After a regular workday, Sarah would return home with hopes of a peaceful evening connecting with her adorable 2-year-old daughter. But Sarah’s fantasy of an evening of delicious snuggles and shared giggles always seemed to crash into her reality: a child-shaped necklace who demanded her full engagement and didn’t realize (or care) that what Sarah longed to do was to turn her brain off and relax.
Sarah would find herself furtively and frequently checking the clock to see how long it was until her daughter’s bedtime so she could have a moment to herself. Sarah laughed as she told me: “she sucks all the air out of any room she’s in. She’s just… annoying.” And then Sarah got quiet. “I shouldn’t feel that way, should I?”
The experience of being a parent is enriching and fulfilling, and is simultaneously accompanied by various challenges. It's hard not to wonder why our interactions don’t more often look like the diaper or cereal commercials in which parent and child happily and effortlessly connect. Instead, we experience our kids as draining. And we find ourselves having thoughts like ‘why is my child such an irritating creature?’
The reality is that if you’re willing to admit to having thoughts of this variety (even if not publicly), it doesn’t mean that you don’t love your kids. It also doesn’t mean you aren’t a wonderful parent, or even that you don’t find joy in your parenting role.
On the other hand, you might worry that having the thought that your child can be quite the little donkey means that everyone he or she encounters will have that realization, as well. That would mean a lifetime of difficult relationships for your little flower. But that also isn’t the obvious conclusion to draw.
To be sure, the possibility exists that your parenting skills are limited. It's also highly likely that there are parenting moments that are less than joyful. And your child will certainly rub you and others the wrong way, at times. Yet none of these facts indicate that your parenting love and performance—or your child's character—are impaired.
Instead, experiencing your child as an extremely irritating small person simply means that you are in a deeply connected relationship with another human being. Close relationships are defined by the bringing together of two individuals, each holding their own desires, world views, preferences, and interpersonal styles.
In every category of relationship, differences invariably bump into each other. And since parenting is such a close relationship, friction is more likely here than in other kinds of relationships. Indeed, researchers have found that parents with young children engage in conflict between 3 and 15 times an hour, on average (Dix, 1991).
We all have relationship fantasies. We dream of a relationship with our boss in which our talents are recognized as being unique and worthy of handsome compensation. We dream of a romantic relationship in which we find our partner holding up a stereo blaring In Your Eyes beneath the bedroom window. And, perhaps most of all, we dream of having a relationship with our child that is characterized by unconditional love and unrelenting motivation to put his or her needs above our own.
After all, parenting should always be about serving our children’s needs. And we should always feel adoration towards our children, right?
If parenting is a relationship between two individuals—and it is—then it will share the non-fantasy features that exist in other types of relationships. Relationships, even those between a parent and child (Kiff, Lengua, & Zalewski, 2011), are bidirectional. In other words, the experience we have in the role of ‘parent’ is as much a part of the relationship as are our children’s experiences. One study involving interaction tasks between 64 mother-toddler pairs found negative emotions were frequent for both mother and child, and that child temperament had a significant impact on the quality and frequency of conflict (Laible, Panfile, & Makariev, 2008). In other words, parents and children both influenced relationship events and experiences for the other.
As a parent, your experiences count in the relationship with your child.
Although we most often think of parenting roles in the way that they serve our children, it is critical to recognize the ways in which we are impacted. We impact our children, and they impact us right back. And when our desires cannot be met in the parenting relationship, it is only natural that this will influence our emotional and cognitive well-being. And, of course, there is no way around the human fact of wanting sleep, an uninterrupted breath of air, or the freedom to eat a bowl of cereal without a small person asking “what is that and can I have (all) of it?”
So rather than getting caught up in judging yourself for thinking your child is an extremely irritating small person, or getting concerned that your child really is an annoying person, try out some of the following steps:
Dix, T. (1991). The affective organization of parenting: Adaptive and maladaptative processes. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 3-25. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.3
Kiff, C. J., Lengua, L. J., & Zalewski, M. (2011). Nature and nurturing: Parenting in the context of child temperament. Clinical and Family Psychology Review, 14, 251-301. doi:10.1007/s10567-011-0093-4
Laible, D., Panfile, T., & Makariev, D. (2008). The quality and frequency of mother-toddler conflict: Links with attachment and temperament. Child Development, 79(2), 426-443. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01134.x