That’s an honest question.
I was dropping my big kids off at school the other day, when I ran into another parent-friend of ours coming the other way. “How’s it going?” I asked.
“Terrible,” he said, face flat and eyes lost. “Things are not going well with mornings in our house. I think we need help. I don’t know what to do.”
We headed to a nearby coffeeshop and got into it. I heard his story, which I resonated deeply with: the high levels of stress and frustration that come with the everyday conflicts of parenting, the unintentional escalations, the feeling like there’s no clear way forward.
In those moments, I can feel anger sweep up through me like mercury in a thermometer being thrown into a fire. A hot face, a dizzy head. A tightening. Where does it show up for you?
I don’t have a familiar, lifelong pattern or habit or skill for dealing with anger. To be honest, until I become a parent, I really had no experience at all with true anger.
I can still recall a conversation with colleagues in my old office in Vancouver — it would have been in 2010, before I had my first kid — where I said something along the lines of: “I don’t really get angry.”
At the time, I pictured myself as a pretty mellow person.
What I realize now is that I had never been truly provoked.
It’s a statement about privilege and safety, true, but also one that testifies to the extremes of engaged parenting. It brings you to the intense edges of emotions you never knew you had.
My wife and I say that becoming a parent increases your “emotional amplitude.” Picture a sine wave, or an audio waveform. Before parenting, it’s highs and lows that dip into the -5 and +5 range. After parenting, it’s highs and lows that wildly vacillate and fluctuate into the -100 and +100 range. It opens you up to an emotional volatility that simply wasn’t available before. Though “anger” is the subject of this post, pick an emotion, and the same will be true for that one.
You heard from me this week on Tuesday. But not on Wednesday. Why? Because Wednesday started at 5 am thanks to Rosie, with me clocking in at 4 hours of sleep (due to my over-ambitious day-and-night). Bedtime was needed as early as possible. Which wasn’t actually possible, because Rosie was busy not-going-to-bed. By the time she was asleep, and we were too, the night passed in a flickering stumble of wake-ups-to-help-the-kids-with-their-wake-ups…and the day started again with Rosie crying herself awake, to start the day, at 4:45 am.
And that’s just the general atmosphere. The default conditions. It’s boot camp, folks; it’s military basic training at depot, only depot is your house. We are underslept, deprived of self-care, and asked to perform tasks of nurture and care-for-others.
I insisted before I became a parent that I would be a voice to tell healthier, happier stories of parenting, revealing the joys and positives, not just being a complainer. And that’ll happen, for sure. (Again, see Tuesday. Awww, so cute.). But these realities on the inside of parenting are hard to fully draw out and explain. There is simply no backup.
Your body and soul and self and parenthood are the essential ingredient being employed to raise the other human being(s). The cereal comes from the cereal box, the milk comes from the jug, but the parenting comes from the parent.
And a parent, like milk and cereal, can become emptied. On a daily basis. It’s an extremely vulnerable state. (Again, that “extremely vulnerable state” is simply the default condition.)
What happens when you introduce the element of “aggravation”?
When all you’re trying to do is provide legitimate care for your kids, and the activities are resisted. Making a dinner, that doesn’t get eaten. Asking for cooperation in the process of departing the house to be on time for school, and have that request be resisted or ignored. (And those are the easy examples, right?)
Leading to what? What’s your choice? Did you notice you had a choice, or are you already raising your voice? Just like you said you wouldn’t.
Where I go then, is to all the tools I know, the tools I love:
- I love Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. “Any anger is a tragic expression of an unmet need.” So express the need. Follow the format: what are you Observing, what are you Feeling, what do you Need, what do you Request.
- I love It’s Not Always Depression, by Hilary Jacobs Hendel. Notice your anger, and don’t run from it. Notice how it shows up in your body. Breathe it in. Remember, feelings just are.
Sometimes these work so well. We de-escalate. We calm down. We get where we need to go. We make a joke. We remember grace.
Sometimes we do need help. I gave my friend the name of a counsellor and therapist in town I’ve been able to visit a few times over the years. Sometimes we need tools and supports and other ways out because we simply don’t have what it takes on our own.
Don’t get me wrong: my family reality is one filled with a great deal of joy, of laughter, of loving and nurturing. As I humblebragged about in the Tuesday post, I’ve chosen the path of being an engaged dad with utmost pride in that decision. And yet…
Parenting, at its engaged extremes, is easily classifiable with other high-stress professions like first responders and military personnel.
On Halloween nights, as we glimpse behind door after door in this city’s neighbourhoods, the one feeling I’m left with is, “How are we all doing this?” By this, I mean, life and parenting itself, period. The amount of pain and emotion and difficulty we have to carry, the ways we have to pretend it’s not hard, the lack of tools and equipment and resources, the unfamiliarity we have with the language of emotions, how bad we are at asking for help…how is anybody coping? Are all these apartment units and houses simply facades covering up massive sinkholes of sheer suffering? Or is everybody just doing a lot better than me?
I am one of the more “emotionally literate” men I know. I can identify my emotions and talk about that. I have tools for processing them, and habits of quiet time. I have friends I can be open with. I have a mutual, supportive, incredibly engaged partner I get to co-parent with. I am privileged to have close family supports, and children without significant health challenges. And even still, the ability to handle the true challenges of parenting remain the highest difficulty of all of my life’s projects. How on earth is anybody thriving?
I’m asking this because we need to talk about it. We need to share resources, tools, approaches. We need each other. We need to be open in conversation with fellow parents, like my friend was with me. We need to pave the way for future parents and children to navigate these realities, and step into new possibilities.