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First Pancake

My upcoming book has a foreword written by my eldest daughter. Why? Well, she was willing. And also the only of my children who could read or write at the time. And also, because she was the first pancake.

You know how when you make pancakes, the first one may or may not end up the sacrificial one while you sort out how hot the pan is and how big the pancakes need to be and how long to wait before trying to flip them? It might be fine. You might get lucky and your first one is recognizable at least. Then again, it might not even be edible but all subsequent pancakes are just fine.

Oldest children are like pancakes; the first one is probably a little messed up.

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That's a flippant undersimplification but if you are an oldest sibling or the parent of more than one child, you get the reference. Parenting is hard and none of us (and I mean none of us, myself included) know what we are doing. We are trying our best and making mistakes and saying sorry and trying again. But this isn't a pancake we're making. It's a person. And that adds a little bit of pressure.

My eldest got both versions of my parenting: the reactive and responsive.

Fair warning: You're getting backstory here. If you want to get to the point of the article, click here and I'll jump you to that bit.

When my daughter was born, I was in pure survival mode. I was in a dangerous relationship with a man I had no business pretending loved me. We were broke. He couldn't keep a job to save his life. I was a recent college dropout not qualified for much. And we made ourselves a surprise baby.

Abbi's bio-dad was passive in her upkeep and upbringing. Which there are worse ways to be a shit father but this is particularly problematic because I was the only member of the household willing and able to work. Abbi was an infant and her sperm donor was about as motivated as one. Both were exceedingly good at crying, demanding food, and taking a shit.

It was a lot to try to keep afloat, an infant, a job, a household, and a relationship I mistakenly thought worth keeping. It wasn't worth it. I figured it out. When Abbi was two I packed up all the stuff that would fit into our Toyota Echo and drove away. He didn't pursue. He didn't want me back. We divorced and my survival mode deepened.

Now I had to keep afloat a toddler, a job, a household, and a marriage's worth of trauma plus depression, anxiety, and massive self-worth issues all while living in what I lovingly dubbed The Roach Motel. (The apartments I could afford at the time were an old motel converted into a subpar apartment with a massive roach and ant infestation.) I learned how to navigate welfare and daycare vouchers while just trying keep our heads above water.

Every ounce of energy was spent on meeting Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs for my daughter and myself. Cleaning and organization? Pfft. Self-improvement and enrichment? I scoff. Emotional regulation? Sadly, not in those first years of her life. We were just.. surviving. Thriving, not so much.

With work, effort, and support from a few surprising places, I righted our little dinghy slowly. I was able to work myself off welfare, thanks to an unexpected promotion. My mom stepped up to provide childcare in the evenings so I was able to take on a second job which moved us out of The Roach Motel. I even got myself a little therapy to address the raging daddy & self-worth issues.

(Note: Address, not fix. Address. It's been like a decade since that point and those still aren't fixed. They just aren't as bad as they were then.) I immediately knew that dating was going to be an important part of stabilizing some shit. My mom hadn't dated, I'd lacked a father figure. It went poorly for me. I wanted different for my daughter. So I learned from my elders and just did the opposite.

I'm truncating a ton of steps but I met Jack Laithland. Fell in love. And found myself stable. Like stable stable. Like survival mode finally gave way to existence mode. The fight to just breathe and eat and keep a roof over our heads was not over but it was SIGNIFICANTLY easier. So it was time to address the rest of what I wasn't handling so well, not making my issues my daughter's problem.

In my book, I describe the exact moment in time that I realized I was teetering on a dangerous edge of motherhood. You'll have to read that in the book. But spoilers, there was a moment, a panic, a realization, and a shift to more responsive parenting. Basically, I flew off a handle, realized I was about to forever fuck up my own kid, and made some changes. I became what would later be called a gentle parent. (Now I don't even call it that but that's for another article.)


Okay, backstory done. Here's the meat you wanted. When I tell people I'm a gentle or responsive parenting convert I can see the thought process almost in real time.

"Oh, she decided to give greater attention to her child's emotional well-being and development as well as showing her how to function in the world. Once that decision was made, she never again spanked or lost her shit or belittled her daughter's feelings because she herself was wildly unregulated ever again. Neat."



That's not how that went down. I made an effort to put more conscious thought into how I was parenting. Not only what I was teaching her but what I was demonstrating with my own behavior. But that doesn't mean that old habits don't die hard. They sure fucking do. As with anything, this shit takes practice and effort and trying and learning from mistakes.

I absolutely continued to lose my shit and act like an absolute asshole because I was triggered or moody or overwhelmed. I lost the thread of intent and still doled out a few spankings. I'm not proud of this but it's the reality of shifting your entire style of parenting. It takes a lot of effort to learn better ways to handle things when one way had been your default since literal childhood.

The frequency fell and the gaps between grown-up temper tantrums increased the longer and harder I worked at it. I had to go BACK to therapy to tidy up some more of those daddy issues. But I did the work, I gave the effort and it got better. Not losing my shit got easier. Apologies after I did became second nature.

Abbi and I were able to form a bond beyond blood and mutual dependency. And it took work and patience and a few false starts. We had to build the foundations of the relationship a little later than some because I'd spent so many years flying by the seat of my pants. I was reacting instead of responding.

Vocab lesson:

Reactive Parenting: A thing happens and you react. Whatever action pops into your head, you do it because something needs to be done. Sometimes reactions are great and what was needed to address the behavior or emergency or situation. Sometimes there were other options but you didn't know them or didn't have the resources or control to choose them.

