When I became a mother, I had 11 years of post-secondary study focused on psychology and child development under my belt. I always had summer jobs working with children because “I was a natural.” And then my first son was born, and poof! All of that confident know-how went up in smoke. Sleep-training, time-outs, pressuring my late-birthday boy to start preschool at 2 years old. All of it felt wrong and wasn’t synchronous with my gut instinct. And yet, everybody around me was doing these things and/or pressuring me to follow suit. In-laws, my kids’ doctors, trusted colleagues, my children’s father.
Even with all those years of education that clearly suggested a big “no” to traditional sleep training, to “disconnection-based” discipline like time-outs, and to rushing childhood in the name of education, I questioned myself. Looking back, I felt wobbly as a mom almost immediately. So I caved to those pressures. I stepped off my instinctual course. I allowed myself to be railroaded by the forces in my life about important decisions regarding my children.
Say what?! How does someone with years of knowledge that would indicate a different route is much better, and with a heart well-tuned to the needs of children fall into this kind of over-whelmed, aimless, almost panicked approach to parenting?
Easy. That is what is supposed to happen. Welcome to parenthood. Arguably the most important role you will ever take on, and there is no manual, no one-size fits all, and goodness knows, no clear destination. It is meant to bowl you over, knock the wind out of you, invite you to stand in your power, and then knock you over again. All of this culminating in perhaps the greatest invitation you will ever receive to really step into the fullness of who you are, and grow yourself up. Grow yourself for you. And grow yourself so you can optimally grow your child.
My children are now 12 and 15. It hasn’t been a straight path. Between them they’ve had a myriad of health challenges and school difficulties. Our family has navigated divorce and other losses. And, along the way, I dusted off and figured it out. Slowly. Like the kind of experience you might expect to have when the mist very gradually evaporates and you can see clearly what is upon you. I figured out how to steady myself as a mother. It turns out, the answer lays in absolutely accepting all that is, and in understanding that nothing happens to you and everything happens for you.
Now I know that the invitation for personal growth in me was to address that part of myself that felt I had to always please others in order to be accepted. It was a deeply seated program I was running, and one that I had never acknowledged consciously. This program was running the show. Not my education. Not my natural ability. But this subconscious program. I embraced that as a part of myself that hadn’t grown up yet. And I started with baby steps to challenge my own knee-jerk automatic thoughts about everything, especially those things that impacted my children.
Take sleep training as an example. Everything from the science of child development suggests that cry-it-out sleep training is not good for our littles. But there was conflict brewing in my marriage about this. My children’s father was determined that our firstborn was going to get this sleep thing figured out. I wanted peace in my marriage and thought that acquiescence was the way to this. Remember my program? Please others to be accepted.
So I caved. I put my sweet baby to bed. He started to cry. I walked away and closed his bedroom door. I remember so clearly sitting on the floor outside his room listening to his increasingly intense crying and willing him to feel my presence. I was sweating and starting to cry myself. His father was standing there encouraging me to stay the course. I was stuck between the intense, instinctual urge to answer my baby’s cries, and the off-kilter need to do what I thought was necessary to keep my husband happy.
I lasted a few short minutes. And then something happened. It was the first of what would become countless moments of stepping in to the fullness of myself as a mother, and beyond that, as a person. I stood up. I did not turn to my husband for counsel, approval or discussion of any kind. I opened that door, scooped up my baby and did exactly what was right for me. I stood in my power. I summoned my confidence. I knew it was the way forward.
This kind of scenario repeated many times in the coming years with my inner strength growing at each junction. Even now, there are situations that arise when I am required to step into that kind of confident, powerful, know-how. None of it comes from being a child development specialist. That is not what helps one navigate the path of parenthood. Rather, it comes from a deep understanding that I’ve got this. Even if I don’t know the answers for my kids, I can be the answer for them. I will find my way. Without a map, through the mist, during the storms. I accept all that is and in this, I find peace. I see fully and clearly that the ultimate gift of parenthood is that it will bring you to your knees as nothing else can. And from there, you get to stand up and grow, fully and brilliantly.
Dr. Vanessa Lapointe is the author of the bestselling Discipline Without Damage and Parenting Right From The Start. A registered psychologist, she is also the founder of The Wishing Star Lapointe Developmental Clinic. She has supported families and children for more than 15 years and is a sought-after lecturer. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her two sons.