Laugh In by Tovah P. Klein
Your kids’ mischief and mayhem may turn your world upside down, but it’s in those exasperating moments that humor is most likely to save you.
Being a parent is a serious endeavor. Yet, anything taken too seriously loses what matters and squashes the joy.
I think back to the questions my college students posed during my first pregnancy. “Are you nervous about having a baby?” “Afraid of labor?” “Does being a mother scare you?” The times I had been most nervous were when I started teaching college and went scuba diving for the first time. The idea of being a parent did not worry me. When pushed for an answer, two things came to mind: clipping tiny fingernails and lack of sleep (I was already in the running for world’s worst sleeper). Between my experience, friends, family, and a caring husband, how hard could this parenting thing be?
My first experience with parental humor came early. My husband and I brought home our tiny bundle of joy on day two of his life. No more hospital nurses, just new mom and dad. Both of us are respected professionals in people-oriented careers. Days earlier we had considered ourselves capable. Now we were rendered inept in the face of 7 pounds.
At 3am the first night he was screaming. Thinking a diaper change could help, I laid him on our bed with no idea where the diapers were. He peed all over. We needed dry baby clothes. We could not remember where those were either. I was wet. Bed was wet. Baby was wet. Years of education could not shield us from incompetence. That first feeling of helplessness as a parent is instantly humbling and searing. Tears came. But in a flash something else overtook me and I burst out laughing. And so did my husband. We laughed and laughed. Someone so little was running my life ragged.
In time I recognized how wild and amazing an adventure being a parent is. The joys are beyond high. The lows reach rock bottom. Just before I get to that bottom I call upon humor to prevail. It is the only way to survive, and the best way to stay connected to our children.
Like the day I was getting our newborn ready to take our toddler to day care. As I hurried, I heard the older one playing and assumed (wrongly) all was well. I entered to find his ‘playing’ involved pouring out an entire box of Grape-Nuts cereal. Giddy in his sweet and full-of-life manner, he carefully ground the tiny morsels into a shag carpet. That is when I discovered they make a scrunching sound. I could have cried, or yelled. Instead I joined him in the moment: “I guess you were still hungry,” I said. He smiled. I smiled. We giggled. Humor. Thank goodness for vacuums.
Finding humor is hardest as a first-time parent. I took my first child too seriously, empathic toward his every slight. I took myself too seriously. Our children’s actions become a reflection on us. We forget they are separate, making their smallest offenses loom large. Perfectly normal behavior—not greeting Grandma, throwing non-projectiles, nose picking, loud voices in quiet places—seem rotten and rude. I could easily forget how little he was.
With experience, my humor began to flow. Maybe it was the birth of subsequent children. Maybe it came from gaining common sense; lightening up makes situations bearable, fun, and ultimately easier to move on from. By the time children outnumbered parents, my humor was set.
This is exemplified by our youngest, who loves broccoli. Except when he does not. One night, this toddler picked it off his plate and lunged it across the table: “I hate broccoli!” Instead of the stern parental response my firstborn might have received, he was met with his brothers’ laughter, and, “What an arm! Great throw.” No broccoli the next night for Mr. Strong Arm, he demanded, “Where’s my broccoli? I love broccoli.” Different night. Changed desire. Humor required.
Or when our middle son announced he wanted a new mommy. “If you pick a new mommy, will you live with her?” I asked, noting that I would miss him. He was sure he would. He promised to come visit. We discussed whom he would want as his mommy. I ran down a list of contenders. He turned down several—“too old,” “yells,” or simply “not good.” He decided on one of our friends whom he deemed ideal, and he slept overnight. (Before she even had kids!) He was happy to return home to us, too.
We find Curious George, a mischief maker, funny. When our own child is the mischief maker, though, it doesn’t always seem so funny. We can take life as parents too seriously. Parenting is the best and hardest role any of us will assume. When I tap into my humor, the spilled milk, the footprints on the counter from the child who snuck cookies, or the drill-sergeant-like commando toddler on the loose in my home become funny, and fun. With a little perspective (mine) and a lot of laughter (ours), my children and I enjoy our time together even more.
Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., is a mom of three boys, a child psychologist, and the author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). Read a Q-and-A with Dr. Klein about breaking the “toddler code” at nymetroparents.com/tovah.