“How could I get so angry and frustrated with my own children? How could I be so ‘toddler-like’ in my interactions with my husband? Real. Mature. What’s wrong with me?
Look at their behavior though, no wonder I’m stressed. Yeah, that feels good—it is their fault. If they would just do exactly what I say (I have great ideas), or better yet think like me, then all would be fine!”
Is anyone else unpleasantly surprised by how hard it is to be nice to the people you live with and love the most? Like literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. For me, nothing has made me more aware of this than being a wife and mom.
What gives? I mean, this is what I wanted. I did premarital counseling, took extra parenting classes, and read some books. I know many people who are not so fortunate, and of course, I’m thankful for my family. What I’m about to share does not negate that. But the truth is: family life unearthed every possible past pain or weak point within me.
I really wanted to be the best wife and mom. I wasn’t ever going to yell at my kids or need to hide in the bathroom. I was going to be the mom that just calmly talks to my children and hugs them a lot. I was gonna be that wife who made sure we stayed best friends and never got snippy.
Well, I would have been that person if I was a puppeteer and my family members were puppets. It turns out people are not puppets but real individuals with individual issues who desire to be truly known.
When I finally started to grieve my expectations and embrace our imperfections, I found peace. Doesn’t that sound easy? Well, it wasn’t.
It’s been a painful, long process. Turns out grief and grieving are not only surrounding the death of a loved one, but also happen with the death of how I thought life would look and feel. I hope sharing my journey can encourage you to find the help and hope you need. Maybe you’ll save yourself some pain and learn quicker than I did.
I Needed To Get Honest
Let me rewind.
Over a decade ago, I started following Jesus (or trying to do what I was told that looked like). Pretty soon after that, I met a great guy, and we got married, had a baby, and then adopted three more children.
In the beginning, I told myself: “I can do this. I’m a good person. I’m a nurse. I like to help people. I even know some Bible verses.” My husband and I even did premarital classes, extensive training in order to adopt, and I read a lot of books. I knew it wouldn’t be all rainbows and unicorns, but I was willing to work hard and was somewhat confident I’d be a good parent (or could fix whatever issues would inevitably arise along the way).
Yet, somewhere along the way, I found myself becoming a person I didn’t know or like.
I tried to do all the things I was taught and told, but my kids still had lots of challenges. I was constantly trying to fix one issue after another. “Why isn’t anything working?!” As my children experienced very big emotions and had challenging behaviors, so did I. They would lose it, and then I would too, or I’d bottle it up until my physical body shut down. I felt the need to control their attitudes and actions because, in hindsight, I couldn’t control mine.
“Be quiet! Quit screaming. STOP! We don’t talk like that. How many times have I told you? Quit freaking out!”
Shaming language and false threats would just spew out of my mouth, and I wished I could somehow swallow them back. I was literally waking up with a sore throat from straining my voice or yelling so much or from the stress-induced acid reflux. Walking/running out the door in a fit of rage or blank stare as soon as my husband came in from work so I could escape. Stomach ulcers, migraines, chronic fatigue, and more!
I was emotionally wrecked (angry, bitter, depressed, etc.) and physically exhausted. And the shame, oh the shame.
My energy was spent trying to force my way and peace upon everyone in my home. What I couldn’t see in those moments was that I couldn’t help anyone because I needed help myself.
In my heart, I wanted my family to be vulnerable and process their emotions, but I was afraid of doing it myself. Afraid of owning, uncovering, and working through my own underlying issues.
I’m Not Fine, And It’s OK
It turns out trying to make everyone else perfect and expecting myself to be too was making me a hot mess express. It also turns out that no one was making me feel anything. I’m in charge of my feelings and regulating them.
Like everyone else in my house, I’m impatient, temperamental, selfish, and I have needs. Denying my needs, dismissing my feelings, and blaming everyone around me was slowly poisoning me and everyone I love. I don’t think I really knew myself or my family. I just knew what I thought we were supposed to be. I slowly learned that there is no point trying to control all of our mental distress or life experiences because we can never escape loss, pain, etc.
What I can control is my reaction to the stress and my attitude about it. I can become aware when I am ruminating, avoiding pain, acting out, or shutting down. I can’t make it all “go away,” but I can strengthen my own mind and ability to cope. Thinking, feeling, and behaving are all connected.
My children (who have experienced more trauma than I could wish on anyone) have taught one of my most valuable lessons: both/and. For example, adoption is both tragic and redeeming, so is most of life.
The tension of the both/and paradox is very stretching and downright painful at times, but I’m learning to embrace the tension and stretch with it. Like we saw in Pixar’s Inside Out, we gotta figure out a way for Joy and Sorrow to be friends.
No, it doesn’t feel good to break and fall flat on your face, but that’s the posture that allows us to “rise strong.” As Brené Brown wrote in Rising Strong, “When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
I had to get really honest and talk about all the things I didn’t want to talk about with my husband and with safe friends. I had to get into marriage therapy, individual therapy, and PTSD therapy (not all at once). Medication for anxiety, our adoption and fostering support group, accountability workouts way too early in the morning, God’s truths in the Bible, crying to my girlfriends, asking for lots of prayer from my community, mindfulness exercises, boxing classes, and “calm down” spots in our home all became my lifelines. I checked out almost every book from the library on the brain, mindfulness, and parenting.
