You’ve heard it before. From the mother with older children or the grandparent waxing reminiscent about her parenting years. They see you with your handful of young kids and tell you, “Cherish this! It will be gone before you know it.” Or, “wait til they’re in high school…then it gets really hard.”
There’s something to it. Each phase of parenting has its ups and downs. And we tend to remember the ups of the past fondly-especially if we’re smack in the middle of one of the downs in whatever season of the journey we’re in. But the progression in parenting seasons is an evolution thousands of years in the making. We start off with the vigilance of safety. They can’t protect themselves from anything, not even themselves, so that’s where our energy goes. Then it shifts to behavioral vigilance. They’re relatively safe in their world, but they need to understand how to behave in it. So we spend our time there. Once they’ve figured that out, our parenting shifts to intellectual vigilance-how to do what’s right and use good judgement.
Each phase is a monumental task that takes very different tolls on the family. Safety vigilance is physically exhausting. Behavioral vigilance is maddening. Intellectual vigilance is, well, it’s just hard. The good news is there’s a progression that lasts about as long as it needs to and then you’re free. The drum beat of development goes on and right about the time that you can’t take any more of one part, it starts to wane.
Unless you’re a special needs parent.
For us, the progression doesn’t really work the same way. We can be perpetually stuck in safety vigilance. Or we can be stuck in all three at once. Our children can be intellectually capable, yet physically incapable-or vice versa. Sometimes they can do everything, except behave themselves. The hardest part, is there’s no road map. We don’t have an expiration on things the way other parents do. When will they be potty trained? Sometime. Maybe never. When can we leave them home for a weekend while we jet set to Europe-or for ten minutes while we walk the dog-we don’t know. We’re feeling around in the dark for the keys that open up the door to the next phase. And sometimes we never find them.
Which is why when something does actually progress, we become deeply attached to that progression. Long ago we likely surrendered to the reality we might never get there-potty trained, sleeping through the night, left with a “normal sitter”-so when they do, it’s such a triumph, it defines part of our happiness. Which is awesome.
Until they backslide.
It happens. Something that you thought you’d killed off long ago, that you’ve looked back with horror on since, comes back-remember when he wouldn’t go bed unless I laid with him for two hours or when we couldn’t leave the house until he went potty? For us it was sleep. Getting our boy to sleep was killing us. My wife or I had to lay for hours after we got the other kids to bed. It was exhausting- and killing parts of our marriage. Until one day, it stopped.
A few weeks ago we changed some dietary supplements that our doctor recommended. And our sleep nightmare returned. We were back in bed with him until the wee hours of the morning for about two weeks. In the past, a relapse like this would have had a terribly unhealthy impact on me. I would have had this crushing feeling that we were back at square one-and that this was our new permanent reality-crushed.
I’ve learned two things that have helped me through these backslides that I’ll share.
- This probably isn’t permanent. It might be, but it probably isn’t. Just like progress isn’t always permanent, regression isn’t either. In fact, regression, in my experience has usually been temporary. It will probably pass.
- If it doesn’t, we can adapt and overcome.
My house is full of special needs hacks. I’ve got low cost cameras, special locks, weird climbing structures and a homemade ball pit. All of these things were adaptations. We humans are poorly equipped to survive in this world on our physical attributes alone. We have no claws or sharp teeth. We’re slow and weak. But we put a man on the moon before we had color TV, because when we have to we figure out a way. Don’t forget that. No matter what your kid throws at you, you can get it to some level of normal by adapting.
Keep that helpful thought in your head as you slog through whatever ridiculous problem your wading through now. It will save you.