Toxic Positivity and What I Thought Having Kids Would Be Like (versus what it’s actually like)
Before having kids, I knew a lot about parenting. I’d look at tantruming toddlers in grocery stores and scoff to my husband, “how can they LET their child scream like that? In public?” Now that I have kids, I don’t even notice when other people’s kids are ripping ears of corn off the produce section display like feral raccoons. I’m thankful it’s not my kids and I’m also in solidarity that it could be/has been/will be my children.
We went to the county fair with the kids last week and, at one point, they were both in the grass, squabbling over the (identical) peanut butter sandwiches I’d packed. Nearby, another mom with two toddlers was juggling their demands to both ride in the baby backpack at the same time. We locked eyes and laughed. “Why do we even bother leaving the house?” I joked.
Now that I have kids, I have strategies for ending tantrums and, hey, sometimes they work. Other times? Tantrums gonna tantrum. Particularly if we are in public and/or have guests in our home. Then my strategies DEFINITELY won’t work. Now that’s a solid parenting fact.
Hello. Welcome to my new series about parenting in real life. This is not a place for pastel renderings of idyllic parent-and-child moments. This is a place for the raw, rewarding challenges of parenting. I’m not a parenting expert. Nor do I want to be one. What I want is to share my experiences and hear yours. Please use the comments section with vigor and intention to do just that.
Other Things I Was Wrong About
Before having them, I knew children would complete me. I would be SO freaking fulfilled that I’d burst open, spilling fulfillment onto the pavement. Having kids would transform me into a bouncy person who exercised at 5am daily and cut vegetables into the shape of barnyard animals with the correct number of legs.
People, I would be the COMPLETE package. Also in there: acne would disappear and boobs would retain size they were during pregnancy. Just, you know, while we’re at it.
What I learned after having kids:
1) All of that is false.
2) I am still the same person I was before having kids, but…
3) I am a more expansive thinker, a more focused worker, a more motivated writer, and a more organized person.
4) I get to practice humility on the regular. My empathy grows and deepens daily.
5) I am not a person who can be fulfilled by the presence of other people in my life.
I am an awesome mom and I love our kids. My husband is an awesome dad and he loves our kids. Our kids are loved by a lot of awesome people. I improved after having kids, but not in the ways I expected. I still don’t exercise enough and I will never cut vegetables into shapes other than “stick.”
I love my kids and I want them and I would never change my decision to have them, but I am fulfilled by myself. Your life is not over once you have children, but it’s also not magically fixed. Additionally, parenting brings a lot of unknowns and precious few “correct” answers.
There is no universal experience of parenting and there is no one right way to parent.
And that, that ambiguity right there, is the root of what makes parenting infuriating for me. If I KNEW 100% without a doubt how to terminate a tantrum (in a loving, child-centered, skills-developing, intuition-growing, empathy-inducing, parent-in-control, firm-but-warm way), then YEAH, I’d feel a lot better.
But I don’t, no one does, and I need to embrace that what works one day won’t work the next. Mr. FW once said to me, “you know, the kids aren’t machines. You can’t just input a formula and expect the same results every time.” Well there go my plans for the next 18 years.
Motherhood Doesn’t Define Me
Yeah, I’m a mother, but I’m other things too. I don’t have to pretend that all of my fulfillment stems from the fact that I birthed two children and am raising them. Yeah, some of my fulfillment does come from that. But some of my fulfillment comes from other stuff too. Like the fact that I’m an author with a published book. Like the fact that I have friends who I spend time with without our kids. Like the fact that my husband and I have been married for eleven years and still dig each other. Like the fact that we run a homestead (world’s worst homestead, but hey!).
Like the fact that I did thirty-three minutes of yoga on Monday night (timed self in order to later pat self on back). Like the fact that once this summer, I vacuumed the stairs and did laundry in the same day. Restrain your jealousy.
It’s ok to derive all of your fulfillment from your kids, but it’s also ok not to. I want to dismantle the idea that parents, and women-who-give-birth in particular, need to be any certain thing.
Becoming a mother shouldn’t erase everything else you are. It’s ok to not 100% surrender to the identity of “mother.” It’s ok for that to be just one aspect of who you are. Yes, it’s likely to consume 99% of your time and 99.5% of your mental capacity (at the beginning), but there is space for other things. And if there’s not space right now, right here in this awful, dirty moment, there will be space. There’s nothing wrong with looking at your infant and thinking, “you’re not very cool right now, but I have faith you’ll improve with time.”
And Now For Today’s Unhelpful Parenting Cliche
Enjoy every minute.
That Is Toxic Positivity
A Frugalwoods Instagram follower recently told me that for her, the platitude “enjoy every minute,” fits the definition of toxic positivity. I agree. I didn’t understand why I had such a visceral reaction to that phrase until I learned about toxic positivity. That cliche–and others like it–push parents to feel things they’re not necessarily feeling.
I’m sorry, but I’m not “enjoying every minute” when my toddler begs to be carried up the hill to the house after playing in the creek and I already have the baby on my back and the toddler is plastered in mud and creek water and the house is 1,000 miles away.
And I don’t need to be enjoying it. I just need to be experiencing it, surviving it, responding to it in the most loving way I can muster (which, let’s be honest, sometimes is not all that loving). Not enjoying every minute doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some minutes, some days, some clusters of time.
I don’t have to “enjoy every minute” in order to have profound gratitude for my life and deep love for my kids.
