Filling the parenting void with connection

By Marissa Marangoni

Every time J gets into trouble lately, he comes up to me with his lower lip trembling and asks, “Mom, do you still love me?”

Of course, you know the answer. That’s not what I’m going to talk about. It’s guilt. 

All I feel when I hear a question like this from my 4-year-old is guilt. I immediately think, “What in the hell am I doing that makes this child think I won’t love him? How have I communicated this to him?” and conclude with, “I’m a terrible mother.” 

Guilt is pervasive for many parents today, and I’d say I’m not sure why, but I know why. We all know why. For starters, I think it’s natural to quickly question yourself as a parent when any issue arises. And then there are the other things that encourage and support parental guilt: judgment, expectation, differences, societal acceptance, social media, media in general, the list continues. 

We all have this picture of who we expect to be as parents or caregivers, and we don’t always live up to that. We don’t do what we thought we would—sometimes because we don’t want to and sometimes because we can’t. We parent in a void, now even more than ever, but it’s a weird kind of void (unless you live off the grid) that’s full of people who are ready at a moment’s notice to jump all over us for any decision we make without offering any solutions or assistance. And if you parent like me, well, then you’re likely pretty hesitant to seek assistance because of all the stuff I just said.

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Honestly, I debated about writing this because I know some of you are going to blame me. That’s fine. No one can say anything worse to or about me than I already say to and about myself. If my son is concerned about me not loving him because of his behavior, then it must be my fault, isn’t it? My brain tells me yes. That’s how it feels. However, when I force myself to use the small piece of logicality that I possess, I’m not so sure. I want to say that there are more factors at play here. While I can look to the last two-ish months and conclude my lack of patience and less-gentle-than-normal approach to parenting is the cause of J’s concern, I am not sure that this is all on me. 

Even as I write that, the voice in my head is still whispering, “Yeah, actually, it is.”

It’s easy to blame myself for anything my child struggles with. It’s easy to feel guilt and point fingers at yourself and anyone else involved in rearing your children when something strays from what is considered typical. And I think that’s because we are conditioned to believe that any time anything is wrong with a child, it has to be the parents’ fault. Except it isn’t.

Trust me, I don’t think we can let issues slide, and I don’t actually believe we need to “go easy” on ourselves when things come up. Problems must be named, roots identified, and issues addressed, absolutely, but we need to let go of the guilt because it gets us nowhere except further away from the people who and solutions that might be able to help us. Guilt doesn’t serve much of a function aside from making us feel bad about ourselves.

So, fine, we absolve ourselves of guilt, now what? 

Well, for starters, we open up our lives more. I know, I know, people post their lives all over the place, but, as you all are aware, there aren’t a ton of people doing it in the moments that actually need to be highlighted. We need to be able to commiserate, to post on Facebook, “My kid has been saying ‘I hate you’ lately, and I give her the silent treatment,” we need to feel like we can let that out and ask for help or just get some support. Those moments when things are dark with children, when you aren’t your best parent self, those times where you find yourself hiding in the bathroom because you just don’t know what to do anymore, those are the times when we need to reach for connection instead of shutting down. And I think we’d be more willing to try it if it weren’t for the backlash this reach often causes. 

The reach of the parent is kind of like the new-er theory that when your children are losing it, you shouldn’t send them to time-out but lean in because this is when they need you the most. I’m not saying keeping my angry, screaming 4-year-old at the dinner table is easier than sending him to his room — it’s absolutely not.  However, once I understood how to keep him there and help him through his anger, it has helped. Every single time, it’s helped. Sending him away to deal with his problems alone doesn’t. Similarly, parenting through a problem without support doesn’t help either. 

I’m not entirely sure if it is apparent, but I’m a bit of an open book. I’m one of those over-sharers who has had to learn to be pretty guarded, and I resent that. I resent the fact that if you share your life, people think you’re full of yourself, or that you have too many feelings, or that you’re just too much to handle. I value connection to others more than anything in my relationships, and if I can’t connect, then what is the point? 

