My first son is a firecracker. I don’t remember the first few months of his life fondly. Struggling with severe postpartum depression and anxiety left me feeling unable to bond with him. As he has grown, I’ve battled with him and often felt beyond incapable of being his mother on so many days. He’s almost four now, and even though we are in the “threenager” stage (which leaves me speechless sometimes) I feel more able to connect to my son than I ever have. I have learned that the one thing crucial to a healthy relationship with my son is to respect him as a whole person.
Respecting my child did not come easy to me, because I never realized that he was capable–and still is–of understanding life around him. As a new parent, I felt incapable of truly understanding him, too. I never stopped to speak to him when he was a baby about what I was doing or why. The simple things, like going to the store, taking a bath, or getting a diaper change, were things that I never communicated about. I just did them, because I thought, “he won’t understand what I’m saying anyways.”
What I’ve learned after only three and a half short years is that not communicating about the small things made it much more difficult for me to communicate about the big things–things like boundaries, potty training, routine changes, and expressing emotions. So many times I have just put him in the car and drove around, because I didn’t know how to handle explosive confrontations. And because I didn’t know how to connect with my toddler, he kept pushing past my mental threshold. A vicious circle began to loop around my relationship with him.
You can imagine my anguish as I frequently experienced the crippling anxiety of being a “bad mom.” I was longing so badly to connect with my son, and there was something in my way. The giant wall between us was a lack of respect. Despite my unconditional love for him, I didn’t recognize that my son was really feeling so upset. I didn’t respect his vital life force, because I didn’t stop to think that he was learning and exploring his own experiences in this life.
Learning to respect a small person with little to no impulse control became easier for me as I focused on being more calm. I honestly can’t connect with him if I’m not calm (this happens more often than I want it to). When I’m calm, I can see the situation clearly. Especially when I recognize that my toddler’s tantrum is not only an expression of emotion and will, but a cry for help. My job as a mother is to guide my child through these early years of life without pushing him down. My job as a mother is to teach him how to respect all life–his life–and to teach him that, I have to respect him.
“In my world there are no bad kids, just impressionable, conflicted young people wrestling with emotions and impulses, trying to communicate their feelings and needs the only way they know how.”
–Janet Lansbury, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
When I think of respect, I think of namaste. As I respect my toddler, I am honoring his existence. I recognize that I am neither above or below him, but an essential presence in his life–as he is in mine. Respecting my toddler doesn’t mean that I allow him to make big decisions or run the show. It simply means that I honor his feelings, his words, his perception, and his will as real and important. Respecting my toddler doesn’t mean that I allow him to do whatever he wants to do. I am able to give him space to experience his displeasure, and then safely guide him through the uncertainty and sadness he feels with boundaries. This has changed my life as a mother.
Even though some days I feel like a crumpled piece of paper, my relationship with my toddler has turned from desolate and unnerving to loving and more laid back. I look him in the eyes. I let him be known. I enjoy watching him decide (even if he can’t get what he wants). I find joy in hugging him, even after I make him mad. I find joy in hugging him, even after he has made me mad. I have discovered a bigger realm of peace within parenting now that I have taken all of the pressure to have it all figured out. Toddlers develop, change, and challenge. His behavior is no longer a threat to me because I honor that he is a small person seeking clarity. Instead of anguishing, I feel connected. Exhausted–yes–but connected. My hope is that this connection allows my toddler to thrive as he explores his life and learns that he is valuable to this world, and how important it is to value others as well.