Letters to Henry: Whisky and Dr. Becky
Its been a long while since I wrote you a letter. Right now seems like a good time! I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts, release some pent-up feelings, but mostly I wanted to catch up. You are now nearly five years old! What a terrible rush you are in to get to that number! Just this morning you asked, “why is it taking such a long time to five, Mummy?” In fact, my impatient progeny, your fifth birthday is just a couple of months away.
What a time it has been. It sounds hackneyed but nonetheless it’s the truth that time has simply flown. You went from 3 months old, when I drafted my first “Letter to Henry”, into boyhood in what feels like the speed of light. During that stretch of whirlwind space, your father and I have been, quite simply, keeping up with you.
You know what? It’s been such a joy to watch you grow and develop into the magical creature you are. But… it’s been a challenge also. We should’ve known that when you turned two and didn’t actually become a “terrible two”, that you were only working up to the magnificently timed tantrum threes. That period between 2 and 3.5 had some intense moments. The disdain toward authority, constant refusal to go to daycare, and the unforeseen challenges of the pandemic were problems we surmounted. There was truly nothing that couldn’t be solved without some M&Ms, Daniel Tiger videos, and the throwing of rocks in the river. Goodness, but you thrived! For every fuss you kicked up, you more than made up for by being a delightful child, always engaged, curious, heartbreakingly cute, and a sloppy kisses dispenser.
You still are. Your hugs now are few and far between but when they do come, they are fierce and strong. The kisses too are scarce but they are loving and true when munificently handed out. I couldn’t be more grateful to have you as you are; healthy, smart, sensitive, and articulate. You are a preschooler with all the inbuilt challenges that are part of your construction. You are, in fact, perfect.
This letter, if you haven’t gleaned yet, isn’t actually about you.
Its about me. Its about me and your dad, and about intentionality and our commitment to parenting you in a way that makes sense to us.
Firstly, I want you to know that every stage of your life for me personally has been equally a gift and challenge. The early stories of my struggles with anxiety and milk supply you know about already — they were just that, struggles. Finite. We worked through and conquered them.
The struggles these days are different. They come at a time when you have more words, and much, much more personality than ever before. Now at the tender age of almost five, we have tension. We have clashes. We have preschooler questions that elicit unsatisfactory or downright incorrect (to you) grownup answers. We have mutiny on a minuscule scale but no less terrible than the one on the Bounty. We have high sensitivity and shattering meltdowns. We have tantrums that at times feel completely out of control, just before they calm into the most pacific waters. We now deal with feelings so big that they cannot be held back by mere Man. Something as simple as jam getting on your fingers sets off shattering chemicals in your brain, and suddenly you no longer have navigational control over your limbs. We have startling and disappointing moments of hitting, almost always me, when the rage inside you can’t be held back, and you strike out against the one thing standing between it and you.
One day we will look at these moments, and while not exactly laugh, certainly shake our heads — “what the hell was that”, your dad and I will say, looking at you in a semi-accusatory manner that’ll be wholly justified. We may even laugh inwardly when you deal with your own travails with your children, if you choose to have any.
These things are normal and expected. What not enough people talk about is what parents do when we feel overwhelmed. Which is perhaps an natural segue to “What is our philosophy of parenting?” Surely every parent has one. This question has surfaced many, many times over the past few months. Your father and I have argued, and still do, about what is the best approach to dealing with tantrums and meltdowns. Sometimes we just can’t agree. It leads to tension, withering silence, or smoldering resentment. Sometimes it leads to simple befuddlement because we aren’t on the same page and other times to a slow burning anger. Eventually we realize that in those moments we are still on the same team, just playing different positions.
We acknowledge that we don’t know enough. Some things are instinctual, such as “it’s good to feed the child”, and it’s “bad to hit the child because you are modelling violence”, but others, not so much. For example, what is the most effective way to help a child who breaks down at the very thought of losing? Or as your father say’s, “Lets just admit it, the flutter of butterfly wings in Mexico sets him off”. For these moments and others, we turn to online resources. There are numerous and varied parenting resources out there. Some are helpful while others are simply rubbish and don’t teach you anything. Some posit ideas which are in opposition to each other. Some techniques will work, some will work for a while, and some don’t work at all. We choose the ones that makes sense to us, we apply, we reject when necessary, we rinse and we repeat.
What we are attempting, Henry, is not to stop you from feeling your feelings or to temp them down into a hard ball of festering emotions, but to arm you with tools to regulate them. It’s always healthy to feel. It is imperative, in fact, that you feel. The world is stacked in your favor as a member of the male species, but it’s also yours to distort and destroy. Facts don’t lie. In the states, perpetrators of gun violence and domestic terrorism are overwhelmingly young men. The statistics are not much better in other countries. We are aware of the importance of young men being brought up to understand their feelings rather than ignore them, to prioritize mental health, and where necessary to regulate aggressive tendencies and redirect them to more useful pursuits. By doing so, every community and the world writ large benefits. Our hope is that you will be of the next generation that is kind, resilient and well-rounded; a value-add to society. You will be a fully participating and interested member of the world you inhabit. That is our goal. That is our mission.