It turns out your brain never stops being moldable, but it takes ample time and repetition. It also turns out that things often feel messier in the beginning until we all feel safer to unearth our true selves.
I could not give the unconditional love my family needed because I hadn’t yet received it fully myself. The power of humbling myself to admit my shortcomings and still believe that I am worthy of love and belonging—regardless of my honest feelings, frustrations, and needs—made me able to experience the power of God’s true love like I never had before.
I found that Jesus really is the light who is not afraid of the darkness. He is in the darkness with us—coming alongside us, so we aren’t left there—ready to help pull us out into the light.
God is the parent who isn’t afraid of my thoughts or feelings and wants to hear all about them. A parent who doesn’t expect me to have it all together but accepts me where I’m at and wants holistic health for me.
My thoughts began to change, and then my relationships.
My internal dialogue is shifting from:
“Here we go again. You are driving me nuts. All you do is complain. You are so ungrateful. If only you would listen!” And, “Ugh, I’m so nasty and mean. I’m a horrible wife and mother” to “It’s OK that they are crying or feel sad. Jesus, please help me be present in this moment and not react. I need to take a few deep breaths before I respond. I can be calm. While I cannot control them, I can control my face and voice. They must be having a hard time.”
I gradually went from blaming everyone else to owning my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I moved from demanding them to do what I said to listening to their thoughts and finding ways to work together.
I didn’t feel as much pressure to have it all together, so I didn’t put that on my family either. The more I grew comfortable apologizing when I got too frustrated with them; they learned that they’re no less valuable when they feel like a hot mess too. We’re all in that together.
Hear me out: my kids are not magically “the best behaved” now—and neither am I. If you could see inside our home, there is still lots of crying, messes, and hurt feelings. I am still frustrated and annoyed on a daily basis, but imperfect progress is progress. My marriage is not pure bliss. We are both still disappointed on a regular basis. The difference is, I’m not surprised by that, and now I know how to express my thoughts and feelings and deal with them.
The most important difference is, we are all safe to be ourselves, and we’re committed to supporting each other as we grow into the best versions of ourselves. We all want to help each other be who God created us to be. By being unapologetically vulnerable and meeting each other’s needs, I believe we are becoming more like Jesus to each other.
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise, we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” – Thomas Merton
As I shift my view to see myself and other people through God’s eyes—as whole unique people that God has beautiful plans for—some behaviors actually have improved (but that’s no longer the goal). It’s amazing how people (including yourself) act when you treat them with honor, dignity, and respect, regardless of their age or abilities.
More importantly, after years of struggle, I can now say: I like who I’ve become.
I’m free, raw, and sustained by my relationship with Jesus (not dependent on how everyone else is doing). I actually want to be vulnerable and process my honest feelings, needs, and desires. I’m learning to stop trying to be who I think everyone else expects of me. All my relationships are more connected and intentional than they’ve ever been.
I am making space for lots of one-on-one conversations to check up with each person and ask how they are really doing. I feel safe enough to share how I am really doing.
When my child is upset because it’s bedtime, I might have said before, “Quit whining. It’s bedtime. Get upstairs now!” Now I am working on responding more like, “You’re sad you don’t get to play anymore? OK, thanks for telling me you’re sad. That makes sense. I am feeling tired and frustrated too, and don’t want to argue. But I would love to read to you before bed. Let’s take three deep breaths and see who can get upstairs first!”
When I lose my cool, it’s not, “Be quiet! If you all would just stop talking to me!” (Well, sometimes it’s still that.) But maybe I take a deep breath and say, “I feel really anxious and overwhelmed when more than one person is asking me for something. I will take care of everyone but please, everyone count to ten, and then one person talks at a time.” OR I might say, “I am feeling very tense because I haven’t taken enough breaks today. I’m going to let you all have your screen time now so I can take a shower and rest.”
Maybe as you’re reading this, God is reminding you that Jesus really is OK with you admitting you’re a hot mess and is not afraid of your big feelings or scary thoughts. Jesus is an excellent listener, ready to help you get free, and walk with you on a better path.
I hope you also see that it’s OK to love Jesus and still need lots of help.
It’s hard but healthy to talk about your emotions, your pain, and your past so they can all be put in their proper place, so they don’t destroy you and those around you. Please reach out to friends and professionals.
When you get really REAL—you have the opportunity to heal and live out the purposes God has for you. Bonus and warning: when you are willing to be vulnerable, it’s contagious to those around you!
I cannot thank Jesus and my kids enough for making me way more vulnerable, courageous, and committed than I ever could have imagined. With God’s guidance, I have learned how to go to battle for myself and my family. Share how you feel. Vulnerability brings breakthrough, connects you, and makes it OK for everyone to have imperfections while actually making it safe to grow.
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed but not driven to despair. We are hunted down but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. – 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NLT