You know that annoying friend who loves to vaguebook about the woes in her life or is always complaining on social media about how her kids are destroying her home and mental health? That was me — nearly every day, for years. My default mode was to air my grievances on Facebook every time my kids threw epic tantrums, or when my daughter tore her clothes off and flung herself out of her crib while weaning from her pacifier, or when someone got sick (particularly if it happened while my husband was traveling for business)… or whenever I was counting down the minutes until bedtime (always).
Mostly, I complained because I was looking for solidarity. As a stay-at-home mom with precious few IRL mom friends, the internet and my iPhone became my stand-in companions. It was the only way I knew how to cope with my postpartum depression, the only lifeline I knew how to grab hold of. But my venting only provided momentary relief, anyway, and and all those poor-me posts made my real life worse by focusing all my attention on the negative.
Eventually, I learned to keep my complaints offline (after being confronted by a male friend at a baby shower who told me my social media made it seem like I hated being a mother, yikes!). However, it didn’t really solve the problem, because instead of splaying my mental health breakdowns to the world via Facebook, I started texting my husband with all that negative energy. All day I’d message him about how awful our kids were, which continued to reinforce my idea that parenting my three kids was the absolute worst. Not to mention the toll it was taking on my marriage; my husband was basically a sounding board for the mental tally of bad things I had kept track of each and every day.
Even after my depression passed, I never felt like I fully enjoyed being a parent. I was always anticipating the next thing that would go wrong, because there was sure to be something. I spent my days looking at the clock counting down the minutes to the small break I’d have when my husband came home and then when the kids went to bed. Which left the bulk of my time full of misery and waiting, and, of course, complaining when things went predictably awry.
Then one day at a birthday party, I had an aha moment. I was sitting next to a mom I didn’t know very well who spent most of the party complaining about her kid (“Of course he doesn’t want to go in the bounce house, can’t give mommy a second of peace!” “God he better be an easy teenager because he’s been hell since the moment he was born!” “I don’t know why I even tried to do anything fun with him in the first place, he’s always like this.”). Of course, I didn’t know the kid, but he didn’t seem particularly difficult. It seemed like the only reason this mom was so unhappy was her decision to make a big deal out of every little thing. She found a way to spin the situation as negatively as possible. It was like I was looking in a goddamn mirror, and I didn’t like what I saw.
It was an uncomfortable moment of truth. My kids weren’t the problem. My attitude towards them and mindset about motherhood were the problem. My kids had their moments, sure, but no more than anyone else’s kids. Other moms dealt with the same things I dealt with every day, and most of them probably weren’t giving their spouses a play-by-play of every little detail that went wrong. Most of them weren’t complaining every chance they got. I was the one making my days harder than they needed to be, and I was the one who had the power to change that.
So I decided to do a little experiment: I’d spend one week not complaining about my kids. It sounds small, but trust me, it wasn’t. No texts to my husband. No rundowns of misfortunes at wine night with the girls. No posting on Facebook about the 4am bed-wetting when the spare sheets were in the washing machine.
I was shocked to notice on that first day how many times I picked up my phone out of habit to document the bad stuff. Then, I figured if I was constantly looking for something to document, and I wasn’t allowed to complain, maybe I should look for the good. I began snapping pictures of the sweet moments when all the kids were getting along, the funny outfit my daughter picked out to wear, the absolutely angelic face of my toddler while he napped in a sea of stuffed animals. When my husband came home from work and asked how my day was, it didn’t feel like I was lying when I said it was good. I showed him a photo or two, recalled a nice moment, and ended an ordinary day feeling better about motherhood than I had in years.
Slowly but surely, I broke the cycle of complaining about my kids by restricting my right to complain, and focusing on the positive instead. It didn’t mean there weren’t bad moments anymore, but rather that they weren’t the sole focus of my days. It not only changed how I felt about parenting, it changed my kids’ behavior as well. When I was constantly expecting the worst from them, they often rose to the occasion, but reframing the way I spoke about them changed their attitudes as well as mine. Of course I still need to vent from time to time, but I no longer need to blame my kids for my unhappiness, because that part is up to me. I can’t always control how my kids behave, but I can choose how to behave in response.