As I think back on my early years of motherhood and marriage (which mostly coincided), I think one of the beliefs that kept me most upset and in despair (and most on Google or reading the latest non-fiction book) was the belief that as you begin, so you will finish.
I do believe that this can be true. If you start out allowing something, it may be harder to take it away than never offer it in the first place. Habits can develop rapidly, as can our children’s expectations.
But there are a lot of ways in which this is not true, too, especially with little babies. Humans are flexible and resilient, and though our basic personalities may be somewhat fixed, we are also able to change and grow and learn.
I remember being terrified about infant sleep decisions because it felt like once we started something, we could never stop it. I would scan through the questions and answers online to see when babies learned to sleep through the night and was assured that frequent nursing or too much holding would ruin my life forever.
I remember reading that if you don’t maintain a good rhythm of date nights in the first year of your baby’s life, you can kiss the romance goodbye. If you don’t let your baby cry while you make dinner, he won’t learn to self-soothe, and you can kiss a pleasant household goodbye. And on it goes.
It’s a lot of pressure. And well-meaning advice can turn quickly into fear-mongering.
Though there are times when it’s easier not to allow something in the first place than later have to take it away, you can make course corrections. Children are smart and resilient and can learn new rules and expectations, even if it takes a little more effort. And this is something I wish I had known earlier in parenting.
For example, it felt momentous to let my son watch any television. It felt like opening up a Pandora’s Box. I was sure that if we started, we would never stop.
That simply was not true. Screen-time has not been a line rising straight-up on a graph (which is what I assumed); rather it has been a squiggly line that goes up and down but stays relatively small. We've started and re-started family dinners at the table, and back in the day, we used tablets in the car yet don't anymore. We gave in to our older son's hatred for the car and just avoided driving as much as possible. Now he is a mostly-pleasant traveler; there were no long-term repercussions. There was a time when he was addicted to cereal bars, and that time disappeared as quickly as it came.
In E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, the children discover a sand fairy that makes their wishes come true. At one point, they wish the baby was grown up, and when their wish comes true, they find their baby brother is a spoiled, arrogant young man. When the wish disappears (at sunset), and their brother is once again a baby, they talk about the horrors of the day. They want to make sure that the baby does not grow up to be spoiled, and one brother insists that “as soon as ever the Lamb’s old enough to be bullied, we must jolly well begin to bully him, for his own sake—-so that he mayn’t grow up like that.”
One sister insists that rather than bullying, kindness is the only way forward, and the other brother wisely points out,
“…if he grows up in the usual way, there’ll be plenty of time to correct him as he goes along. The awful thing to-day was his growing up so suddenly. There was not time to improve him at all.”
Growth—for myself, my marriage, my children—is a process. It is meant to be a process. We aren’t meant to be complete here on this earth.
Part of me wants instant results—for one talk about kindness to result in my son being kinder to his brother, for family dinners now to mean family dinners forever—but life is a process. And most of the time, I’m thankful for that.
Family life (all of life!) goes in seasons. In some seasons it is harder to exercise or clean house or sit at the table together or attend church together. But this is not a long-term reflection of what the end result of our family will be. We are constantly growing and changing together. I'm not a bad mother because I allow something today and realize tomorrow that I should no longer allow it.
Our babies and our families don't grow up all at once. I find that through it all, I never regret kindness and gentleness (though I often regret harshness). This is true with my sons, with my husband, and with myself.
I'm learning what it means to err on the side of kindness and simplicity. I’m learning not to overthink every single decision and to go boldly forward. And I’m reminding myself that as long as I’m walking with God and seeking to know Him more, He’s going to complete this good work he began in me and my family. It will be day after day, a little at a time, some progress and occasionally a few steps back. And there will be time to make course corrections.