Well-meaning older relatives give us this advice. It’s written on glossy pamphlets meant to help. Signs on the walls of the pediatrician’s office compel us. It’s definitely in the “don’t shake the baby” video they make you watch at the hospital.
“When you get frustrated, take a deep breath, walk away and count to ten.”
It seems sensible enough. We nod and smile and imagine ourselves calmly walking away from frustrating encounters with small humans. We feel confident in our abilities.
And then we have the baby. And he screams and screams and screams. The baby becomes a toddler who pushes us to the limits of our patience and keeps on going. And then a teen who knows just the right button to push to send us over the edge. We are hot and we are tired and we are hungry and we are touched out. And something snaps. Maybe we yell. Swear. Maybe we throw a toy. Maybe we kick the wall. We have dark thoughts that we could previously never have imagined having. We imagine saying hurtful things to these people who we cherish so much. In our mind’s eye, we imagine, just for a second, doing something that might hurt them. Hopefully a second. Hopefully, it stays in our mind. Hopefully, it stops there.
And a hell of a lot of good “take a deep breath, walk away and count to ten” does for us then. There is nothing rational left in our brain by the time we need to follow that advice. It’s fried. Kaput. We’re working on instinct and praying that instinct keeps our babies safe.
So when I become that well-meaning older relative, what I hope I remember to say to the shiny, hopeful new parents I encounter is this: Take a deep breath, walk away and count to ten NOW. Do it again tonight. And tomorrow. Maybe do it three times tomorrow. Do it when you are calm. Do it when you’re angry. When you are driving. When your partner annoys you just a little. Do it while you pee. Practice and practice and practice again until it is second nature. Until it is so automatic that maybe, just maybe, you have a chance of remembering to walk away when you need to. These babies. They are so hard. They are so, so, hard and they WILL push you beyond anything you can imagine. But. They are as fragile as they are hard. You can break them if you’re not careful. Your anger, your words, your loss of control… it’s all shaping them.
Take a deep breath.
Count to ten.
Now do it again. Your babies are counting on you.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. If you or someone you know needs support or guidance, please go to The Children’s Bureau for more resources.