The dark hour before dawn is sacred space. It's my only waking hour in a silent room, and I typically guard it carefully.
But that morning, all I wanted to do was wake up my kids.
The night before, in that other still space, the one where children quiet just before they drift off, my son told me the truth. "You always say no. I'm frustrated because you say no to every single question."
It's been a hard summer. Our first months on our own, my first months working in several years, their first long break after their first year of classroom school. Too many changes, too little routine. The characters are all the same, but nothing feels quite normal, and we've had nothing but time together to ruminate in our juices.
There has been tantrum after tantrum. Broken rules, pushed boundaries, seeking comfort and calling names in the same minute. In response I brought the hammer down. More regulation, more oversight, more consequences. We've each played our role in a negative script. The more they snuck and threw and yelled, the more I stubbornly leaned into high expectations. It has not been fun.
In my boy's words that night, I saw my own reflection. I'd created an atmosphere of "no." I had been micromanaging our summer, taking their behavior personally, engaging the power struggle. Because I too wanted to feel like my life was under control. If I could just, for the love, get my children to behave, it would somehow prove we were all going to be okay.
I was wrong. And I was anxious to tell my son. I wanted to make things right, to try again.
As the sun peeked through the blinds, I heard the bedroom door open. He immediately folded himself into my lap. As soon as he was settled, I said, "I need to tell you something."
"I am sorry I said no all summer. To be honest, I don't really know how to do this. I don't know how to be the one to set rules and still have fun and work at home and take care of you guys and our home all at the same time. More than anything, I want to take care of our family the best I possibly can. I was wrong this summer. I'm going to practice relaxing and saying yes more often."
He nodded his approval.
Since then, I've focused on my breathing. I've noticed what is good in their behavior and the moment, and I've pointed it out. I've looked for the actual source of chaos (hint: watch the 2-yr-old), and dealt directly with the actual problem, instead of responding to feeling out of control. I no longer default to "no." I listen for my own tone, and I'm asking myself, Am I helping bring peace into the moment? Am I being kind or sarcastic? Am I generating positive or negative energy?
As a result, my children's shoulders have softened. They tantrum, whine, and complain less. They laugh more, and talk more. Our lives are still in transition, but there's less tension among us.
There's a lie in our society, a lie that says raising children is like is like holding a crystal ornament in a lifeboat: one wrong move, and they're broken for good. This lie is the reason children aren't allowed outside alone anymore. It's the reason we fight with teachers, overanalyze every possibility, and constantly feel as though our best isn't good enough. The lie believes a child is exquisitely fragile. If any parent trips, their kids are forever broken beyond repair.
I'm calling BS on that lie.
Yes, there are critical moments. There are experiences so profound that one moment forever alters a life. That reality does exist.
But for the most part, family life is shaped by our patterns - the well-worn grooves of relationships, the daily ways we cross back and forth to one another. Childhood is not a glass ornament on a raging sea. It's more like a block of wood. It's possible to splinter it with tragedy, but more likely, it will be smoothed into shape by patterns and routines. Our mundane interactions are sandpaper, slowly changing all of us into our future selves.
The question is not, how did I irrevocably screw up my kids today? The real question we need to ask ourselves is, what path are we creating toward one another?
Love, humility, kindness, honesty, teamwork, mutual respect - I want these to be the stones I walk every day as I create a path toward my kids. I want my kids to be used to hearing me say, "You know what? I dropped the ball on this one. But I'm your mom, and I will always love you and take care of you the best way I know how. So let's try this again."
Yes, it's been a hard summer. And I've played my own role in creating negativity. But there is space for me to do better. There is grace for all of us in family life. Thanks be to God.