Today I came across the term ‘emotional bandwidth’. Jessica Grose wrote a piece in the New York Times parenting magazine about why she is resisting having a third child. She has reached her limits with two. Everyone, she posits, has a different emotional bandwidth when it comes to raising children. How she puts it: In the context of parenting, this is how much patience and humanity you have left to give to your existing children.
Her ‘primal lizard brain’ is still telling her to have another, but her rational side is a firm no, and you can tell she is going to stick to it. I think, as I’m 43, biology has dictated that I won’t have another child but if I was younger, I would be in danger of having another one. I say danger because my rational side – so much more shrunken and ineffective than my emotional, instinctive side (nothing to be proud of) – doesn’t even get a look in when I see a newborn. Ms Logic pipes up, weakly, you do realise that you couldn’t cope with another child, don’t you? Then the dreamy side (read: the crazy side) dithers in with a monologue on how special that time is, what a peak moment in your life it is – making a baby, growing a baby, having a baby, holding a baby. That feeling of timelessness, conversely hung in a vortex of swiftly shifting time, when you cradle your little one; who still seems attached by an invisible umbilical cord.
I have three small children, all less than two years apart in age, and my emotional bandwidth has been stretched. Often it is flimsy and at breaking point. When Jessica spoke of this concept, and how much patience and humanity you might have – and might do well to note you have – in reserve for your children, it made me feel a bit ashamed. Lately, I’ve had only miniscule amounts of patience with my children. Yesterday, we instigated a new ‘ticks and crosses’ system for the two older boys. If they get more ticks than crosses at the end of the week, each will be allowed to buy a small toy from the beach shop near the beautiful strand where we are spending the summer. This morning, I had to add an extra column for myself. The middle child was throwing tantrum after tantrum, because he had read one of the letters in his name as an ‘X’. No matter how many times I told him it was not an X, but a letter of his name, he kept stamping his foot and yelling and screaming that it was an X, and I should take it away forthwith. I lasted about six or seven minutes, then came over all Robert de Niro in Goodfellas: ‘You want an X? I’ll give you an X. I’ll give you ten Xs.’ Then I aggressively drew lots of deep big Xs all over his chart, which obviously drove him crazy.
A minute later, I was sorry. How can I teach these children about patience if I have none? How can I teach them about compassion if I am showing none? What about anger? If I am continually losing my temper, how on earth do I expect them to keep theirs? Anyway; I drew an X in my column for unacceptable behaviour and losing my temper, which pleased them both no end. I wouldn’t be allowed to get a toy this Friday if I kept going on like this for the rest of the week. I could only agree with them.