When my first son was born, I was terrified, as most new parents are. At that moment, I could imagine nothing more beautiful or prone to breakage than my new mini-me. And while I didn’t suffer from post-partum anything (thank God), I still struggled mightily to stay calm and enjoy the first few months of Liam’s life. I questioned every decision I made, convinced myself I was screwing him up, and told my husband we should probably send the kid back where he came from.
I just didn’t feel fit.
I’d like to be able to say that I’ve gotten over that feeling. That the past seven years and the addition of a second child have proven I am equipped to handle the job of Mom. After all, we’ve achieved a mountain of milestones at this point—the kids are done with diapers and diets of mush, they’re learning to read and ride their bikes, and they’ve developed their own little special interests and personalities. Plus, they’ve done it all with relatively few scars—a couple cases of pneumonia, some cuts and bruises, and a few cavities seem minor when you consider the panoply of possible childhood illnesses and injuries.
And yet, I occasionally still worry that someone, somewhere made a mistake when they assigned me the care of two little humans. Because even though I am professionally trained to understand child development, manage behavior, and provide emotional support, I screw up a lot. Sometimes I yell. Or I neglect to follow through on promises I’ve made. There are times when I give in to my kids’ unreasonable demands even though I’m supposed to be setting boundaries. My husband doesn’t share my worries—he just figures we’re doing the best we can, and reminds me that kids are resilient. Thank goodness one of us is an optimist!
For the past seven years, I’ve been waiting for the whole parenting thing to get easier. As a culture, we’ve bought into the idea of the Terrible Twos, convincing ourselves that nothing is worse than a defiant, tantruming toddler with little capacity for speech. But now we’ve also admitted that Three-Year-Olds are Assholes, Kindergarteners can be bullies, and “big kids have big problems.” Taking that terrifying trajectory into account, it’s no surprise there are entire web sites centered on the theme of “Mommy Juice.” (Despite my own appreciation of a nice glass of red, I have to admit this term makes me cringe; it brings to mind drunk, giggly women who have been allowed to dress themselves, stumbling around an indoor park with sippy cups full of boxed vino).
Despite the fact that parenting is crazy hard and unrelenting, you won’t be seeing my boys up for auction on CraigsList anytime soon. I love them beyond all reason, and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. That is, of course, until they’re teenagers.
But wait; hold that thought.
Parenting teens isn’t actually much harder than parenting young children, according to developmental psychologists Terese Glatz and Christy Buchanan—we’ve just convinced ourselves that it is. In actuality, they say, the increase in difficult behaviors and negative emotions during teen years is quite low. But by convincing ourselves that teenagers are a nightmare, we’ve decreased our effectiveness as parents and created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’re scared of our teenagers because puberty rears its ugly head, and suddenly our babies don’t look like babies anymore. They also begin to establish their own social lives independent of us, and we’re not sure how to talk to them anymore. We convince ourselves that teenagers are hormonal and crabby, so we start treating them like they’re hormonal and crabby. Needless to say, that doesn’t tend to go so well.
A recent study published by Glatz and Buchanan in Developmental Psychology suggests that people who believe they are effective parents are more likely to actually be effective parents. Parents who feel competent are better able to handle stress and stay involved when their teenagers challenge them, and they are less likely to see the teen years as a threat to be avoided. As a result, parents who believe in themselves are more likely to stay engaged with their teenagers through the difficult times, to continue setting boundaries and providing positive feedback, and to persevere when their teenagers struggle.
All of which means it is time for me to buck up and start believing in my effectiveness as a parent. If I don’t, I may end up with this mischief on my hands: