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When Mommy Doesn’t Have the Answer

Photograph by Twenty20

It’s 11:00 pm on a Tuesday night. For the last 3 hours, my 2 ½-year-old daughter has been attempting to protest, negotiate, argue, coax, beg, yell, and cry her way out of going to sleep. She’s not tired. She needs a drink of water. She needs her diaper changed. She wants another story, another song, more covers, it goes on and on.

I've reached a point that's familiar to me now where my self-doubt goes into overdrive. My thoughts start to race. Why is she doing this? Why is nothing working? She had a virus this week, maybe she’s still sick? If she’s sick, should we bend the rules about bedtime? Should we stay firm? Will this become a bad habit? Will we get any sleep tonight? What about tomorrow night?

And then the worst thought: I don’t know what to do.

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I find myself in this place of not knowing more and more as my daughter grows. Every month seems to bring a new parenting situation that I have no idea how to handle, and I've begun to recognize the lost/desperate/scared feeling that sinks into my stomach. I'm sure all parents have experienced this, and maybe some of them are able to manage it with grace and humility. I'm not one of those people.

I try to forgive myself for not always having all the answers. And I try to let my daughter see that uncertainty doesn’t mean failure.

I'm a person who has to have the answer, and if I don't, well, let's just say it isn't pretty, and I'm working on it. The irony is that no one can possibly have the answer to raising a child at every moment, every day, all the time. It's a moving target. It can be baffling, especially for first-time parents. But even those with several children will admit that every kid is completely different. Every kid brings new challenges and certainly new joys.

Part of the problem is that as parents, we know that we have to be in charge. We're constantly told to set limits, to be consistent, to maintain a routine. Because this is how our children will feel safe and loved. Unfortunately, we're also human. And sometimes we have no idea where the limits are, when to be flexible, or what to say.

A mom friend who is a therapist once listened to my anxious debating about a parenting issue and gave me a sympathetic smile. “You have a hard time just sitting with a problem, don’t you?” she said.

I think my mouth may have fallen open. “Sitting with a problem? You mean, like not trying to solve it?”

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I was stunned. This was so foreign to me. If I couldn’t solve a problem, it meant that I hadn’t worked hard enough. The answers were out there. They were in books and on websites and in the experiences of other parents. I just had to keeping searching until I found the one that worked. Right?

“Sometimes it’s not about taking action,” my friend said. “Sometimes things are going to be tough for a while, and that’s OK.”

As I head into more uncharted territory with my daughter, I try to remember that moment and my friend’s voice saying, “Just sit with the problem.” I try to forgive myself for not always having all the answers. And I try to let my daughter see that uncertainty doesn’t mean failure. I hope she'll learn that being human is OK and not knowing is OK.

But bedtime, that's non-negotiable!

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