The other day I was looking at my three-month old daughter, my third baby, and a wave of nostalgia mixed with something like regret washed over me. I wish I knew then what I know now, I thought. I wish I could have parented my first two children the way that I parent now.
This, of course, is impossible. In parenting as in any aspect of life, we learn as we go. We get better as we practice. Five years into my role as a parent, with three little ones to care for, I am just starting to feel like I am finding my groove as a parent.
And yet, I am stumbling back from the effects of the worst parenting advice I ever misunderstood.
A couple of years ago, when my first child was only a toddler, I was chatting with a friend who had a couple kids older than mine. I was telling her that I was struggling to get through to my son as he explored his newfound independence; I felt he was never listening to me (I now know that ALL toddlers have selective hearing, especially when it comes to the voices of their parents!). My friend responded, “You just don’t have a mom voice yet.” For whatever reason, her words stuck in my head for a long time.
As the months went on and my firstborn son grew more independent and adventurous and I found myself losing all sense of control, I thought about her comment on multiple occasions. And I tried hard to create a “mom voice” that would help solve my problem.
Was I too gentle? Too quiet? Did he not hear me? How could I get him to listen and respond to my instructions and requests?
What Happened to My Voice
My voice got louder. It got sterner. I started adding in “if you don’t do this, then…” statements. And without me even realizing, something dangerous was happening to my parenting mindset at the same time. My expectations were rising, higher and higher.
“I’m the parent and he’s the child. He should listen to me! He should respond, right away, every time I talk to him! He should do what I ask! When I ask it! The way I told him to!”
I Became an Angry Mom
My expectations started to exceed his capabilities as a young child. My “mom voice” got harsher, and my emotions started to rise when he still didn’t respond the way I wanted him to. It is hard to admit this, but here it is— I became an angry mom.
I felt flustered and frustrated most of the time. I counted down the minutes till bedtime. I didn’t want to spend time with him the way I used to. I focused on the things my son did and said instead of the relationship I had with him.
I know that I became an angry mom because I can hear it in my son’s voice. Now nearing his fifth birthday, he sometimes speaks to his brother and to me the way that I have spoken to him. And as I’m asking him to be kinder, I know that he learned this harshness from me. And it breaks my heart.
Recently my husband and I were having a conversation about how our lives have changed, nine years of marriage and three kids later. He told me that I used to be more nurturing. Oh, how that statement hit hard like a rock in my chest. Because I know that so often a nurturing response has been replaced with a demanding request. In the name of stress, in the name of exhaustion, in the name of survival, in the name of trying to find my “mom voice.”
That’s Not What She Meant
But here’s the thing— I totally misunderstood my friend’s comment at the time. I assumed that control was the most important thing because in that moment I was feeling out of control. But I wasn’t evaluating that feeling in the context of my son’s age or realistic expectations, or of the fact that modelling behaviour is the best way to teach it.
My friend’s advice was totally well-intentioned. I believe she meant to encourage me, because I was a new parent, that over time I would find my voice– and I think that has a lot to do with relationship-building. We birth our babies but we still need to build relationships with them, and this is the kind of work that takes a lifetime.
Reclaiming My Mom Voice
It’s been a few months since I realized the extent to which I had become an angry mom. I’ve been fighting my way back from that expectations-based mindset and working to respond lovingly to my son in a way that he can understand, without letting frustration get control of my emotions. I’ve been fighting my way back to gentler parenting. I’ve been reclaiming my gentler, more nurturing mom voice.
I was glancing through photos and videos of my son as a toddler the other night. It struck me how little he still is, even at five. How he is still the darling baby that I saw in those photos, that I would never think of speaking harshly to— the way when I look at my daughter I could never imagine speaking harshly to her, as my heart is filled to bursting with love. It struck me how he is learning and growing every day and the world is still so very new to him. I try to look at him in that light when moments of frustration rise up— he is my baby and it’s my job first to love him, to accept him and teach him gently.
It doesn’t mean I don’t parent him with realistic boundaries and expectations. But I’ve learned that less is more in that regard— to follow through on consequences when necessary without saying too much gets his attention more than a tirade of talking that he is tuning out. It’s better to kneel down and look him in the eye than to speak to him from my level, phone in hand, without eye contact and expecting an immediate response. It’s better to remember his littleness and to show patience. And it means I say sorry to him sometimes, because I’m still learning.
And honestly, I feel more of that sense of control returning when I have self-control— when I don’t react to him or let those negative emotions rise. My feelings of peacefulness and control have nothing to do with my son’s behaviour now. They have to come from me.
How would you define your mom voice? Do your kids speak the way you do? Do you like what you hear? Have you ever felt like you were becoming an angry mom?