It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s because I’ve been busy, and also not allowing my jerkbrain to make me feel guilty about letting this ‘responsibility’ slip. It’s okay for me to not write for a while if I don’t have the time.
Today I’m thinking about self-policing one’s emotions because of being a parent – specifically, as the parent of a young baby.
Last week, I had a bad time. Visitors had left, other parents had been rude about me, a health thing didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, and on Friday afternoon I’d arranged to meet my partner after his day at work for us to all go home together. I’d spent a lot of time on my feet (with a baby on my front and a rucksack on my back, carrying a full-length mirror), and when I got to the place where we’d arranged to meet, he wasn’t there. I couldn’t get through to him. Eventually he called and it turned out that he’d left work early – his phone had had my old number on it so when he tried to call me, there was no answer, so he’d gone home assuming I’d changed my mind. Slightly convoluted, and rather annoying, but a situation that was not really anyone’s fault.
When I eventually spoke to my partner, T, I was really angry. Unfortunately, N was tired, and we had a twenty minute wait before T would arrive for us. I fell silent and let angry thoughts swirl around my head – and the baby started getting more vocally upset. People were looking at me. So I started making eye contact with her, bouncing and grinning and singing and signing and commenting on everything I could see. When T picked us up, I put N in her car seat and spent the car ride fuming; we got home and I switched back into Jolly Mother mode.
I’ve noticed similar things happen before. One particular moment that sticks out in my memory was after witnessing a long and loud battle between N and the sleep monster, with both T and I were getting increasingly stressed. I held N closely, thinking about the time when she first sat up and couldn’t stop laughing in delight at her newfound skill, and as I relaxed she finally fell asleep.
I feel like this is a really complicated phenomenon: I’m forbidding myself from feeling negative emotions, which isn’t fair on me; by pretending to feel happy, I’m cheering up N; by refusing to feel anger, I’m showing her that we should mask our negative emotions and teaching her an unhealthy way of dealing with valid feelings; by ‘faking it’, I’m decreasing the length of my bad moods and making myself feel happier.
Now, while she is still so young and held close to me (I babywear), I think continuing to force myself not to physically feel certain emotions is the best thing. Newborns and young babies are so attuned to their parents, particularly the parent who bore hir and/or breastfeeds and/or provides the bulk of childcare – aware of the parent’s heart rate, body temperature, smell – that I think the best thing to do, before N can communicate and understand more complex ideas, is to avoid triggering upset behaviours by avoiding them myself.
However, I automatically find any parenting guideline that changes according to the age of the child… dodgy. Behave one way with a newborn and another with a toddler? It just sounds wrong to me – unless, of course, the underlying concept is the same. I want the underlying concept to be Emotions are okay, although they can be hard, and you need to deal with them appropriately. Maybe the answer is to explain to N: “I am annoyed now because a plan I made has gone wrong, and I’m going to stand out in the cold for another twenty minutes. The weight I am carrying on my back and hips is heavy, and people are giving me funny looks for carrying around a full-length mirror so I feel self-conscious. My legs are tired and I want to go home. But I don’t want you to be upset too, so how about a few verses of Row Row Row Your Boat?”
With any luck, this behaviour will segue nicely into “N, you’ve drawn all over the walls, and now I am annoyed because I am going to have to clean it up when I wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea” or “N, I am very tired. When you shout loudly like that, my head hurts, so I am going to go and lie down” – i.e. being able to explain anger when I am feeling it, and showing her how to deal with anger without resorting to shouting and screaming.
I still worry that I will accidentally say things that teach her that she is directly responsible for my feelings (“I can’t get angry because it will make mummy upset! I must pretend I am happy!”) but this seems like the best I can do. If nothing else, explicit communication is a parenting skill I will always want to improve.