Connection is the one thing that drives all of us. We reach for each other, or, at least, we want to. If that reach gets shut down by shaming because a parent has a car seat buckled incorrectly or leaves their kid alone in the car for five seconds or feeds their 9-month-old a piece of a hotdog, well, that’s going to stifle the reach, and we’re going to continue parenting in a void without collective assistance or support.

OK, so what do we do? Well, we first have to realize that whatever way we seek connection when it comes to parenting struggles, criticism and general terrible-ness will likely show up. That’s something that I don’t think we will ever be rid of. There are ways to minimize it, but if you’re looking to un-isolate yourself, you have to expect it. Once you’re prepared for it, call someone, post somewhere, read something, start a discussion—just don’t do nothing because nothing leaves you in the same, unsuccessful situation you’ve been in.

So, let me share what I’ve been doing in response to this heart-crushing questioning of love by my son. I don’t want you to look at this as a solitary problem, so let me provide you with context: my child struggles to express his feelings appropriately. When he was very small, he’d be so full of energy that he’d bite me — not to be mean, not because he was aggressive, but because he didn’t know what else to do with that energy. I think, and I may be wrong, that he is handling his energy and emotions in the same way now, just without his teeth. Now that he has language at his disposal and understands negative physical contact is not acceptable, J gets into trouble because he pairs his words with his actions to get (bad) reactions. Fun, right?

It’s not. I recognize myself in him so much it’s kind of gross. It’s also ADHD. And if you’re familiar with ADHD, you know that experiencing emotions can be very difficult and overwhelming, especially at age 4. The thing is, I only know how I dealt with this stuff as a kid: I just shut it all down. Stuffed it inside and stayed quiet. I only know how to work with fixing that as an adult. I don’t know what to do with this child who can be so excited for something, look forward to it for days on end, and then be angry when the thing happens, seemingly without reason or explanation. I don’t know how to take that and change it for him. I know how it feels. I know I have done it. Do it. Still. And I know that neither I nor my husband have good solutions because we’ve tried what we know. And so, we’ve reached.

Can you guess how? TikTok. That’s right, people. I didn’t make a video, but I found that the ADHD community on TikTok is big and beautiful and very active. This should not be surprising to anyone, as TikTok harbors the perfect structure for use by ADHDers. It’s also the worst structure for ADHDers because, well, you can lose many hours there. Anyway, on TikTok I found a user who makes videos about parenting children with ADHD. She breaks things down simply and makes the information applicable to real life and easy to understand. Plus, she has ADHD herself and parents a child with it as well. When I happened to see that she was offering a one-hour course on discipline and children with ADHD, I signed up. 

While I maybe could have found some of the same information online and read it myself, the class was absolutely worth the connection my husband and I made with the instructor. Just knowing that we aren’t alone makes all the difference. Connection alone often makes a reach worth it, but when you get actual helpful advice for your situation on top of it, well, then, your reach is no longer a risk but an investment. We signed up for another class about kids and emotions, and I never would have known it existed had we not been in the first class. And, clearly, the emotions class is the one we really need. Had I never made the reach from TikTok to instructor, we would have continued trying to handle these issues alone, in ways that just aren’t working. 

The class on children and big emotions is on Saturday. It’d be wonderful if it solves all our problems, but it obviously will not, and we will likely need to take more classes, ask more questions, and be more active in communicating with other parents facing the same problems. After the class, J will probably continue asking me if I still love him when he misbehaves. In time, maybe he will stop, but maybe he won’t. Regardless, I believe reaching out to try and problem-solve with others will help. If nothing else, I will better understand where this question is coming from and maybe learn how to intervene before it makes his eyes well with tears.  

All this to say: parents need to reach for connection so they aren’t alone, despite the shamers and blamers. We have to take the guilt and use it to push ourselves to risk criticism and general terrible-ness to get to the support and assistance we need. And maybe if more of us do this, the ugliness will start to die, and kindness will have more room to grow. 

Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for the Devil Strip since August of 2015.