I came across the below in my (admittedly brief) research on toxic positivity:
Research shows that accepting, not rejecting, our negative emotions actually helps us better defuse them and leads to fewer negative emotions over time, leading to better overall psychological health. And a new study backs this up. The study, published in the journal Emotion, found that chasing happiness can cause us to obsess over any not-happy feelings, bringing us more unhappiness overall.
A thousand times yes. Let me highlight that one more time:
“Chasing happiness can cause us to obsess over any not-happy feelings, bringing us more unhappiness overall.”
The implication of toxic positivity is that there’s something wrong with you if your experience doesn’t mirror a conventional trope. But look! Research is telling us to ACCEPT and EMBRACE our negative emotions, not bury them under a facade of “enjoying every minute.”
A Vignette About Taking My Kids Out In Public
I somehow managed to take both kids to church by myself the other week. I was solo because I asked Mr. FW to stay home in order to harvest the garden and get a jump on wood cutting for the day.
Kidwoods normally goes to our church’s toddler nursery program and the baby comes with us into the sanctuary. However. I’d forgotten the crucial fact that my husband is the one who drops Kidwoods off in the nursery room. Parental roles are not interchangeable in the mind of a three-year-old.
The prospect of mama leaving her in the (very fun! has a sand table! plus other kids she’s known HER ENTIRE LIFE) nursery was not tenable. She adhered to my left pant leg (leggings leg, actually) and wiped her nose on my dress.
We were already 25 minutes late for a service that’s only an hour long.
This is how I found myself entering the reverent, hushed sanctuary through the door located to the right of the altar (which, in case you’re wondering, is at THE FRONT of the church) with a baby on my front, a suitcase-sized backpack on my back, and a toddler glued to my leg. We three-legged-raced our way to the back of the church and set up camp in a pew.
Once in our pew, I handed each kid an IDENTICAL container of cheerios because I’m no novice parent. Nope. I know exactly how many containers of cheerios we need because last time I came to church with the kids alone, I packed only ONE container of cheerios. This resulted in Littlewoods screaming so loudly that our pastor paused her sermon and greeted my daughter by name. Not embarrassing at all. Oh I was enjoying every moment of that, let me tell you.
Each with her own (identical) cheerio container, my kids were pacified. Littlewoods laid her head on my chest and chewed cheerios. She then regurgitated them onto the front of my dress and smashed them into the fabric with her hand. Fine by me since it was a silent endeavor. Kidwoods nuzzled next to me and stuffed cheerios into her shoe. Perfection. I was able to hear four consecutive words of the sermon.
Then Kidwoods started to bustle around the pew, creating a game with tissues and a piece of paper. Fine, fine, fine. She was quiet, I was in heaven. I didn’t realize until the end of service that she’d unpacked my long-forgotten sanitary products (leftover from my postpartum recovery) from the backpack and arranged them on the pew. For all to see. And somehow hadn’t unpacked the toys or books I’d brought.
Additionally: Littlewoods laughed hysterically anytime anyone let out the slightest chuckle and Kidwoods parroted our pastor’s words, in particular “GIFTS,” which came up often during that particular sermon.
Then, it being communion Sunday, Kidwoods beelined for the altar when our pastor pulled out the bread (the kid loves bread, what can I say). One of the reasons I go to this church is that our pastor is a mother. A loving, intuitive, brilliant, progressive mother of three children. She saw my oldest daughter advancing up the aisle and invited her to the altar by name. Of course once she was invited, Kidwoods would NOT go alone and lunged into my lap, dragging me up the aisle by the hem of my (cheerio encrusted) dress. So we walked to the front together and the other little kids in church joined us. They clustered around and watched in awe as our pastor explained communion to them, to everyone.
Brief Interlude To Assure You That This Is Not About Religion
Religion might not be part of your week. It might not be part of your life. And that’s ok. I talk about my church not to convert you. Not to convince you to do what I do.
I talk about my (progressive, liberal) church to share how I make it through a week. To share how I’m buoyed by my community. To share how I manage to drag myself out of bed. We all need an anchor. Something to tether us. For me, church provides that.
Plus, I get an hour of free childcare if I can convince Kidwoods to stay in the nursery. I bribed her with a cookie last Sunday, which totally worked.
The Opposite of Toxic Positivity: A Helpful Thing Someone Said To Me
A woman came up to me after this (cheerio-infused) church service and said:
I see you. I acknowledge the hard work you’re doing. It’s relentless and exhausting to raise little children, and you’re doing a good job. You will see the rewards later.
Then she showed me photos of her daughter graduating from college last spring with high honors. Her words resonated with me in a deep, visceral way. Instead of saying “enjoy every minute” or “it goes by so fast,” she took the time to marinate with me on the challenges of trying to contain little children in public.
Acceptance and Acknowledgement
I want to channel that empathy, that acceptance, and that acknowledgment. Because that’s what most of us need: acceptance and acknowledgement of whatever phase of life we happen to be in. THAT was the perfect thing to say to a struggling, tired parent.
She didn’t try to force positivity down my throat. She just sat with me in my present moment. She acknowledged that my day wasn’t going all that well. She made me feel ok. She made me feel like I was understood and seen and not expected to portray an idyllic image of motherhood to make everyone around me feel good about me feeling good as a mother.
This week (hopefully longer, but I feel the need to start small) I’m going to try to accept. Accept myself, accept imperfect situations, accept other people. I’m going to remember how relieved I felt when this woman didn’t scold or patronize me or even say “I know how you feel.” Her acceptance of my struggles was what I needed. I didn’t need advice or solutions, but I did need some solidarity. I am too quick to offer advice and too quick to reassure. I need to dial back my impulse to be right and amplify my ability to accept and acknowledge.
How do you channel empathy and acceptance?
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