When parenting becomes too overwhelming

When it comes to parenthood, Jennifer Pinarski thinks the “just keep swimming” mantra is sometimes easier said than done.

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Gillian spends a quiet moment outdoors last year. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

“You’re a bad mom.”

My four-year-old daughter sits on my bed, staring me down during a bedtime battle of wills. After nearly an hour of trying to coax my children through their bedroom routine I’ve given up—resorting instead to shouting and taking away screen privileges. My nine-year-old son starts howling, but my daughter glares at me, stone-faced and very still.

“I said you’re a bad mom.”

Unlike her tantrums earlier in the day, she delivers this zinger without a trace of anger. If she’d screamed or cried instead, I’d have chalked up the cruel remark to out-of-control emotions. But I’m caught off-guard and left speechless. My son immediately stops crying because he’s just as shocked as I am—and he can feel the full weight of her words and its effect on me.

Yanking on my own pajamas while trying not to cry, I quietly say goodnight to my children, walk out of the bedroom and pull the door shut behind me. Pressing my ear against the door, I can hear them hissing at each other about how they think that the other one ruined bedtime. When they finally stop arguing, my house is that deep quiet that only happens after my children fall asleep. Only then do I start crying.

Only then do I wonder how my daughter figured out my greatest fear.

****

Before I was a mom, I was a lifeguard. My children are fascinated by this revelation because they think my ability to tread water and not plug my nose when I do cannonballs is super-human.

The training required to become a lifeguard is short and intense. You learn everything from how to help someone who has broken their neck to putting on Band-Aids. Of course, one of the first things you learn is how to recognize when someone is drowning. You’d be surprised to know that a drowning person isn’t the one flailing and shouting in the middle of the lake. Often it’s the one who swam a little further out than they should have. The one who overestimated their ability to swim. The one you least likely expect to drown. Usually the drowning person slips below the surface quietly, simply because they are just too tired to keep swimming.

In some ways, I feel like this parenting gig is the same as drowning. Is it possible to drown in motherhood? I have no other way to describe the huge hopes (crafts, tidy house, pre-baby figure!) but also the overwhelming weariness. The desperation of trying keep your head above water, yet feeling like you’ve failed. That some days you can’t catch your breath and there’s nothing to hold on to.

In parenting, there are very few lifeguards—and everyone assumes that you know how to swim.

****

The light streaming through my bedroom window is watery and weak, typical of a late-winter sunrise. Both children are still sleeping, each having grabbed one of my arms during the night and I’m pinned in the middle of the bed between them. The three of us have been co-sleeping for the past three months while my husband is away for work. The arrangement isn’t so much comfortable as it is comforting. With the exception of the previous night’s fight, sleeping as a family has allowed us to talk at bedtime about whatever is on our minds—even if it’s talking about video games or toys, it’s a quiet time together that I cherise. Bedtime is the only time of day, it seems, that they are still and I have their full attention. Maybe for them, they think it’s the only time I’m still and they have my attention.

As usual, my daughter is the first one to wake up. She burrows under the blankets to put her ear next to my chest. Since she weaned a year ago, listening to my heart has been the way she soothes herself to sleep. Some days this invasion of my personal space makes me feel pinchy, other days I’m happy she still wants to cuddle.

“Your heart is loud and slow. What does that mean?” she asks. There’s no sign of the previous night’s drama and, inwardly, I breathe a sigh of relief.

“It means I’m healthy.”

“No, it means you’re strong. It means you’re the strongest mom I know.”

While I know she simply means my heart is louder than hers, I can’t help but read into her comment. It makes me want to believe she knows more than I do and that, in the end, everything will turn out OK. That, despite the emotional weight of raising these two wee humans of mine, they are my lifeguards. They will be the ones who will tell me I cannot stop swimming.

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Parenting can be tough. Be kind to yourselves and each other this weekend.

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