Our third child (Jabecca 2, if you will) was born in February. That’s right. Three kids. To be honest, the transition hasn’t been that difficult. As crazy as it sounds, going from two kids to three is actually way easier than going from no children to your first.
But while the transition is easier, life is not.
We had three kids in less than four years. That’s a lot of little people in our house. I don’t even know how to describe our days. It’s just constant movement, everywhere. Along with this movement, I’ve noticed some changes in my parenting style. Namely, I’ve literally disregarded all parenting advice I’ve ever received. There’s something about pure exhaustion that makes you stop caring about being a perfect parent. What used to be a desire to raise idyllic, well-rounded children is now just an animalistic will to survive.
Here are five signs that I’m a parent in survival-only mode:
1. Your goals transition from being a “perfect parent” to “okay, let’s just keep everyone alive today”
When Jebecca 1 was born, my wife and I were committed to being perfect parents. We would limit exposure to TV and electronics. We would feed her only nutritious meals, no junk food. We would read her several books a day. We would engage the whole family in daily physical activities. In total, we put all our energy into being perfect.
Now that we’re on our third kid, I don’t care about any of that stuff. TV? Yes, if it gets you to calm down for two minutes. Junk food? Since it’s something you’ll eat without a fight, sure, peanut butter and jelly for every meal. Read books? Hey, toddler, how about you look at the pictures in that book and make up the story while I close my eyes for a few minutes? At the very least, we do have plenty of physical activity. In this chaos, I exceed my step count before I even leave for work.
Sometimes I’ll think about one-child Brandon and the parenting he used to do. Present-day Brandon just doesn’t have the time or energy needed to be a perfect parent. I barely have the time and energy needed to keep my kids alive. So that’s my goal: if everyone goes to bed in roughly the same physical condition in which they woke up, that’s a success.
2. You don’t remember your last shower
Last night, as I was locking up the house for the night, I noticed this musty, foul smell. I walked around looking for something like a rotten apple, or maybe some old onions lost in the pantry. Then I noticed that the stench stayed with me. Yep, the odor was my own body. It was bad. It was like I released toxins to fend off a predator.
How strange, I thought, I just showered yesterday. Then I realized today was Wednesday, and my last confirmed shower was Sunday morning. Maybe. Even the memory of that shower was hazy. When you have three kids, showers are anything but a relaxing experience. You shower after you’ve begged your spouse to take over primary care duties in your absence, and then you rush through a full-body hose down to the muffled sounds of screaming children and broken dreams.
Showers are the NASCAR pit stop of being a parent. It has to be fast, it has to be done before you blow a tire, and once it’s done, you still have 200 laps to go.
3. You stop intervening when the kids fight
Jebecca 1 likes playing with dolls and DanBill likes playing with cars. They do have their own interests, but they’re also small and stubborn, so clashes are inevitable. When it was just the two of them, I’d intervene to stop the fights before they escalated to violence. Now that I’m holding a baby when I hear them fighting, I handle the situation differently.
When I used to hear “stop kicking me!” I’d yell, “You better not kick her! I’m serious.” Then I’d jump in and separate them.
Now, when I hear “stop kicking me,” I say, “Kick him back!”
With my hands full, there’s no way I can stop every fight, so it’s time they start resolving their own conflicts. The best way to do that is with better defense, even if that means a retaliatory punch or kick as necessary. It’s working, but at a cost; I’m worried that we’re crossing the line into having a full-on Fight Club in the playroom.
4. Remembering names is not as important as conveying the right tone
When things get rowdy at my house, they get really rowdy. The decibel level alone would give a Metallica concert a run for its money. At any given moment, I’m always in the middle of some sort of task, whether it’s preparing a meal or cleaning or changing a diaper or rocking a baby to sleep. If discipline becomes necessary, I don’t have the time or mental capacity to accurately remember my children’s names. But that’s not the important part. In the heat of the moment, my kids don’t need to hear their names, they need to hear my tone.
So while I’m shouting a hybrid of every name in a myriad of barely coherent syllables, I’m focused on conveying a tone of authority with a dash of disappointment. I never understood why my dad struggled to get our names out in the heat of the moment, but now I get it. When things are already crazy and I suddenly have to step in, I already have your attention. Disregard the gibberish that comes out of my mouth while I’m trying mental roulette to get out the right names. What matters is that you understand I’m mad and that you need to stop what you’re doing.
Shouting incoherently is certainly not helping my kids know their names (I’m pretty sure my son thinks his name is No-No-Don’t-Do-That). My shouting does get them to stop what they’re doing, so I’m marking that up as a win.
5. The pursuit of self-actualization is basically just nostalgia now
At one point last week, between doing dishes and starting the hour-long bedtime routines, I thought back to a distant past when I had a hobby. I didn’t have to schedule time or ask permission. If I wanted to sit down to watch a movie or play a video game or hit golf balls in the backyard, I just went out and did it. No advance planning at all. Sigh. Those were the days. Now in present day, I’m crouched down, scraping dried jelly off the hardwood floor with my thumbnail.
I mentioned earlier that the transition from zero kids to one kid is way harder than the transition from two kids to three kids. That’s because having that first kid trains you to realign your priorities, to actually care more about another human being than you do yourself. This mutually-exclusive arrangement requires a compromise between your desires and your kids’ needs. Marriage alone has a lot of that compromise too, and even though you love your spouse more than you love yourself, you’re still generally able to pursue your own interests, mostly because you have time and energy left to spend. Raising kids is that same level of compromise, but it also zaps you of time and energy.
So yes, going to three kids is way easier, but that’s only because as parents that part of us that pursues self-interests or cares for our own wellbeing is already dead. And once the part of you is dead, raising kids is actually quite easy. I bet we could take in four more kids and not really even notice the difference.
In all fairness, it’s unrealistic to think you can have kids and keep your life exactly the same, though I know a lot of expectant parents who think they can. You do give up a lot of yourself – and your lifestyle – to be parents to children. I knew this going into fatherhood, and I’ll admit that leading up to the birth of my first child, it made me sad. What I didn’t expect, however, was how much of myself I would replace with love and adoration for my kids.
It’s impossible to convey this to non-parents. After all, how in the world can I willingly give up so much time for myself and still be, like, okay with it? Because nothing would make me give up the opportunity to help my kids discover their passions. True, I don’t get to draw or paint as much as I used to, but now I get to be right there beside my daughter as she learns to draw faces. No, I don’t get to watch as many movies and I don’t have as much disposable income for hobbies, but I get to sit next to my son the first time he watches Star Wars, and I get to introduce him to the Superman soundtrack. When I see him hold his arms up in the air and run around pretending to be Superman, I forget all of myself. I would give up all of my hobbies again if it helps my kids achieve all of their hopes and dreams.
Maybe that’s what survival-mode parenting is all about.
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