“He was happy, but not at all in the same way as he had expected. At every step he found himself disillusioned in his former dreams while also discovering new, unexpected enchantments. Levin was happy, but on entering into family life he saw at every step that it was not at all what he had imagined. At every step he felt as a man might feel who, after admiring the smooth, cheerful motion of a boat on the water, actually gets into the boat himself. He saw that apart from having to sit steadily in the boat without rocking, he also had to keep in mind, without forgetting for a moment where he was going, that there was water beneath his feet, that he had to row, that his unaccustomed hands hurt, and that it was easy only when you looked at it, but that doing it, though it made you very happy, was very hard.”
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1877
When you dreamt of having kids and parenting what kind of picture did you have in your mind? Were your dream kids well behaved and quiet or rambunctious and a bit like Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes?” Was your house neat and tidy in your dream family? Did you all eat a healthy dinner each night as you discussed literature and current events? Did your kids excel at sports, piano, school, and were they polite to boot? How about you? Were you patient and kind and crafty in your dream family?
Well, those dreams are wonderful to think about, and yet the reality of family life often turns out quite differently. It’s not that reality is a nightmare, it’s just that our real kids are slightly different then our dream kids and our real selves can be a wee bit more tired, grumpy, confused, and impatient then our dream selves.
I bring this up because it’s good to wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak. It’s empowering to look around your family and see the gifts you received that you weren’t clever enough to even dream of, and the fantasies you had that you now have to discard. We get into “parenting mischief” when we parent from our dream state. When we expect our kids (and ourselves) to be different then who they really are we get upset, anxious, worried, angry and disappointed.
The analogy of watching the boat sailing smoothly in Tolstoy’s quote is so perfect for parenting. Once we steady the boat and get used to the oars that work in the 4 year old water, guess what happens? The 4 year old turns 5, the currents change, the weather shifts, new people and activities enter the boat and we have to start all over again. Then forget about it when they turn into tweens or, gasp, teens!
So best to be mostly awake while we steer the boat of our family because as Tolstoy said, “it was easy only when you looked at it, but that doing it, though it made you very happy, was very hard.”