Dear Dr. T.,
I work really hard at being a conscientious and responsible parent. I try to be attentive and on top of all areas of my children’s lives. I believe that I owe my children that much, but I do find it difficult, especially because I have a demanding job outside of the house as well.
Lately though I have begun to notice a pattern that is beginning to concern me. In my effort to be all things for all my children, I work really hard at filling their requests. I truly want them to be happy and meet their wants and needs. But, and this is a big but, I don’t think I sound happy. I give the child what he wants but in an ungracious way. Don’t get me wrong – I want to do whatever in a loving way. But, I feel so burdened that I end up giving on one hand, and sounding negative on the other. I remember my mother doing this, and, needless to say, it was quite unpleasant.
I’m not sure I’m being clear here, so let me give an example. My son begged to rollerblade to school. I thought this was a bad idea because he would end up being late – and get punished. After lots of begging, I begrudgingly said ok, coupled with “Don’t come to me if you’re late and get punished.” I leave you figure out the end of this story.
I’ve thought about this and I realize that I can say no – but, if I say yes- it should be wholeheartedly and without negative undertones. But, it just feels like I am asking too much of myself. I really am overwhelmed– and if the child gets what he wants, he should be satisfied. Kids want what they want; their parents’ attitude does not register. Or, does it?
I must commend you for our remarkable insight and your sincere dedication to your children. The ability to separate our attitude from our behavior is the crux of your dilemma. What concerns you is that while your behavior is meant to please, your attitude is unpleasant. And your question is: Does it matter? If your child has all his wants and needs met, does his parent’s attitude matter?
A negative attitude is a disposition, feeling, or manner that is not constructive, co-operative, or optimistic. The individual sees the negative in people, situations and behaviors. Though it may simply be a style of being, modelled from one’s parents, often it is the result of stress and frustration. While you indicate that there is room to think that your mother was your role model for this behavior, I do believe that stress and frustration may also underlying issues. It's not simple to juggle home and work.
I actually think that you, and the majority of my readers, know the answer to this question. Though we all want what we want, the atmosphere is important as well, as anyone who has spent time in an unpleasant environment can tell. Particularly with children and teens, who are in the process of developing their own world view, atmosphere is formative. You can create a world where he expects things to work out, or one where he is always waiting for the shoe to drop. Your child can anticipate positive relationships and co-operation, or look for disapproval and negativity.
It has been said that that you cannot give that which you do not have. You cannot fill your children with pleasant feelings if you feel negative and irate. Though this is way easier said than done, you need to feel better to do better. Far be it from me from minimizing your load and responsibilities, but for your children’ssakes, you must figure out how to improve your situation, so that you can give freely.
The first step is a practical one: to do better, you must feel better. Work on healthy food choices, exercise, sleep, and ‘me’ time. Pay attention to your appearance – no, not designer clothing, but well fitting, clean, and neat. It’s hard to feel good when we don’t feel good or look presentable.
The ‘me’ time -having space to feel and think, to do something for ourselves is critical. When we are rushing from activity to activity, we cannot process our thoughts and feelings. So, when something comes up, we are just not at our best. We react – and then may resent our decision.
How do we get time for space when time is our shortest commodity? There is no one answer to this complex question, but here is what some women have done.
-Enlist spouse, relative, older child [or, if you can, hire] to take something off your plate. This does not mean an occasional favor. This means that they accept a responsibility, so you don’t have to be busy with it. So, for example, a husband can be in charge of bathing/putting to sleep the two younger children- every night. This takes one package off your load.
-Get rid of perfectionism -competent is enough. You can order groceries in every big city, buy frozen blintzes for shevuos, buy only wash-and-wear clothing, no matter how stunning that linen outfit is.
-Know and believe it’s ok to say no- no you cannot sleep over, no I cannot go to bar mitzvah tonite, even no I can’t bake challos this week. There is no one besides you who knows what your abilities and work load is like. You need to know and trust yourself to make the best decision for yourself, and ultimately your family at that point in time. No excuses required. This frees you to do the rest with greater peace of mind and positivity.
[Learning to say no is a skill in itself that might take some learning and practice.]
Again, my compliments on your insight and your realization that it’s not only what we do, but how we do it, that counts.