What do we do when the first bloom of parenthood wears off and reality sets in? In marriage, it is called the “seven year itch,” when many a husband or wife tires of the reality of life with their spouse. But this experience is not limited to marital partners, says divorce lawyer and mediator Alison Patton in a recent blog. Parents, too, may feel the itch. What then? You can’t divorce your kids.
Patton describes facing the realization that her kids were flawed human beings when they were about seven. She saw reflections of her own behaviors in her children and realized that she couldn’t by sheer force of good parenting change some of those undesirable traits. They were who they were. The illusion of perfection (or at least perfectability) was shattered; the dream was gone. At this point, she gave up her fantasy and decided to focus on the positive and deal with the challenges as best she could. And like a spouse who comes to a deeper appreciation of her partner after a trying time, she fell back in love with her kids — the real ones, not the fantasy.
Like many parents, I can identify with Patton’s feelings of frustration and disillusionment and her desire to escape at times (though it took less than seven years to set in). I agree with her conclusions about embracing reality, but how do you put her prescription into operation?
Here are some tips for when the parental honeymoon is over:
1. Accentuate the positive. What psychologist John Gottman teaches about marriage is equally true for parenting. To create a stronger and happier relationship, you need more positive interactions. So instead of focusing primarily on fixing their flaws, play to their strengths. Set them (and yourself) up for success. It will help remind you of how wonderful they are and provide a stronger foundation for when you are confronted with their weaknesses … and your own.
2. Practice compassion. The Dalai Lama teaches that practicing compassion, care for the suffering of another, softens our hearts and promotes human connection and happiness. So at those moments when your kid is acting just like you or your spouse at your worst and really pushing your buttons, remember what it feels like to be in their shoes and allow your heart to soften. So even if you are setting limits, you are connecting rather than shutting down.
3. Take a break. If you are missing the freedom of your pre-parenting days, take some time off. If you can take a whole weekend, do it. If not, get a sitter or your partner or arrange a trade with a friend and take a day or a few hours off. You will come back energized and more able to be positive and compassionate. Who knows, you may even miss them!
4. Have something else to do. Having another outlet for your energy– a career, volunteering, or a hobby — relieves some of the pressure on parenting. Just as you cannot expect your spouse to satisfy all of your needs for human relationship, it is not realistic to expect parenting to satisfy all of your needs for fulfillment, achievement, and meaning. At the times when parenting feels like an uphill battle, your other more successful activities can sustain you.
5. Connect with your partner. Share your experiences and support one another during rough patches with your kids.. Listen to each other’s perspective and try to find the truth in it even if it differs from your own. Use your shared values to meet parenting challenges together.