“Why the hell won’t you just sleep?” I demanded of the precious little boy sobbing in front of me.
My son, Elliot, was somewhere between a year and eighteen months old, and we were both red-faced and sobbing on the carpet.
I was sick, depressed, and tired, and Elliot was refusing to take his regular afternoon nap. So I yelled at a one-year-old. For not sleeping.
Yeah, not my proudest moment.
There’s a quote by author L.R. Knost about parenting: “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”
It’s a great quote—true, powerful, and inspiring. But for the first two years of my son’s life, I hated hearing it. I saw it all over social media, and every single time I read it, it felt like I was hearing a bell ringing out the sound of my utter failure. I felt demoralized, ashamed, and eventually angry.
Of course, I told myself, it wasn’t the words that were at fault. It was me. When I heard that quote, it only served to reinforce my certainty that I had failed over and over again. I had #momfail practically tattooed on the back of my eyelids.
My son was still only an infant, but I consistently lost my temper at him when he missed naps, or got into things I didn’t want him to (like pulling all of his clothes out of his drawers), or when he merely cried and refused to be comforted.
He would be crying and screaming in his crib, and I would be in a pile on his floor, sobbing and yelling at him to sleep. I would snap at him when he went near the power cord of our standing lamp. I would become furious when he tried to roll away from me during diaper changes.
Every time I lost my cool with Elliot instead of comforting him or gently correcting him, I was quickly overcome by deep, deep shame for my failures. I wanted desperately to live by Knost’s quote and to share calm with him.
The problem was, I had no calm to share.
I was in a very dark and difficult place. My pregnancy had been unplanned, and I was unprepared. I was battling chronic illness and daily pain. My little brother had just died unexpectedly, and I was devastated. I had no community and no family in the area. I had terrible coping skills, no local support system, and in retrospect, probably also postpartum depression.
How could I possibly share my calm with a screaming, unpredictable, fully-dependent baby, when I had no calm of my own? The answer is simple: I couldn’t.
My husband and I both recognized that I needed to get help, so I started going to a local mommy group looking to find friends. My husband called around and found a therapist for me. We paid for a babysitter one afternoon a week, so I could get a break. We found a good church and started forging a new community. I flew across the country and paid several thousand dollars to treat my chronic illness. I began building my own reservoir of calm.
Three years later, we’re now a part of a tight-knit church group, whose members are incredibly generous and supportive. I have a close group of mom friends who remind me that I’m not alone. My parents and my sister now live just minutes away from us, and they’re a constant help and support. I spent two years getting counseling.
I have calm to share now.
My son is four now, and we have another child—a daughter who is about to turn two.
Both of my children are always testing boundaries and asserting their independence. I still find myself snapping at them more than I’d like. When Elliot puts his Hot Wheels cars in the fish bowl for the seventh time in a day, when he fights with his sister, or when Lila refuses to eat her lunch and screams at me instead, I am not always a shining example of patient, gentle parenting.
But every day, I have more calm to share. I’m continuing to learn and practice coping skills. I have fewer meltdowns and I snap less and I cry fewer tears. Some days, when my son won’t listen to anything I say and my daughter screams just because somebody looked at her the wrong way, I can reach down into that well of peace and calm within myself, and I can actually draw up enough for myself and to share with my beautiful, wonderful babies.
I can do that because nowadays I take care of myself. I ask for the help that I need and surround myself with community. I prioritize health and rest over a clean house or Pinterest-perfect menus. I budget for regular babysitting. I work hard at changing my negative thought patterns. I do things that fill me up. Last year, I decided I needed even more help and started taking antidepressants.
I have to practice self-care, because it’s the only way I can take good care of anyone else. I can’t be a good parent to my children if I’m falling apart at the seams. In order to share calm with my children, I must seek that calm in myself.