If you were compiling a list of Useful Traits for Parents, you might include “makes detailed plans for the long term” as a desirable characteristic. After all, there’s tuition to pay for, and vacations to juggle, and who wants to eat the same dinner three times in a week? But as a long-term planner myself, I’ve discovered that trying to plan the finer details of the future often backfires in the parenting department.
It starts innocently enough. I’ll imagine some scenario that seems reasonably likely to happen, and then try to plan how I’ll handle it when it arises. Sometimes this works out well. More often, I get stressed out as I realize that I have no idea how to handle the situation, and from there it’s a downward slide into whimpering and pounding my head against the table. The epitomic episode of this happened one morning while I was still pregnant, pondering how I’d talk to my still-unborn son about drug use. In my imagination, the situation I had to talk him through got more and more convoluted with all kinds of soap-operatic details, until I found myself thinking OH CRAP I SUCK AS A PARENT I DON’T KNOW HOW TO HANDLE THIS!! Of course I didn’t consider that I didn’t actually need an answer right at that moment; we’d have a dozen years or so (we hope) to figure that one out.
Usually, my future-worries center around more immediate milestones, and several of them have already come to pass. Yet most of my “I don’t know how I’ll handle it when…” scenarios have turned out to be less of a Big Deal than I anticipated. For example:
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he starts eating table food. The mess! The stubbornness! And how on earth am I going to teach him not to be picky about certain foods like I am?
Reality: We’ve been fortunate that Kiddo is an eager eater who loves to try anything off Mom and Dad’s plates. The baby food was messy at first, but not what I’d dreaded, and he’s doing a great job now with regular food. He loves things I never tried until I was an adult, like hummus on pita bread. Now that we’ve taught him some simple sign language, he can tell us when he’s hungry, thirsty or all done eating, which eliminates a lot of potential frustration on both sides.
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he starts crawling and walking. Our house isn’t kid-safe yet, and we don’t do a great job of keeping it picked up. We don’t have the time to do all the babyproofing we need to do. He’ll get into everything!
Reality: We intentionally chose not to bubblewrap the world. Instead, we did just a little bit of advance childproofing (baby gate on the stairs, some padding on the fireplace) and then waited to see what mischief Kiddo chose to get into. A lot of it has been handled with a simple “No” and redirection. In some cases we did need to do a little additional work (outlet covers, magnetic cabinet locks). A few things required mental adjustment on our part (gating off the seldom-used wood stove was impractical, and letting him pound on it really isn’t that bad). So far we’ve had only one major mishap, and to be honest, it was probably time to upgrade that lamp anyway.
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he throws a tantrum in public, and everyone is staring at us!
Reality: I confess, I cheated did research for this one, with more on the schedule. I’ve gleaned some good suggestions so far and have been able to head off a couple tantrums before they got out of control. Experience has found that I get better results if I start by empathizing with my toddler-raging Kiddo and acknowledging what he’s upset about, before trying to calm him down. And if anyone has given us the stink-eye during a meltdown, I haven’t noticed it. I’ve been too busy focusing on my child to look around at how the bystanders are taking it.
Still brewing in the queue are situations that we haven’t gotten to yet, including:
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he tries to run off on his own in public. How will I control him and keep him safe?
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when he’s ready for potty training. Does he really need to learn how to pee standing up?
I don’t know how I’ll handle it when we have another child, and I have to divide my attention between the two of them. Will Kiddo #1 feel like we don’t love him as much? Will I be able to give Kiddo #2 all the attention he or she needs? When will I sleep?
Reality: Just as my husband and I have learned to trust our parenting instincts in the present, I need to trust that those instincts will continue to develop in lockstep with Kiddo. I don’t know right now how to calm a tantrumming three-year-old or talk to a teenager about drug use because I don’t have a three-year-old or a teenager. But one day I will, and I’ll known him as well as I know the toddler I’ve got now. I’ll be able to draw on that knowledge to figure out how to handle the situation in a way best suited for him as an individual. That instinct has been there for me so far; it’ll be there for me in the future. It had better be, because I’m planning on it.