This is the kind of situation when a bookish, scientific, information-addict mother like myself and many moms I know might crack open a parenting book or do a quick search online for resources on how to cope--how to respond, what words to use, when to play with the child and when to set boundaries for "me time."
But I've come to realize that most of the time, I already know how to behave properly. I know what I'm supposed to do and say. The problem is not a lack of knowledge but the emotional difficulty of making it happen. More research findings and parenting tips and expert-recommended phrases are not what I need to cram into my cluttered mommy brain.
What I need is some love and joy to stuff into my cranky mommy heart.
Sometimes those tips and tricks come in handy. A lot of times, rigorously tested "best practices" and the thing that works every time for your best friend's kid doesn't work on yours. There are so many methods and experts and books out there--on attachment parenting, gentle parenting, RIE parenting, "natural" parenting, peaceful parenting, you name it--and most of the advice I've read along the veins of those trends is solid, lovely, and helpful for specific conundrums.
But when there's just general crabbiness--my own, my daughter's, or both--more reading is not what I need to do. Because you know what, if you're in a foul mood, you can make ANY supposedly respectful sentence or gesture seem hostile, sarcastic, or threatening. And if you're in a laughing, happy, relaxed, and playful mood, you can do and say truly horrible things and they'll be perceived as harmless fun. I'm not going to give you any examples lest I get CPS knocking at my door. (Ha ha, I joke!) You get what I mean. I really hope you do. Because you cannot--I repeat, you cannot--be a good parent without humor. You can, however, be a good parent without being highly educated or keeping up with every latest best practice.
Because when interacting with children, it's the heart that matters first, then the brain.
Of course, some amount of competence is important. Though affection is primary with a child's well-being, there must be some level of competence. I think this was illustrated marvelously by Aurora's childhood in Disney's Maleficent. Aurora grew into a happy, loving young woman as she was raised by three highly affectionate but completely incompetent fairies. Maleficent had to step in every now and then to keep the child from starving to death or falling off a cliff. Now, if you, as a parent, are not as incompetent as these three comic buffoons, then your first concern should not be, "Am I doing this the right way?"
It should be, "How does my child feel about this?" and then, "How do I feel?"
Then attend to your child's feelings and your own in the best way you know how. There's no one in the world who's more of an expert on what makes your child content and happy and what gives you, yourself joy.
So this is what I did after deciding that I did not want to start my Sunday off cranky. I asked my husband to hitch up the bike trailer, and we went on a mood-exploding ride to a sunny playground, where our little Nux Gallica burned off a ton of toddler-morning-exuberance. I pushed her on the swings and played Cinderella with her "Be my evil stepmother, Mommy!" (point taken) and also had some time to sit in the shade with my adult life partner and relax.
Then we strapped our helmets on again and took a long, dreamy ride down a trail that extends for several miles from our neighborhood playground to a big, groovy, farmer's market-style grocery store, where we got some handmade tamales for lunch. We all had a wonderful time and got jacked on the smells of hot, crispy leaves in the sunshine, cool forest streams, and wildflowers.
This reminds me of the introduction to Eat, Pray, Love when a medicine man gives the author a drawing of how she should be in her life. It shows a figure with its head obscured by leaves, looking out through its heart.
With many important decisions in life--career path, spouse, where to live, whether to have a baby--and with many small decisions about the important things in life--like how to deal with the feelings of a preschooler--overthinking it can be a trap. What's good on paper isn't necessarily good in life.
I'm learning to let go of my overworked mommy brain and listen more to my expanding mommy heart. And to my daughter's heart too, which is overflowing with love and imagination. After we pretended that I was the Evil Stepmother who had locked Cinderella in the tower, Cinderella escaped (down the twisty slide) and put me in jail (under the monkey bars). But then she came to my cell and said, "I'm sorry, Stepmother. You're evil because I made you evil with my magic powers. Now I will make you good and let you out of jail." She waved her magic wand and ordered me to sit in the shade with Prince Charming and watch her play. Now that's what I call a happy ending.
May your mommy heart lead you along beautiful trails today!