Responsive Parenting: A thing happens and you have several responses to choose from because you've invested the time in your own emotional maturity to be able to take a step back, assess, and respond. Sure, you might react from time to time, most especially in emergencies or when you're absolutely spent emotionally or physically. But for the most part, you can decide what response is best going to not just address the situation but pave the way for future similar scenarios to be less stressful.

That's the basic definition but it works for this article. Obviously, I wrote an entire book on responsive parenting so there's plenty more to be said but we'll move on.

Here's where the pancake thing comes back around. With all the effort and self-improvement and reconstruction of my relationship with my now-teenager, my past still haunts me. And it haunts me through Abbi's eyes.

Because Abbi wasn't my last child. She was my first pancake. She remembers how I used to be and sees how it could have been as she watches her younger siblings grow up with a completely different mom.

A few nights ago the family was having dinner and my youngest child finished. It was shower night and she was very excited to use her brand new Bluey soaps she'd gotten for Christmas. Eager to get to the hygienic portion of her evening, the girl child went to dart off to strip naked even though the rest of us were still finishing our meal. I told her to put her plate in the sink and wait just a moment so I could finish eating before helping her get the shower started.

Dramatically, and in a manner befitting children with my genes, she rolled her eyes so hard I could hear it. She forced every molecule of air out of her lungs with a deep, guttural sigh and groaned "Ugh. I don't want to." But, amid her little mini tantrum, she swiped her plate off the table and marched (literally stomp-marched) into the kitchen and put it in the sink. Choosing to pick my battles, I reasoned that she might have done it with an attitude but she did it.

Was that stellar parenting? I don't know. But the plate ended up where I wanted it and the child didn't break laws or transform into a raging hell beast doing it. I consider it a win.

Abbi saw something different. As the girl child was still huffing and puffing and making other sounds of impatience, Abbi commented "Psh, if I'd acted like that I'd have been in so much trouble."

Knife. Meet gut.

Because she was right. I'd have lost my head over the disrespect. I'd have probably yelled and demanded she respect me by being wildly disrespectful to her. I'd have picked apart every moment of the encounter and described all the reasons why she should not have acted like that. I'd have overreacted, to put it plainly.

Luckily, time, experience, and learning more about how and why five-year-olds are the way they are helped me meter my response. Not every moment has to be a teachable moment and I opted to skip the "respect for elders" chat in that encounter. That's not to say we don't work with her (and all our children) on her attitude on the regular. Being respectful, responsive, empathetic, and helpful are learned skills and as a parent, I have to help my kids learn it.

But that's the long game. That's the end zone. We are still on the twenty here. The other twenty. The one really far away from the end zone. I don't know why I tried a sports metaphor here. I can't tell if it's working. Moving on.

Abbi is watching the mom I'm capable of being parent her little siblings. There are eleven years between Abbi and the littles. That's eleven years of mom experience accrued between my eldest and my middle (and the youngest separated in age from her brother by only two minutes.)

And boy does my mom guilt and mom shame absolutely roil knowing that Abbi is watching the mom she didn't have. She could have. At least it appears that way. But she didn't. She got the reactive version. The survival mode version. The wasn't ready to be an adult much less a mom version of me. She got the mom who was still trying to figure out how hot the pan should be to not burn the pancake.

I got lucky. The edges got a little toasty and that flip was rough. But she is still a pancake. A good pancake. A little abstract perhaps but I personally think those are the best pancakes. Perfect pancakes are only good for Instagram. The good ones, the ones made with love, those aren't all evenly sized, the edges are a little uneven, and the color is inconsistent. But they are good. Really good.

Abbi and I have had several conversations about this. I've straight up apologized for those times when I could have chosen better but didn't. I've explained the times that what she got was all I had and while it might not have been enough, I gave it all anyway. We've discussed the best of the mistakes and the worst of the decisions.

And I'm not done parenting her. I'll be dead when I'm done and I mean that literally.

Abigail is my first pancake and I'm so proud of her wonky edges. I'm proud of myself for figuring it out without ruining her. I'm proud of both of us for embracing and allowing growth, as individuals and as a mother-daughter pair.

I'll continue to wrestle my mom guilt and shame every time she observes when I'm making better choices with her siblings than I was able to with her. I'll continue to provide context where I can and learn from her perspective as the pancake where she can share it.

It's not too late to shift to a more responsive version of parenting. Any change you make for the positive is worth the effort. And if you too have a first pancake that's a little bit of a mess because you didn't know what you were doing, that's okay. It's still gonna turn out a good pancake. I know because you're here. Not just here on the website but here at the very end of a very strained analogy for parenting. You read this whole article. Parents who don't care how the pancakes turn out don't do shit like that.



Claire Moore
Claire Moore

You made me cry. I am often a reactive parent and feel horrible when I am. But I do care and try to do better next time. Sometimes I even pass the baton to my husband and walk away before I explode. I think that’s growth. Still more work to do while I enjoy my wonky but brilliant pancakes.


I have a big gap between my big (now adult kids) and my still at home kids too. I would add that we are supposed to grow as human beans in 10 years. Even if we feel ok about how we built the first pancakes, we really should be better at the last ones. So I'm letting go of some guilt and shame around that, I invite you to too. Maybe even a reminder to the first pancake Yep, aren't we all glad we aren't who we were 5-10 years ago? The alternative is TERRIBLE.


D Donlan
D Donlan

A fantastic analogy. As the oldest child, 100% accurate. Can’t wait to build up my parenting tool box.

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