I have a lot to be grateful for—two healthy kids, a husband, who is not a serial killer (yet), a house and food in my fridge (and under the couch cushions) and a lot of technology for my children to fight over.
But, don’t tell me to be grateful.
It’s a common refrain for older parents to tell younger parents to be “grateful” for “this time.” I’ve heard this platitude in the check-out line at the grocery store, the park and in my email. This advice is usually dispensed when I’m being bitten by a teething baby or my three-year-old has decided that toys are weapons to be used against the scourge of younger siblings. Last week, I was tired, hungry and walking through the grocery store at 4pm, preventing the baby from launching himself out of the cart with one hand and grabbing the bananas with the other, while my daughter whined that she wanted was “all da cookies!”
“I bet you are grateful for those children,” said a woman walking by, smiling as if she was imparting some great wisdom.
I am grateful. I am grateful for their smiles, their fuzzy hair, the way they fake sneeze to make each other giggle. I’m not just grateful, I adore the way the baby wants to color with his sister and the way she tries to tell him what to do, “Come on, bubba, we gonna make leaf piles!” Even at night, cleaning through the house, I find myself tearing up when I see a baby doll wearing my daughter’s underwear, or a play steak stuck in the toy oven. Folding little shirts that cover little bellies, recounting to my husband that my daughter comforted the baby when he fell or that she spent half the day pretending to be a “fairy pig”—this is the highlight of my day.
But gratitude has nothing to do with what I am feeling in that moment trying to avoid an apocalyptic meltdown in the grocery store. It’s not even beside the point, gratitude is so far away from the point that it could be another galaxy.
Being grateful has nothing to do with also feeling, sad, frustrated or at your wits end because the baby climbed on the table and is reaching for the chandelier. Gratitude is not some super power that can automatically cure you of all-encompassing exhaustion when you have to spend three hours rocking the baby at night because he is teething. In those moments, I am grateful that I have a child, who will not spend his life toothless. But I’m still tired. I’m still frustrated. My neck still hurts from sleeping on the rocker again.
I hear parents use gratitude like a magic wand. “Oh, I’m tired and one cup of coffee away from a murderous rampage, but I’m so grateful! AND BLESSED! That too! No, those aren’t tears, I’m so happy.”
Applying “gratitude” as some sort of parenting cure-all is essentially selling snake oil. It makes parents feel like they aren’t doing enough, being enough, or that there is something wrong in them for getting frustrated when their kid fake burps at the mailman, again. After all, no one would suggests to a president that “Hey, I know your country is freaking out over the remote possibility of an Ebola epidemic and terrorist are threatening every foreign policy gain you’ve made, but hey, at least you are the leader of the free world, right? Don’t you also get a chef?”
Today, I am grateful for so many things. But I am also a human trying to parent other humans who like to ask strangers if they “poop babies out of their baginas.” I often tell my daughter and baby when they are exhausted and hysterical, “It’s okay, feelings are for feeling, let it all out.” It’s a mantra for them, but also for me. It reminds me that this world we navigate, kids or no kids, personal chef or not, is complicated. It’s tricky. It’s exhausting and frustrating and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.