When survival mode is your norm: one dad’s story
When you’ve been in a hard place, it can be difficult to bounce back to happy. Colin Gruetzmacher shares how kids are often one step ahead.
They always tell you kids grow up quickly but they don’t tell you that you have to keep up. Like most parents, we document our children’s growth and Facebook every new milestone – ensuring their first lemon-tasting experience is online for all to enjoy – and we love looking back and seeing how rapidly they’ve changed from cooing newborn to talking toddler. I just never realised that I should grow up with them.
There’s only 15 months between our children. Leo was such an easy baby that we couldn’t understand why everyone else was so bad at sleep-training their kids. We decided to bless the world with a second child so we could put our skills on display. We’d be running parenting workshops in no time. Turns out we weren’t that amazing, we just had a son who loved his sleep.
Our daughter Cora is completely different. She wanted to be held to sleep every night and wasn’t afraid to let us know about it. We worked through that but at five months old she developed silent reflux and cried for two to three hours solid every night. This went on for months as we tried to figure out what was wrong, and I finally understood why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. The stress of seeing your child in pain, feeling helpless and angry for not being able to do anything about it, and feeling guilty for feeling angry – all while functioning with a sleep-deprived brain – has a way of wearing you down.
I went into survival mode, as if my vision tunnelled and all I could see was our crying daughter. I stopped doing much outside of work because any free time was spent trying to help my wife. I braced myself every night before going to bed, and felt that pit of fear in my gut every time I thought I heard a sound from her room.
It was hard to know how to talk about it. It’s not a topic that you can broach easily at work. If someone asks you how it’s going, you can’t really say that you feel like your eyeballs are bleeding and you’ve forgotten what rest really feels like. All new parents are tired, right? So I just tried to get on with it; jaw clenched and back stiff to handle the load of it all. But if you stay tense long enough, tense becomes the new normal.
When Cora was eight months old, we eventually figured out she had been experiencing silent reflux. She started Infant Gaviscon and within a few weeks she was sleeping like a rock. The kids settled into a new routine, kept growing and moved on to their next stage. I, however, took a little bit longer. Survival mode had become my parenting default. I was so tense and battle-ready that I was missing out on new changes and the fun that was going on right in front of me.
I was still focussed on sleep training while Cora had moved on; exploring, crawling, walking. She was now pushing her brother aside to get to the toys, and screaming, face down on the floor, when told ‘No’. I wanted to coddle her while she was ready to climb, run and wrestle. Well, when I say wrestle, I mean that she loves to be picked up by one leg and launched into the air and on to our bed. She loves it so much that she’ll often disappear in the mornings. When we call out “Cora, where are you?”, we hear a faint voice mimicking us “rrr uuuu”. We then find her sitting on our bed with her toothy grin inviting us to play fight.
Survival mode helped me push through a hellish few months, but it would have killed me to stay there. Instead I had to force myself to look back on all the milestones we’d achieved and give myself permission to breathe.
I thought my job as a father was to help my kids grow from each stage to the next, yet they’re often ready for the next one before I am. But I’m making progress. Milestone by milestone, I’m getting better at following their lead.
Colin Gruetzmacher is the pastor of Golden Sands Baptist Church. He lives in Tauranga with his wife and two wee children, Leo (two) and Cora (15 months). When he’s not picking up his kids, their toys, and their bugs, he enjoys collecting guitar gear and craving Mexican food.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 42 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW