At times, parenting requires an excessive amount of courage. The courage to say “no” when it seems all the other parents are saying “yes.” The courage to set a limit in a public place and risk a full on tantrum. And, the courage to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. The obstacles that parenting provides gives us the opportunity to leave this comfort zone and embrace the painful, awkward feelings. In parenting, as in life, it is these challenges that yield the most rewards.
As I reflect on the past year, I have had some parenting successes or, “A game” days. I have also had many parenting failures over the past 365 days, though I like to focus on the wins. Considering these past triumphs usually gives me the motivation to stretch myself to reach for new things. I find this especially helpful as I set my parenting and family goals for 2020.
I like to stash these “wins” in my back pocket on those days when a herculean amount of determination is needed to be the parent I want to be. On these days, when I have to “dig deep”, I believe my kids are aware of this emotional state. They may be tipped off as I sometimes wear a triathlon finisher’s medal around the house. I am reminding myself and my children that I am capable. I am in charge, and I can do hard things.
Lucky for me, I have 12 years worth of finishers medals. This is how long I have been participating in triathlons. To be clear, I did not grow up participating in any organized sports. While I was very active and loved the outdoors, I wasn’t particularly coordinated. I never had a coach in my life and I was never a part of a team. So, when I first considered participating in an organized sporting event, I was intimidated to say the least. I didn’t own a bike and I had only ever swam for fun (sans high school lifeguarding). Swimming was the most intimidating for me. I entered my first race assuming that my skill set of being able to get back to the boat after being pulled on an inner tube would be sufficient to finish a race. Hardly. I swam the entire distance with my face out of the water and finished the swim dead last.
It appeared I was faced with another chance to “dig deep” or bail. So, off to the lap pool at the YMCA I went. Turns out, most triathletes swim at “insane o’clock” in the morning so they can go to work and run or bike later when there is daylight. Ok. Is the pool actually open at 5 am? Yes. Are people in it at that hour? Also, yes. Will I be in that pool as well? Yes. Deep digging.
I remember hearing that I would have to do this behavior for at least 3 weeks before it could be considered “normal” or be a regular part of my day. I wasn’t even sure if my alarm would go off that early. It did. For 3 weeks.
Initially, I felt that I would be surrounded by “strange” people who believed swimming at 5 am is “normal.” Who were these humans? I felt so inept getting in the water at that hour. It was both physically and mentally distressing to put on a swimsuit and get into a cold pool at 5 am. Many times I did not get up when my alarm went off. But, many times I did. I stood in the dressing room with a few ladies waiting for the pool door to open. They were fitter, faster, and looked way more competent than me. I told myself this was “normal” and I would feel comfortable one day as well. As in parenting, I had to remind myself that I could find a new “normal.” As I push myself to hold tight to a limit I have set or a consequence I have given, I could also push myself to get in that pool.
After a few weeks of showing up, some of the swimmers introduced themselves to me. Totally “normal” people! They had jobs, families, and also swam at 5 am. They were friendly to me and encouraging though they blew past me in the water. They asked where I was on the days I slept in and high fived me on the days I made it.
My experience with swimming has been much like my experience with parenting. There are a lot of days where I am feeling distressed and I would like to go through the motions. It is much easier to say “yes” to a child than to set and enforce a limit. I see that familiar look on the face of a parent at Target all the time.
“Should I say no to candy placed at my child’s reach during check out?” To be sure, Jenny will fall out with a red face and loud tears if I do. I will feel uncomfortable and face the awkward looks. But, I want “no” to be comfortable and I want setting limits with my kids to be “normal” and expected. I see the courageous parents take the stand. “No,” says the distressed looking dad. Jenny falls out screaming and I do my best to give her dad a look of “Way to go! Be strong!” I am impressed and encouraged by this brave dad. Perhaps he had already reminded his child of the “no candy at checkout” rule? Perhaps he had clearly set that limit prior to entering the store and was now faced with following through? Like laying out my swimsuit and towel the night before, this dad had laid the groundwork for a better outcome. Even if he was struggling to keep his head above water in the moment, he was digging deep!
We parents are required to push ourselves out of our comfort zones on the daily. We set limits knowing that tears and anger will follow. We discuss the hard topics with our teens including sex, drugs, and alcohol. These things take courage. I think back to those first few 5 am swims and the courage it took to just show up. I often need to remind myself that I can bring the same “A game” to my parenting.
I continue to race triathlons and my times are much improved. I have moved from “dead last” in the water to a respectable “middle of the pack.” My face is in the water and I feel mainly confident. I learned that swimming, like parenting, is much easier with the support of your peers. Having other parents who can relate to setting the hard limits is validating. Those high fives in the pool and “see you tomorrow morning” really kept me going. I learned that sometimes I have to swim alone. For several weeks, I didn’t know another swimmer in the pool and I struggled to complete the laps on my plan. As a parent, I frequently hear my children’s protests that other parents say “yes” or have little to no rules. In these moments, I have to swim alone and remind myself I am reaching for a goal. I learned to allow room for my feelings. Doing new, tough things can be painful and, at the very least, uncomfortable. That’s okay! Being uncomfortable can yield amazing changes in the long term. I have to remind myself that these feelings are “normal” and allow myself to feel them. I do not have a finishers medal for my parenting, so I will continue to wear a triathlon medal on the trying days. If you see me in this state, please offer me a high five and look of “be strong.” It goes a long way.
Shelley Coleman M.A., L.P.C.-S.
Shelley Coleman is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Supervisor. She is in private practice in Lakeway where she provides play therapy, child and adolescent counseling, family therapy, group therapy, and parent education. She can be reached at email@example.com