Lately I am reminded of an incident I witnessed on a bus, when I was about 5 months pregnant. I watched a young mum shout at her toddler. She was short-tempered, her tone bordering on aggressive, her face and body language full of frustration and annoyance. I don’t remember what the child had done to provoke such a response from his mother, I just remember how angry she sounded. I remember how uncomfortable it was to hear a child be spoken to so harshly. I looked away, partly as it was unpleasant to watch, but mostly so as not to catch the eye of the angry young mum. I knew I’d be embarassed if she caught my judgmental eye, for that is most definitely what I was doing: judging her. I stared out of the window, watching South London pass by, and felt pretty smug as I imagined how I would one day handle that situation differently:
For a start, I was pretty certain that my future toddler and I would have a great mother / child relationship, one based on good communication, love and affection. I would talk to my baby from day one and explain the world, our lives, our emotions to her. Once she entered into toddlerdom, regardless of her verbal ability (though naturally I was pretty confident that she’d be an early adopter of that thing we call ‘talking’), I knew that tantrums and poor behaviour would be calmed and controlled by my clear but gentle request to desist. I allowed myself a ‘what if talking doesn’t work’ moment, but reassured myself that regardless of the tantrum before me, getting annoyed, feeling stressed, and shouting was counterproductive, and therefore not something I would do, when I was a mum.
Fast forward a couple of years and smug pregnant me has been replaced with stressed, frustrated and a sometimes shouty me. I don’t know when it happened, but I know I don’t like that version of me. I also very much know that I don’t much like that judge-y smug version of me either. I only ever thought about how wonderful it was all going to be. I never really stopped to truly think about how hard it might be. And what I’ve learned is that being a parent is one of the hardest things you can do. People talk about the most stressful things you can deal with in life (bereavement, divorce, moving home, job loss etc), but seldom is parenting on the list. The majority of those happenings are, to an extent, finite. Time is often the great healer it purports to be, and eventually that stress is lifted. Becoming a parent isn’t finite: you don’t give birth, become a parent, then it stops. You parent for life, every hour of every day. It never stops.
I think for this reason, amongst others, the stress is cumulative. Like compound interest it just grows and grows until one day you’re overwhelmed by a feeling of annoyance, and frustration, and helplessness, and such bewilderment, that you shout at your child. Your tiny, beautiful, funny little toddler who, let’s face it, was just behaving like a toddler. And that’s the thing (there’s always a thing eh?): toddlers behave like toddlers. Now, I’m not saying that they don’t sometimes push the boundaries to see what they can get away with. But (I think in most cases), they’re not doing it to manipulate or deliberately wind you up. They’re doing it to a) see what happens and b) because they’re programmed to seek comfort. Not just to feel warm and well fed, but there’s a desire for emotional comfort. And let’s face it: if we could behave in a way that brought eternal happiness we would. But as mature adults we know that sometimes the rubbish needs to be put out, your boss wants the report ASAP and the mortgage isn’t going to pay for itself.
So your toddler behaves as she should. But for some reason a button has been pushed somewhere deep inside your emotional response system and your emotions explode and you shout at your little one to ‘just stop it / just put it down / just listen to me / just eat it / just just just ad infinitum….’. Now I haven’t performed this shouty mum routine on the bus yet. I’m dealing with a little thing known as, needing approval from others (yes, seemingly, even random strangers on the 176), but that’s a whole other blog post! So my grimaced requests to ‘just just just’ are confined to the home, behind closed doors. And of course I’m not condoning violence of any kind: I’m talking about shouting in an exasperated or heated tone. But I am constantly reminded of that angry young mum on the bus, and how much I judged what I believed at the time to be such poor parenting skills. She was probably just doing the best she could, but in that moment, had her buttons pushed and shouted at her child.
Being a parent is amazing, but it’s also really challenging. So I’m not going to judge another parent. We’re all just doing the best we can. The little button-pushers will continue to baffle and bewilder us. It’s their job! So I’m not going to judge them either.