In some ways, there is a lot of expectation on you, but I reject anything or anyone who suggests it shouldn’t be attempted. On the other hand, it’s a lot of pressure on us to get this dance right. We are committed, my love. We are here; struggling, pushing and pulling against each other, and together with love, trying to do our best.
Which brings me to the title of this letter.
You drive us up the wall sometimes. You’ve even driven me to tears, which to my everlasting shame, you have witnessed and been distressed by. You’ve certainly driven us both to a post-Henry bedtime whiskey.
It was some months ago when my holy children’s bible, the “Calm Down Time” book spectacularly failed to actually calm you down, that I felt a mild panic. I realized I was out of ammunition. I had a peculiar feeling. I can only describe it as a bottom-scraping sense of failure that I wasn’t actually the good mother I’d thought. You see, I’d just strong armed you into bed, my upper body still smarting from the surprisingly strong hits you had landed. I stood over your cowering little figure, still sobbing softly into your blankets, and waited for you to succumb to the emotion laden exhaustion you were fighting. It was the closest I had come to hitting you. It scared me so much that I couldn’t wait to get out of there. When I finally made it to our bedroom, it was only to collapse on the floor and cry tears of shame and regret. Even though I knew they didn't know any better then, I feared that I could visit the same sort of corporal punishment my own parents had on me as a child. That fear galvanized me. I went in search of knowledge.
But really, my darling, I went in search for redemption.
I scoured the internet and social media feeds to see if anyone was talking about how to parent preschoolers during those particular challenging moments. One day, a friend sent me a meme which resonated strongly with me — I can’t remember what it said exactly, but it made me search out the woman it was attributed to. My internet search returned an interview with Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist. It was like a light went off inside the sad and gloomy depths of my brain where I had retreated post that shocking night of rage. Her Instagram videos designed to help millennial parents navigate what was/is a crazy time during the pandemic had made her hugely famous by the time I found her. Why millennial parents? We are the ones with the questions obviously.
“Millennial parents are more aware of things within themselves that don’t feel good, places that feel empty that they want to feel sturdier,” says Kennedy, who is currently working on a book, also called “Good Inside,” set to be published by Harper Wave next year. “These are parents dedicated to raising kids who feel solid and confident while also trying to heal themselves.” — Dr. Becky Kennedy, New York Times, Nov 21, 2021.
Her special power is that she helps manage “the thoughts and feelings of parents as much as children.” However, I won’t let this letter become a fan-exposition of her philosophy, but just know that she is helping me help you.
What I have learnt when it comes to being a parent, Henry, is this. I am actually a good parent. I am a good mother. I am good enough. That both you and I are good inside. When you read this, please take the words above seriously. They are not shallow affirmations, but the foundational basis of what helps me stay calm when King Henry emerges, enraged that all before him do not cower or bow in supplication. Her short digestible videos and scripts remind me to take a deep breath, to center and equip myself with tools to help you regulate your big feelings. All it takes, sweetheart, is practice, practice, and more freaking practice.
We are well on our emotion-regulating journey together and I already see some results, even while there are some unexpected setbacks. These days I delight in how you articulate your feelings. “When my mad is big, I can’t stop myself,” you blurt out when admonished for kicking mummy’s phone off the couch. “I am sad! And I don’t know how to not be sad!” you confide in a small angry voice while hugging your teddy.
Sometimes it only takes a hug to get you started. Other times, we chat for a long time during which you may or may not be tuning me out. Sometimes it’s silly games such as “how much will my hug fill you with mummy love starting from your toes until it reaches your hair” (thank you, Dr. Becky!), that helps you regulate. Sometimes your dad wonders at my approach, asking where the consequence for bad behavior is when it seems you are let off too easy. Other times, I too second guess myself and question whether it really is true that punishments don’t work. According to some experts punishments only reinforce isolation at a time when children need their parents most. To punish you requires me to stay mad, and to distance myself from an invariably contrite you, when my goal is not to make you feel bad inside but to help you regulate the feelings of the moment and to return you to the business of being a preschooler again. That’s when I know I’m on the right path and it calms me down.
It is constant work and practice. And it will probably be like this for a while yet as more life changing moments happen in your near future. Nonetheless, I have full confidence in myself and your father. We are the generation that originally tuned into YouTube to accomplish tasks we have no knowledge off or expertise, rather than give up. And don’t forget, imposter syndrome came into existence in the lexicon during OUR time. King Henry won’t subjugate us. We’ve got this.
In the meantime, there is Dad’s good, albeit, watered-down-by-me whisky and Dr. Becky.