Isn't This Supposed to Be Easier?
You told yourself that the sleepless nights that come with being the parent of an infant would be over soon. You reminded yourself that when your infant acquired language there would be less crying and less frustration. Maybe you looked forward to taking your little one to preschool and playdates. When you're a first time parent, and even sometimes when you're a second or third time parent, you can fantasize about the toddler years in an idealized manner. And just like the postpartum period, there are wonderful things about this moment in parenthood, and there are extremely difficult ones too.
I Survived Postpartum: How Do I Hold on to a Sense of Self During the Toddler Years?
1.Remember Who is In Charge: A guaranteed way to feel disconnected from your self is to constantly give in to your toddler's demands. There are many components to the interaction that occurs between a parent and a toddler when the toddler is having a tantrum or making a demand, and the parent gives in. Many people know that responding to a toddler's tantrum by giving them what they want will reinforce tantrums. The child learns, "if I whine and cry, I get my way." However, another component that parents may not consciously be considering is that when the environment becomes one in which the toddler is calling most of the shots, the parent is constantly suppressing what they think is right for them self, for their child, and for their household. What happens to the parent's connection to self? It seems to go into hiding.
Our sense of self exists in relation to others. I can agree or disagree with you, but I know that I can interact with you, as an "I" and you as "you". When a parent is letting the toddler do whatever they want, the interaction between an "I" and a "you" gets lost, and its all about just the "you" (a.k.a. the toddler). The relation in this manner becomes one-sided. Of course the toddler is still dependent on the parent in so many ways, that it is very clear that you are really two different people; however, the experience of constantly giving in can very much feel like an abandonment of self.
So what can a parent do about this? Think about the relationship with the toddler like any other relationship that requires negotiation. It can be very hard to do this when emotionally it hurts to your core to see your child crying; however, keep in mind that it does not do your child any good to keep giving in to them. Treat the demand like any other conversation where you have an opinion and so does your toddler. Asses your position and think about why you think your way is best way for your child in this moment. Try to really think about your child's feelings as well, and validate them regardless of what you decide to do. Then make your decision based on what you feel is most right for you and your child, and then firmly explain the decision you've made to your child in age-appropriate language. You will see that if you pause and take these steps, some of the time your child will get their way and some of the time they will have to listen to you. No matter what is decided, the parent will be left feeling like their thoughts and feelings were part of the interaction, rather than just being tossed aside in the face of the toddler's emotions. A toddler does not have the cognitive capacity to relate in this way with others, so parents it is really up to you to take these steps to stay connected to your self.
2. Do Not Give Up Your Hobbies: Parent-teacher meetings, soccer practice, karate, ballet class, play dates and more play dates! When did toddlers start having such busy schedules? It can be so easy to get lost in your toddler's activities that you end up with no time at the end of the week for your self. This can be problematic for a few reasons. You may feel anger and irritation that you do not have time for enjoyable activities separate from your child. You may also feel a sense of loss of or disconnection from your identity. For example, if you were a regular tennis player and that was something that was a large part of how you understood yourself, then it would be a drastic change to no longer have time for that.
Of course you are responsible for your child's well-being and need to make sure that your toddler has all of their social needs met for the week. However, it is imperative that you schedule in time for your interests, hobbies, and social pursuits; even if it is just once a week. You can still be an all-attentive, great parent if you make some time for yourself, and in fact you will probably be a happier, less stressed, and more attentive parent as well. It can be challenging to find this bit of time and this will require asking for help from a partner, babysitter, family member, friend, or co-worker. But even in the asking for help from someone else, you are acknowledging and validating that you are a separate person with a separate self from your toddler with needs of your own.
3. Ground Yourself In Your Body: When parenting a toddler, a parent can often be stuck in their head, thinking about what meal to plan next, where they need to be in an hour, and how much time to allocate for commuting, among many other things. Getting lost in one's thoughts can leave a parent feeling disconnected from their own body and from their present environment. Sometimes it can be very helpful to just take a moment and try to reconnect to one's own physical presence.
One way to do that is to simply take some deep breaths in through your nose and exhale out through your nose. Try to listen to the sound of your breath, and try to make your exhales longer than your inhales.
Another very helpful grounding exercise is to sit straight in a chair, plant your feet on the ground, and close your eyes. Focus all of your attention on your right arm and nothing else. After about a minute, shift all of your focus onto your left arm. When about another minute has passed only attend to your right leg and try to ignore everything else, and then switch to your left leg. After you have focused on your left leg then shift your attention to all four of your limbs and try to maintain that focus. In about 5 to 7 minutes thereafter, stand up and shake out your limbs. Sometimes something as simple as connecting to our physical body can be extremely powerful.
The Bottom Line
Parenting a toddler can be a very special, wonderful, and exciting time. It can also come with a lot of frustration, exhaustion, and testing of your limits. As you parent your toddler, day to day, you will likely experience a fluctuation of all of these experiences. It is important to remember that you will probably have more tolerable moments than intolerable ones when you make space to stay connected to your sense of self. Remember, all parents struggle with this at some point during their time as a parent of a toddler. Most important is to ask for help if you find yourself struggling to manage these difficult emotions on your own. You never have to be alone.
Thank you for reading! I hope you have found this useful. The suggestions in this post are never meant to substitute the recommendations of your own doctor or mental health provider. If you find yourself struggling to regulate your difficult emotions or struggling to reconnect with your sense of self, you would likely benefit from consulting with a mental health professional. If you have general questions about therapy, you may find the FAQ page helpful.