Being a Constant Parent in a Changing World
In mathematics, Merriam Webster defines a constant as a number that is assumed not to change value; a fixed value. Google defines a mathematic constant as "a quantity that does not change its value whatever the value of the variables." Merriam states another meaning of constant to be "something or someone that is reliably present or available". Some synonyms of constant in the relational sense are: changeless, stable, steady, and unvarying.
As we look at parenting in these uncertain times, how does this idea of being stable and steady play out in our homes and in our relationships with our children?
The first words that comes to my mind when I hear the phrase, "constant parent", are exhausting, boundaries, and demanding. All three of those words are difficult to digest. Yes, I will not paint this picture to be too rosy, it is tiring being a stable and unvarying parent. Indeed, you have to have solid boundaries in place to handle all that comes your way to challenge being constant. Absolutely, a steady parent has to manage many daily demands. To be clear, a constant parent does not mean you have a fixed mindset and are never going to be open to new ideas. It does mean though that you are steady and stable. Let's break down all three of these areas (exhausting, boundaries, and demanding) to make sense of this idea of being a constant parent.
How can you manage the exhaustion that arises when you think of being a steady and unwavering parent. First and foremost, self-care! One simple, but yet difficult word to absorb. Examine your daily, weekly, monthly, yearly life. How do you take care of yourself? Do you have a "time out" for you as an adult? As I am talking about this idea of self-care, are you already starting to want to quit reading this article? I do understand. I may not be in your exact shoes, but I am a working mom with two teenage daughters and a marriage of 21 years that all require effort to maintain. I have realized over the years of parenting that when my efforts of taking care of me slip, everything around me begins to waver. There are many resources you can lean on to give you ideas to take care of yourself. So, I am not going to list a bunch of suggestions; however, I will name overarching areas that you will want to make sure you address. Think of self-care as four-fold: spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. You are a whole person, not just in parts. Here are five questions to ask yourself:
From a spiritual perspective, are you feeling connected to and supported by a group and/or individuals with similar beliefs?
Emotionally, are you aware of and managing the various emotions/feelings that arise up in your heart and mind daily?
Do you feel challenged to grow in knowledge and wisdom on a regular basis?
Are you feeling physically tired most days?
This last question is a tough one. What are you willing to do to change in order to feel more complete spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically? You first have to be willing to change then you can figure out what to do to help yourself.
Boundaries are the invisible lines that you construct to mark where you end and another begins. How are boundaries connected to being a constant parent? Plain and simple, they cannot be separated. Dr. John Townsend, co-author of Boundaries states, "You’ve got to take care of your energy, your heart and your emotions. You’ve got to take care of yourself and your health. If you don’t guard that heart, then the wellsprings of life won’t come out from it. Boundaries are basically about how to set healthy, loving limits in our life. So we have something to offer to our children." There is a theme here, we are the key part of setting boundaries. In other words, when we don't take care of ourselves as parents, the ramifications begin to unravel for our children. If you are familiar with Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development from your Psychology 101 class in college, you may remember that parents are the key to healthy development. Let's take a quick look at the first 4 stages: (I will bring it back to boundaries afterward.)
Infant - 18 months: Trust vs. Mistrust - Virtue of hope - According to Erikson, this stage is pivotal in shaping a child's personality and their view of the world. The basic question in this stage is "Can I trust the people around me?". The child is dependent on the parent to feed them, so trust is formed as they feel their basic needs are met, in turn, developing the virtue of hope. The infant begins to believe the world is a safe place that he/she can trust. If the parent is unpredictable and unreliable, the baby's basic needs become unmet, then developing mistrust.
18 months - 3 years: Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt - Virtue of will - According to Erikson, the child is developing a greater sense of self-control. The basic question in this stage is "Can I do things myself or am I reliant on the help of others?". Through activities such as getting dressed on their own, mastering toilet training, and choosing their toy preference, the toddler develops a sense of personal independence and self. The virtue of will is established when a child feels he/she is autonomous, not doubting his/herself. If the parent is dismissive and/or too strict or has too high of expectations, the child may then become too dependent on the caregiver, then developing shame and doubt.
3 - 5 years: Initiative vs Guilt - Virtue of Purpose - According to Erkison, the child in this stage is beginning to assert positive power over their world through social interaction and play. The basic question is "Am I good or bad?". The child is learning to initiate play with peers, accomplishing tasks, and facing challenges. The child will develop a sense of purpose as they gain confidence in playing with other children and independently, making decisions, and learning new skills. If the parent takes away the opportunity to grow toward independence by fixing the problems or not letting natural consequences to occur, the child will develop a sense of guilt and low self-esteem. The child will even start to feel embarrassed amongst peers and guilty for becoming more independent.
5-13 years: Industry vs. Inferiority - Virtue of Competence - According to Erikson, the child is entering their school years and starting to learn more complex tasks. The key question during this phase is "How can I be good?". The evaluation of their teachers and acceptance from their peers is becoming paramount in this stage. When the child is praised and affirmed for their efforts and mastery of skills, a virtue of competence is developed. The child who emerges from this stage with doubt will begin to feel inferior and a sense of failure. Parents who overpraise or put all the emphasis on the results rather than the efforts foster a sense of either arrogance or a sense of inadequacy.
Are you starting to see a thread that is woven throughout all these stages....BOUNDARIES! The boundaries of the parent and the boundaries the child begins to develop are the key to a child emerging with virtues of hope, will, purpose and competence. If the parent is not present emotionally and physically enough during the infant stage, the child will then begin to mistrust the world and him/herself. When a parent is dependent on others for their own self-worth, the child will feed off of the parents' insecurities and not become autonomous. When a parent may overpower out of fear, the child will then feel ashamed to become independent, hence developing a sense of failure and inferiority. Balance is the key! By modeling healthy boundaries, our children begin to see the fruit of becoming a whole child themselves.
The third word that came to my mind when I think of being a constant parent is demanding. This idea of being pulled in many directions and balancing our many roles as parents can put heavy demands on us. It all comes back to the first part...taking care of yourself. By taking care of you as a parent, healthy boundaries will emerge, therefore, balance will occur. When the financial burdens, societal pressures, relationship stressors, and even health crises occur, a parent with solid boundaries will be able to manage the exhaustion and demands that will arise. Constant does not equal perfection. This bares repeating, perfection and being a constant parent is not synonymous. Consistency and balance is the key to harmony.
In closing, imagine you are on a canoe floating down a beautiful river. To the right are lots of sticks, rocks, and debris along the bank, creating uneven waters. To the left are lots of structures lined up in order and paths that are formed by the perfect rows. Harmony is found in the calm waters down the middle of the river. A parent with healthy boundaries can with better confidence direct the canoe away from the chaos to the right and the rigidity of the left. Boundaries are the key to managing exhaustion and demands that daily surface for parents. What a gift you will give your child and your family when you take care of yourself. If you feel overwhelmed or stuck in this process, I urge you to reach out to a professional for direction and guidance. Children may also need to learn the necessary skills for the development of healthy boundaries, and a professional child therapist can be a gift to you and them. Being willing to change a fixed mindset and learn the life skills of balance and boundaries will ease you into becoming a constant parent in a changing world.