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I'm Not Sure If I'm Up for This Challenging Phase

Photograph by GettyImages

We’ve been having a tough time with parenting. My 4-year-old daughter’s emotions zig zag without warning from euphoric glee to sullen desperation. Often times as she stomps off in a fit of rage that to us seems nonsensical, my husband and I shrug at each other. We are at a loss. I never pictured parenting a child who was so volatile.

When I’m alone, my fears mushroom and multiply. I wonder if we need to see family therapy or if something “really bad” has happened to my daughter to make her so irrational and so hotly angry. I asked my other friends and they assure me it’s just a phase. Something about that looming fifth birthday sets kids off.

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My fears swirl and twist around each other, distracting me from my greatest fear of all: Maybe I’m not up for this challenge.

Yes, I’m afraid that my mothering, my particular combination of love, patience, skill, willingness and instinct are not enough for my daughter. What if she needs some other combination, one that I don’t have? That’s the fear that stalks me in the quiet moments after the dust of the latest meltdown has settled and her eye lids have fluttered to sleep.

I’m also straining to keep a promise I made to myself the day I peed on the stick and got the beautiful plus sign telling me I was pregnant. I will never shut my kid’s feelings down. It was the one thing I vowed; it was my no matter what. Every other thing — private school, camp, piano lessons, road trips through Americana — I was willing to forego, but not this. My kid was going to grow up knowing that her mother celebrated all of her feelings and would support her in expressing them, even and especially anger. Period.

As I watch her big emotions, I remember my promise and take deep breaths, exuding calm even though I’m scared.

Of course I made that promise before she turned 4, before she grew long solid legs that she wasn’t afraid to kick or arms she wasn’t afraid of flailing in my face. That was before she actually had any real emotions beyond a plaintive cry for milk or sleep.

I can’t let go of my promise, even though there are days when I want to tell her to just stop, already. The other day I walked out of the room before saying, “Can you ever be happy about anything instead of angry all the time?” That’s exactly the kind of statement I would rather die than make to her.

My promise to support her anger is a maypole that I dance around every time I see her set off when something doesn’t go her way. I get her to a safe place — usually the gigantic bean bag in our family room — and let her keen and wail and cry and shake the frustration out of her system. As I watch her big emotions, I remember my promise and take deep breaths, exuding calm even though I’m scared, scared that she needs something more than a loving mom who’s willing to hold her and bear witness to her feelings.

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My hope is that my darkest fears about this chapter are no more real than the monsters I used to think lived under my bed. I do take comfort in knowing that I’m giving her my best — the deepest, richest part of my love that no one else has laid a claim to. And I pray that it’s good enough for her. I’m not sure what else to do.

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