The Rodent and the Shadow: The Groundhog Day-Like Curse of Parenting

Mid-week I had one of those parenting days that, with a surgeon’s-like slash of a scalpel, undid my fragile belief that I’m not the worst parent in the Universe.

It was the hottest day of the week, and I had just returned from work. My eldest son wanted to ride his bike with his friend, I reluctantly agreed to monitor, and then my son’s friend offered him a popsicle. We hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I issued the unequivocal ‘No.’ Then came my kid’s rejoinder ‘But.’ Then came a repeat of my same answer. Then came the kid’s whining. Then came the third repeat of the same answer. Then came the kid’s freak-out complete with bike-tipping and helmet-throwing. Then came my decision to end outside play time because I was hot, I was irritated, and I was sick of saying the same negative thing multiple times.

Once our children evolve out of toddler-hood, the act of parenting consists mostly of scenarios like the above. In fact, what wears most of us beleaguered parents down is the sheer repetition of this same script amid its varied backdrops. It’s the same struggle—hence the comparison to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’—and I often fail: one or both of my kids does or says something that frustrates me and before I can check my immediate reaction to snap or yell I, well, snap or yell.

Among the many humbling lessons of parenting is that you usually do most or all of the things you promised yourself you wouldn’t do when you first became a mother or a father. And among the most difficult and painful rituals is the one where you learn to forgive yourself for being just as inept and fallible as everyone else who has been a parent.

Contrary to what you believe, (and contrary to appearances) no parent knows what he or she is doing.

Still and even so, my goal is to remember to recognize that while my child—this exhausting dervish of willful initiative—is often challenging my rules, he is not (necessarily) just trying to piss me off. His goal is to discover and push against the boundaries, in fact his development depends on this process. And yeah, at moments like now, I can recognize this dynamic just fine. In the heat of the moment, though, when I just want the children to listen and do what I want them to do, I bypass reason for authoritarian imperative.

Do it because I said so.

Parenting, like living, like writing, constantly reminds me that I have a go-to set of reactions that if left unchecked, lead me to the same unpleasant result. I want to change the way I parent, the way I live, the way I create, so I look for models on how to change this fundamental instinct. There is the briefest of moments when I can react in a different manner—when I can halt the impulse to snap or yell—but recognizing I’m in that moment is nearly impossible because that’s just my way. The best guide so far has been the work of Pema Chodrön and her explication of shenpa. Or what she translates for us as ‘getting stuck.’

When I have one of those oh so many parenting moments where I’m on the verge of losing my temper, inside it feels like when I’m shifting gears and there’s that briefest of pauses before the clutch disengages and the new gear locks in. It comes fast, and it comes of muscle-memory, and if I’m not paying attention (which is me 99% of the time) I can just keep on keeping on in the same way I always do. Then, in the hangover of it, I feel shitty for once again reacting in the same old way.

This morning, this moment, is another go at the same challenge – the kids have been bouncing all over the house for hours. And I get to practice again and again (and again). Will I react differently? Can I change? Or will I react in the same old way once again.

Maybe today I’ll get it right, and the groundhog will finally see its damned shadow.