The Hardest Thing I’ve Done As A Parent


The Hardest Thing I've Done As A Parent

Being a parent is all kinds of hard.

Some of the challenges we anticipate, and we do our best to prepare. We go to birthing classes, weigh the pros and cons of cloth or disposable diapers, and check reviews on the safest car seat. We lose sleep, read books on sleep training, then bring the baby to bed with us anyway, because whatever, it works. We educate ourselves about potty training, tricycle helmets, and the best educational apps for preschoolers. We think about every. little. thing. Honestly, it’s exhausting, and it’s so, so hard.

As kids grow up, they become more independent (and yes, they do sleep…eventually!), but there is plenty more hard. Homework, learning disabilities, sensory issues, food allergies, social nuance, just to name a few. Then we get to overnight trips, competitive sports, puberty, dating, driving…Hard, hard, hard, hard!

I have four kids ranging from eight to 16, so we’ve done a lot of tough parenting thus far. Granted, there’s still plenty of time for me to encounter more difficulties, but I’m here to prepare you for the one thing that has — so far — been the hardest thing I’ve done as a parent:


Sure, there are lots of types of therapy, from physical to occupational to speech, and more, but I’m talking about the deep dive into mental health that was taboo just a generation ago but thankfully is becoming more normalized. Over the years, I have recommended therapy to countless people, encouraged them to talk to a professional, process their trauma, work through issues, and prioritize mental health. I have congratulated people on doing the hard work that I was pretty sure was part of therapy, but I didn’t know personally, until…

One morning in 2017, I woke up early, before anyone in my house was up, and went downstairs for some quiet time. I had been stressed and on edge, and I thought I just needed more time to myself, more time to think and be alone. That morning, my 10-year-old also happened to wake up and come downstairs, but knowing how tense I had been, she didn’t want to interrupt my quiet. Peeking around the corner, she whispered, “I’m just going to get some water, mommy.” As she tiptoed across the kitchen to get a cup, the sound of her bare feet padding on the laminate floors sounded like someone standing right next to me clapping in my ear. Well, that can’t be normal, I thought to myself, so I scheduled an appointment with my PCP, thinking she would prescribe me some kind of anti-hearing aid to turn down the volume on my obvious auditory issue. Imagine my surprise when my trusted nurse practitioner listened intently to my symptoms, asked thorough questions to fully understand the issue, and diagnosed me with anxiety. 

My first step, of course, was to find a counselor to help me figure out what was causing my anxiety so I could fix it and get back to the regularly scheduled programming of my life. I remember sitting with Bill for the first time, explaining my situation and motivation to find solutions, and trying to hide my offense when he simply laughed. “That’s not how this works, Mary Beth,” he gently chided me. “Well, I mean, yeah, I know that…” I replied, secretly vowing to prove him wrong by being his first ever client to quickly find the problem and fix it in record time.

As it turns out, that’s not how this works.

Therapy has not fixed me; in fact, it uncovered a lot of things that I probably never would have noticed were broken. Imagine noticing a crack in the wall of your home, patching it up, then forgetting about it. You could probably live several years in that house without even thinking about it again, until one day it returns. At this point you should probably crawl under your house to take a look, but it’s creepy down there. You could call in a foundation expert to come check it out, but who has the time? So you decide to re-patch it. The truth is, you could keep patching and re-patching that crack, but eventually it’ll come back quicker, deeper, and in other locations. You can ignore the cracks all you want, because sure, crawl spaces are messy, and repairmen are time consuming, but the cracks will never go away until you address the root cause in the foundation. And no doubt about it, waiting to address your issues until the floor is caving in will always be more costly than treating the problem up front.

Therapy helps me find the cracks in my life so I can shore up my foundations before they collapse.

While an auditory processing issue first sent me to the doctor, therapy helped me see that this was just one of many anxiety symptoms I exhibited: I also scream when I’m overwhelmed, have a low tolerance for feelings of rejection or disappointment, try to control little things to overcompensate for my feelings of distress — among other things — all of which affect my parenting. I have to put in the work on myself in order to be the best mom possible. The solution is not a reverse hearing aid or quiet mornings or self-care, but rather I need to work on communicating better with my family, naming and leaning into negative emotions, recognizing triggers and identifying ways to cope, and so much more. 

Thanks to their own incredible therapists, my kids have learned to identify their maladaptations to stress as well, the things I didn’t know how to teach them when they were younger and I was still patching cracks in my own life. I have learned about the different ways they think and process, and we are all working together to repair our foundations. That means a lot of being honest about our needs, sitting with our emotions, and talking through our hurts with mom-led “therapy sessions” using the skills we have learned from professionals. 

It is difficult to look my teenagers in the face and admit my flaws and confess when I am wrong, knowing this age makes them hard-wired to doubt me. They are getting a lot more tell me how that makes you feel and a lot less you better do it because I said so than I got as a kid, because while my parents were awesome, that just doesn’t work for our family. My husband and I are having to turn a critical eye to our own happy childhoods and carve our own path that is unique from what either of us experienced growing up. There is no template for this, no “10 easy steps for fixing your anxiety” to simplify our process; we just keep showing up, keep facing our demons, and keep digging through our junk to clear out space for peace in our home and our hearts. 

But you know what’s amazing? My 10th grade daughter presented a speech to her class about stress and anxiety, and she shared from personal experience about when to reach out for help. My 13-year-old son exploded out of the blue one day, then he shared with us a long journal entry expressing his feelings and the unseen pressures that contributed to his stress. I have watched my 6th grader talk down a teammate who was crying after striking out, and when my eight-year-old is bouncing off the walls, he knows how to say, “my body needs movement to help me relax.” Going to therapy didn’t fix all our problems, but it taught us how to recognize them, and together my whole family is learning a new approach to health. 

Going to therapy is without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve done as a parent. But it’s absolutely worth it, every single day.

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Mary Beth Unthank
Knoxville born and bred, my love for this area is deep and true! I'm a working-turned-stay-at-home mom to 4 kiddos from elementary to high school. My husband and I live in Knoxville where we both lead nonprofit organizations and are trying to become Love in our community. I love watching my kids learn something new, cooking for other people (but not for myself), and telling myself I'm a #fitmom when I go to the gym like once a month. I'm a bottle-feeding, disposable diapering, public-schooling (other than the time I homeschooled for a minute) mom with the stereotypical chill attitude of moms with large(r) broods. I love meeting new people, but I talk way too much and laugh when I'm uncomfortable. If you don't mind long stories and bad jokes, we are sure to be friends! Follow my family adventures on my blog Unthank You Very Much


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