Four kids under four – a kind of magical madness
When you’re in the parenting trenches with young children, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the chaos of it all. The Dad Dude, AKA Terran Nirvana Williams, shares the seven glimpses of hope that help keep him sane.
Parenting toddlers is a challenge
In my experience, parents of kids aged four and under are in crisis. They’re undergoing a slow-motion trauma. Just yesterday, a granddad told me, “Finally my grandkids are all aged five and up. It brings with it a multi-layered pain and strain that is simultaneously:
- Physical: There’s exhaustion, sleeplessness and sickness.
- Financial: The skyrocketing costs of food, medicine, accessories, maybe a new home, and myriad of hidden costs lead to the monthly experience of sinking – when there’s more month at the end of your money, especially if child-rearing called for a transition from DINK (double income, no kids) to SINC (single income, no cash).
- Marital: As stress increases and energy decreases there’s less libido, less time and attention for each other, more bickering and blaming – all of which is deleterious to marriage health.
- Social: Few friendships go forward, most either go backwards or are at best merely maintained.
- Spiritual: If you’re spiritually orientated, maybe you can relate – the stress and pressure tends to erode the space to reflect and read that are essential to a vital relationship with one’s maker.
- Professional: When home is stressful, we bring the bluntest version of ourselves to work.
- Logistical: There’s a typhoon-hit house and all the prep time needed to leave the house (add 30 minutes for each child) – but why bother going anywhere, when few outings can possibly give us more energy than they consume?’
- Emotional: The cocktail-mix of these pains and strains leads to a toxic froth of negative emotions, such as feelings of being bedraggled, empty, discouraged, frustrated, overwhelmed and inadequate. Our kids’ volatile emotions also tend to activate our own.
These factors compound upon each other as a kind of madness – not continuously but often enough to warrant the use of the word. Just because I’ve articulated the struggle doesn’t mean I have transcended parenting as torment and suffering. I wish.
Sure, I have times of grandeur on the mountaintop moments of parenting, when it’s the best thing in the world. Moments when I feel called upon, even specially chosen, to parent. When I feel tremendous insight about parenting. But very often, like now, I am in the trenches, hand-grenades flying overhead, just hanging on for dear life.
A snapshot from the trenches
Yesterday I come home early from work, sick with flu. I am the final person in my family of seven to fall at the foot of this ubiquitous virus. And although you moms might tease us dads for saying this, as the dude I really do have it the worst (with science to back my claim). I feel terrible, miserable and bone-tired. So I creep away to have a nap. An hour later, my wife Julie wakes me up. She needs to go get meds for the twins, and then pick Eli up.
Left with four kids under five to look after, and ready to pay back for the hour nap, I tell myself I’ve got this one. Wishful thinking…
Somehow I attend to a couple of urgent work emails. A rookie mistake! Deep in keyboard-clicking thought, I am oblivious to the hurricane unfurling its horrors upon our house… The neglected twins (19 months old) have stepped into destroyer mode. About 50 crayons are scattered across the floor, Rice Crispies by the 1000s are sprinkled across the kitchen, with the entire contents of our plastics cupboard intermingled. Julie’s toiletry box is turned upside down in our bathroom. A permanent marker makes its forever mark on two chairs. Streaming snot pours from eight little nostrils.
By the time I’ve snapped out of my badly mistimed attempt at work, I have an inconsolable, sick Charlie who cries in my arms and refuses to be put down. The house looks like it’s been overtaken by wolves. And the three other kids just need attention, and a lot of it. Sick, tired and full of self-pity, I phone Julie and let her listen in on the howls in the background. When she comes home, I pass her a still-crying Charlie. For the next two hours we muddle through eating, feeding, bathing, negotiating and juggling kids – with short interval missions in pursuit of missing socks, hiding dry towels, vanished syringes and giving the right medicine to each patient.
It gets darker in the night.
Eli (seven) and Fynn (five) ask for the story I promised. I drag my sore throat and non-existent imagination across its glass-field. Julie, in a feat of brilliance, has put the twins down, and has read to Ivy (who is still wide awake from an afternoon nap we failed to intercept).
Late once again, Julie runs to the car for a very rare girls-night out. Ivy runs after her, screaming she wants to go too – “I’m also a girl!” I hold her thrashing three-year-old body in my arms, and wave goodbye as Julie reverses out the garage. Ivy is devastated.
The next two-and-a-half hours consist of me trying to watch a series, with Ivy drifting off next to me on the couch, and me running between the twins whose stuffy nose and sore throats make sleep impossible. Charlie is the worst – he bellows for his mom for almost an hour. When she finally gets home, I grunt at her, and put the cry-baby in her arms. We decide that I will sleep in the lounge so that he and Julie can sleep in our bed. To be honest, I’m relieved, but I feel awful with sickness. It’s 10pm.
A midnight cry from Fynn (sore tummy), and Ivy wetting her bed an hour later ensure that sleep evades us still. By 2am, I’m exhausted but too irritated to sleep. Julie’s bed is littered with small, coughing people.
I climb back into my makeshift bed in the lounge. In the early hours of the morning, I scorn the fact that I ever wanted to start an inspiring and helpful parenting blog. What can I honestly tell people? There are times in the trenches when it seems there’s little to no meaning in the suffering. It’s just plain hard, is what it is.
