Parenting Is Like A 401k by Traci Baxendale Ball, LMSW, CAADC
Parenting is like a 401K. It takes years of contributions and sacrifices to build something worthwhile. The end product of your investment (if you’re lucky) is an independent, functional, adult human. The sacrifices hurt in the short-term, but when vested, you have something splendid.
If you are a parent that has enjoyed every moment of your parenting journey, you will want to skip this article. This article is a humorous but authentic look at my own parenting experience as well as lived experiences of my clients.
Spoiler alert: I did not enjoy every moment as a parent. (Sorry kids!) It was not all cutesy like the image you see below. Toothless grins and snotty kisses are burned into my memory forever. So are some of the not-so-great times.
My 3 Sons - 2004
I had three children before turning 32 years old. I was unprepared. At times I felt that I was part of a national disaster response unit. On many days, before 10 am, I was incredulous that my life and children could turn out this way. I expected something better and less chaotic out of my days. I thought it could be pleasant and serene. I had romantic visions about parenting, which I liken to ads for Downy, where everyone wears white, (and stays clean), light streams through windows onto spotless surfaces and floors, and a perma-smile is the facial expression of choice. Before having children, I imagined I would do everything just so and the experience would be gauzy, dreamy, peaceful, and free of raised voices. It turned out that parenting my tribe was more like being in a war zone. It was an assault on my senses. All circuits were repeatedly blown. There were daily tears from someone (mostly me) on the front steps by sundown, exhaustion at every turn, and fantasies about fleeing to the nearest sunny island anywhere. (As long as it had a bathroom where I could actually sit uninterrupted for more than a few seconds.)
I was lucky enough to have three bouncing baby boys, all delivered late. (This was a metaphor for the coming years when it took an hour to find everyone’s shoes). The word ‘delivered’ makes me laugh by the way, because it invokes an image of Door Dash happily ‘delivering’ your favorite pizza.
I planned childbirth as a candlelit affair on a yoga ball. Instead, childbirth felt like a dull hacksaw cutting through my perineum with a dash of salt for good measure. I should have known then, at the starting line, that it was time to rewire my brain and expectations. It would take me a full twenty years to get my body back.
My guilty pleasure was a day at the office. Work was a rest. (I am in awe of SAHM’s). Sex and fun in the early days of being a parent seemed like a tiny blip on the horizon that I could only see if I squinted. When I tried to find my g-spot, it was buried deep in the laundry basket under burp cloths, breast-feeding bras, and odd socks.
My children did all of the things a parent dreads and then some – bit the teacher’s kid, ate dog food, set off a fire alarm, munched on cat litter, set things on fire, peed up walls in public, said disgraceful things in the busiest places, broke windows with slingshots, had tantrums in grocery stores, got suspended, sneaked out at night, stepped on hamsters, pooped their pants in public, peed on the floor in church, shot each other in the butt with pellet guns, left pizza in the oven overnight, smashed my car(s), got lost in zoos and national parks, cut holes in new furniture or tents (you name it – they ruined it), ran away for two whole hours until they got hungry, painted ‘art’ in newly decorated rooms – the list of atrocities is endless.
One particularly embarrassing moment happened at the Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. My 3-year-old was being assessed for an exceptionally bad case of ADHD. He didn’t just bounce off of walls- he climbed them. The neuropsychologist asked me to describe his birth, looking for possible indicators of birth trauma. My child popped off the hospital bed and animatedly said, “Well, I slipped out of her belly and punched her in the nuts!” showing in a very dramatic way how he had done this, his tiny biceps flexing. I never had, to my knowledge, described a man’s genitals as “nuts.” My cheeks were the color of mulled wine.
Our family mantra was Do No Harm. However, in our house, it was like fight night every evening after dinner. For. Years. My dishwasher was broken when two of the three boys decided to fight over who was putting away dishes. The door was open and one boy pushed the other one onto it, breaking it clear off its hinges, similar to the last strand of my sanity.
I thought raising my boys well would eradicate all of these problems that other parents told me about. Turns out that raising your kids well pays off about two decades later. (Again, if you are lucky.)
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When I met my third husband and his pre-teen daughter, I finally acquired the girl I had always wanted, but never dared try for. We became a blended family. If you have seen the blades on a Ninja blender, you will know this blending is not a pain-free journey. Thank goodness I had the experience of counseling many “steps”. I used to tell my clients, “They call it step-parenting because it’s two steps forward, one step back”. I would say this with a grin and all the confidence of someone who had not been there. I stopped thinking I was funny when I walked in those shoes. I am pretty sure I was thought of as the MESM (most evil stepmom). We can laugh at some of those situations now.
The sheer demand of parenting erased all the soft places in my body. That is why I had to staple Brene Brown’s “Parenting Manifesto” to my cupboard. Adolescence x 4 quadrupled the effect of dissonance and I perfected my shrieking abilities. Distant admirers who did not reside in my home called me “teflon” – alluding to my cool and collected nature. I thought that they should see what I went through at home to get such mettle.
People ask me these days, “How do you have the energy to do all the projects that you do?” It is nothing compared to what I did as a parent!
True self-care started in June of 2020 when our last child at home moved out. I find myself missing all of it. The nightly dinners that were so important to us, the diapers bought in mega-sized boxes, the days of falling asleep in their beds reading a bedtime story. (I was asleep, they were eating goldfish crackers downstairs.) The good news is that you will love your children even more when they are adults. And who would have thought that was possible?
Parenting sure is like a 401K. It is slow to build. There are fluctuations and crashes. You must contribute for years. You do not see a return on your investment for a long time!
Wild Years With Three Young Boys
The Blended Years as Our Family Grows in Complexity
Some Tools to Help You on Your Journey:
The target: growing secure and confident human beings who can have meaningful relationships and good self-esteem.
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Maintaining a Soft Heart Through Tough Times
Assertive Communication With Your Child
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Here are my recommendations of the best parenting books that can help with taking care of the past in order to make the best of the future!
Parenting With Love and Logic – by Foster Cline
Raising Your Spirited Child – by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
All Joy and No Fun – by Jennifer Senior
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids – by Laura Markham
Reviving Ophelia – by Mary Pipher PhD and Sara Gilliam
Bringing Up Boys – by James C. Dobson
When Partners Become Parents – by Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip A. Cowan
Stepmonster – by Wednesday Martin
Building Love Together in Blended Families – by Gary Chapman
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Traci Baxendale Ball LMSW, CAADC is the founder of Vibrant Health Company LLC
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