – especially our personal friends and our family: We’re not going off the deep end. We absolutely love our family, warts and all.
But as any parent would agree, the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. And being transparent – being real – is one way we can show some solidarity with our fellow big family parents.
Our family went to confession last night. We took the whole fam to church for an Advent penance service – so, it was a few songs, a few readings… and then the ten or so priests who were there dispersed through the sanctuary to hear people’s confessions. And – because we were wrangling 5 kids, including a toddler and an infant – we both hopped in line quickly so we could get our sacrament on and head back home. And we then made our confessions.
A quick note: If you’re not Catholic, in the sacrament of confession (also called penance or reconciliation), we speak our sins – at least the big ones – and openly commit to turning away from sin and doing better. There’s deep grace associated with this, and really, really good vibes. It’s an incredible opportunity to wipe the slate clean, and re-balance your priorities.
I want to talk about the feelings before that confession. Before we hit the reset button. Without getting too personal here on the podcast, Sarah and I talked about our confessions on the way home. Nothing in explicit detail – there are some things that are just between ourselves and God. But we discussed the same topic with our respective priests in the confessional: the feelings of frustration – and out of that some selfishness – with our families. Nothing extreme, of course – emotionally or otherwise. But just unhealthy, and unproductive reactions and emotions.
The good stuff is good!
We know the good stuff about having kids, and even a big family. The warm fuzzies, cute baby stuff, or sweet hugs from your toddler. And awesome stuff they say – “out of the mouths of babes,” and all that.
Then in later years, you see their brains grow, or artistic or physical talents blossom. You watch them make friends, and deepen those relationships.
And then even the way their struggles and heartbreaks become such a part of your life that – while not “fun” – the feelings of empathy and sympathy you experience as a parent for your kids are beyond compare.
As they get older, I’m pretty sure time will start flying, like a snowball rolling downhill. You become proud of the kids you’ve raised and their accomplishments. Then you have grandkids, then – much later hopefully – you have your own walking, talking, thinking, legacies surrounding you on your proverbial death bed.
Again – we know all this. This is the good stuff, right? “We love our kids – they’re so cool!” These are the reasons we have kids to begin with? This is the stuff that elderly people and strangers remind us of when they say how beautiful and wonderful our families are.
But it can be hard to keep this in mind when you’re struggling to make ends meet – paying the mortgage, replacing ill-fitting clothes, school tuition and fees, fixing the transmission, keeping food on the table.
Or maybe you’re not struggling to keep food on the table – you’re just trying really hard to keep food OFF the floor and everywhere else. It’s pretty hard to keep a tidy home – especially when your big family consists of a lot of little ones who really can’t clean house the way it needs to be done.
It’s hard to keep the good stuff in mind when you’re driving all over town to practice and recitals and daycare and preschool and school drop-off and Christmas programs, etc. You’d really like to just be able to do your own thing. Wouldn’t it be nice to do happy hour with some guys from work? Or just go walk around Target or go to the gym without any time constraints or stresses?
It’s hard to keep all the good stuff – the stuff that we can recite off the top of our heads when we need to be that “perfect parent” and say the right thing to someone.
It’s hard to remind yourself that this good stuff really does outweigh the bad, when your single friends, or friends without kids, can pick up and go and do whenever they want. Or that their house stays clean for longer than two seconds. Or that they do less laundry in 3 weeks than you did today.
It’s hard to remember how good that stuff is when you see your friends with just a couple of older kids. They’re out of the kid fog. They haven’t changed a diaper in years. And they’re planning their next vacation overseas, or they’re just going backpacking this weekend.
What’s OK… and What’s Not
So, back to confession.
These feelings… let’s call a spade a spade: sometimes this is envy. We want to be where others are. Or we just want others to “know what it feels like” to deal with cleaning up puke from one kid, while praising another for getting an A, while thinking what in the world we’re going to fix for dinner tonight – all at the same time.
Or if it’s not envy: sometimes this is plain selfishness: We want more time to ourselves, or with our spouse – alone! Alone time is good and well, but if you’ve maybe daydreamed too much about a life without kids, maybe it is self-centeredness rearing its ugly head.
But I am saying, I suppose to myself and to anyone else in our shoes – it’s OK to admit that parenting is hard. It’s frustrating. It’s often not fun. It’s often without reward, certainly immediate reward. So much of the “good stuff” is years down the road for many of us. It’s definitely without a break, because of course, unlike a job, you never get a vacation from being a parent.
Without getting too down on ourselves though, we do get tired! We look for some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, then stare at our youngest and calculate how many days until they’re out of the house, or at least out of diapers.
Personally, I’ve found myself thinking, “I just want the next X number of years to fly by.” But then the guilt of wishing my life away – or, worse, wishing away my kids’ childhoods – kicks in. And we can get stuck in this thinking. We love our kids – we really do. But sometimes we feel like we’re trapped.
(Cue the anti-kid people saying “I told you so.”)
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to these problems. Time will do its thing, and learning patience in the middle of adversity is one of the most difficult life lessons I can think of. There’s no maxim, platitude, or secret I can offer that will help these feelings.
But – and here’s as much of a takeaway as you’re getting – I can share that it’s OK to not always be the all star dad or the perfect Pinterest mom. (And if you are, don’t tell me – because I refuse to acknowledge these people exist.)
Of course be careful with your coping mechanisms – don’t let alcohol or gossip or other unhealthy outlets control you. And also avoid getting angry at your kids, or letting jealous thoughts fester. This is where – for Sarah and I, anyway – we feel like natural emotions can become sinful if left unchecked.
But beyond that, I think the biggest help is simply knowing others have been where you are. Who knows how many other parents are dealing with similar frustrations in families big and small, regardless of what you see on social media, read in a book, or talk about with other parents?
My wife and I – we love our kids so very much. And we’re happy our family is who we are. And we wouldn’t change a thing, even the really hard lessons we’re learning as we go along.