But some hours have passed. It’s daylight now. Hope has returned, the madness has subsided. And as I drive a chirpy Eli to school, I think of hopeful things I can say to other parents of little kids – all based on admittedly belated insights from the oh-so-common trauma of the previous 16 hours.
Glimpses of magic in the midst of the madness.
The very same trenches that make us parents vulnerable to the artillery that is a tiny tot, are the ones into which sunshine can come freely pouring in. These are the seven truths that bring me back from the brink:
- You are not alone in your suffering. You have not been singled out for some kind of special punishment. For millennia, parents of little kids have lived in a state of nose-dive.
Your suffering might not be special, but it still is suffering. Life, especially this season of life, is difficult. Denying it’s hardship is seriously disempowering, because it guarantees you will feel injustice and shock each time missiles fly overhead. When you will call the anguish what it is, then you can start adjusting expectations and be ready when the battle intensifies. Some parents – those few who are unusually lucky or competent – are spared much of this suffering. I am happy for you, and I wish I was you, but I still contend that it’s better to expect distress and be surprised by ease, than vice versa. So, let me harp on about how hard it is.
I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but your and my parental suffering is quite likely not the worst. I think of single parents who don’t have a spouse to angrily call, or an extra pair of arms to dump a crying child into. I think of parents in freezing shacks experiencing the same thing last night with their kids – but no medicine, no chance to leave work early, no TV show to watch. I especially think of parents, like my mom, who have lost a child (my brother) tragically.
- You will forget the pain. Someone asked me today how hard it was with Eli and Fynn. “I can’t remember,” I said. In fact, most of the comfort I have received in parenting has not come from parents of older children. It’s the parents who are also currently in the trenches that can empathise. Why is this?
Research reveals that our memories tend to exaggerate the good times and gloss over the bad times. This is true of holidays – how many of us have had a stressful holiday in terms of the hour-by-hour existence, but when we got back home we could barely recollect the stress, only the good memories. The same phenomenon happens with early-stage parenting, I think.
Unlike other kinds of pain, toddler-borne pain is only experienced in the moment, not as much in our memory. Mother Nature, it seems, mercifully serves up an amnesiac by coupling the agony with sleeplessness.
- There can be moments of connection in the midst of it all. As I re-read my rendition of last night, I realised I skipped over many magical moments woven into the nightmare. Somehow, in the middle of all of it, I hugged Julie and told her I loved her and she told me the same. Straight after dinner, we put some happy music on and I danced with Eli and I had a flashback to my dad dancing with me at the same age. Through this I felt a connection to my long-deceased dad, and the wonderfulness of his love for me, flowing through me to my son.
At one point I belly-laughed as Sam who, out of the scattered toiletries, ripped open a pack of tampons and came through to me nonchalantly carrying one in his mouth – cigar-style!
- Be grateful for all the help you receive. To be fair, usually it is Julie at home, faced with the onslaught of our tribe, not me. Last night I gained fresh appreciation for my wife who routinely suffers in my absence and yet doesn’t feel the need to blog about it. And I am grateful for Michelle, my mom and mom-in-law, who often help out in the crazy hours, but last night couldn’t.
Just as we reached the age of finally holding up our trophy of independent self-sufficiency, having kids drove us to a much better way of life: a life of interdependent community; a life where we are able to not just give but also receive help.
- What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, and better. Crush grapes and you get wine. Put coal under immense pressure and you get diamonds. This kind of run-of-the-mill suffering built into the lifespan of the reproducing adult is exactly what is required to make us better people. Affliction tends to make us less shallow, more grateful for the little things. More robust when future hardships come. More sensitive to the trials of others. Most importantly, in suffering as a parent, we get a deeper understanding that love always costs us something. We realise that our kids cannot be lifted up if we aren’t willing to bend down in some ways. My willingness to embrace the pain is itself a manifestation of my love, a love which is purified and deepened in the suffering.
- Resist the urge to shout at or throttle your kids. I came so close to shouting at Sam, to being too rough with Charlie, and to whacking Ivy! Somehow I didn’t. In the moment, the temptation to let loose and the actual doing of it seem like the same thing. But this morning I realize they are worlds apart. What if I had handed myself over to those pain-induced impulses to try inflict the same onto the causers of my pain? It would have left a mark on their psyche and a deposit of mistrust in my children towards me.
- The sun will come up tomorrow. As crazy and dark as these recent hours of hardship have been, and these nascent years of parenting, I write this with sun streaming in through the window. Despite the raging storms that parenting has brought into my life, I am still alive. My kids are still alive. My love for my kids is still alive. My faith, my marriage – still alive. The sun has outlasted each storm.
My youngest kids are three and one, but soon enough they will be older, and a little more self-contained and self-sustained. Like Fynn and Eli now are. These psychotic years of earliest childhood – they too shall pass.
I must be careful not to wish this mad season away, because there are threads of magic woven in its fabric that will not only keep me sane, but will never be repeated again. As End Asner put it, “Parenting is part joy and part guerrilla warfare.” I’m discovering once again that we can’t have one part without the other.
Terran’s blog, The Dade Dude, is how he works through the ups and downs of parenting. With his wife Julie, he works hard at shepherding his flock of five children through the perils of life, keeping his sense of humour about him too. Read more of his humorous exploits and priceless advice at www.thedaddude.com.