The Push-Pull Effect

Navigating the colorful ebb and flow of building relationships with our children.

In order to work from home while caring full time for my infant (my first child), I needed her to nap. So, I lived and breathed those damn naps. I’d plan for her to go to sleep at 1 p.m. By 1:05 my mental to-do list had activated. Everything now. Everything must be done now!

Each extra second past 1 p.m. that she lay awake I would be spiraling, convincing myself that she would never sleep again. But she did. Magically her eyes closed and her breath slowed to a predictable rhythm, the one capable of soothing my acute fit of panic and rage.

I was released to the couch, where I collapsed into the cushions, craving a sleepy breathing pattern of my own. But I could never sleep, thinking of everything that needed to get done. And I couldn’t move because I was exhausted. So, I sat staring at my phone, inevitably watching videos of someone who 60 seconds prior I would have sold an organ to get a break from.

This catch-22 of parenthood shows no signs of letting up. I want to savor my time with my children at the same time that I want to be away from them. I want them to stay little, and I want to witness them growing up. I want to know all their secrets, and I want my own head space.
My first child who threw me for a loop. When my second and third children were napping, I was watching Mad Men. But during that first go around, my pre-mom productivity level had yet to be ground down.

Now it’s not naps, it’s school. I have more predictable time for myself, but I woke up and realized that, in 10 years, that baby I shhhed will be in college, and she’s starting to talk to me less and less after school.

“How was it?” I ask in the car line.


I’ve read lists of better after-school questions to ask.

I imagine before bed is a better time to talk. But she shares a room with her brother, and more than talking to me she’s into giggling with him after we turn out the light. Our 4-year-old has her own room, so you’d think I’d waltz across the hall for a dose of quality bedtime connection. But she is not old enough to leave us alone—I tuck her in, and she’s still screaming for six raisins, a glass of water, and a potty break. No additional connection needed with that child.

The relationship swings I experience with my children can feel a lot like playing with magnets. If I have one toy train and I want to link it to yours, if it’s turned one way, no matter how strong I come on, we won’t connect. But if pull away a little and turn around, snap! We’re together again. As I’m drawn to the 8-year-old’s angst, she pushes me away. So, I turn my focus to her siblings, and she’s acting out to get attention. The dance goes on.

Over the holidays we made sugar cookies, and over the burr of the KitchenAid, my first daughter started spinning around the kitchen, gushing about who passed to who at gaga ball and how a kid who always wears hats has been smiling at her BFF. It wasn’t revolutionary stuff, but she was relaxed enough to just talk off the cuff a little. We didn’t have a schedule that week, my husband was off work, the little kids played in another room, I wasn’t on deadline, so we were one on one and just let our guards down and talked. When I was my daughter’s age, my mom made cookies with me, so there’s a natural peace, a relaxed state that kicks in when I’m explaining how to level the flour and crack the eggs into a separate bowl.

Some kids process externally, while others keep their thoughts close. The same goes for parents, so an awareness of what stage of the train-car play you’re all in can bring real clarity. It may be time to back off—or it might be time to consider ways to be more open.

A friend of mine describes walking into her childhood house after school. Her father, a single dad who worked as a professor, would be at his desk. He’d say hello, continue working, and she’d settle into her own routine. There wasn’t an either/or. He wasn’t engaged with her or not. He was consistently there. The predictable atmosphere in their house, even if he didn’t drop everything when she walked in the door, steadies her to this day. There are more ways to connect than just questions and answers. I was doing more than I could realize, lulling my little baby to sleep.

We have 18 years together. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, what’s authentic about me is rubbing off on them. “You’re continually re-meeting your child,” a mom of girls in their 20s told me.

So, I can release the pressure of trying to get the whole story after school today. Relationships are magnetic, messy, variable, and the best ones—like the ones with our children—are quite long.