My kids both had birthdays this week. They’re now 19 and 16 years old respectively. The 19-year-old is a commuter student, living at home while attending college. Witnessing my kids enter their young adult years, I find myself thinking a lot about my parenting “career” and how reality has or hasn’t meshed with my expectations.
It seems I know many people with new babies and/or young children right now, too Because life goes on, I suppose. Hearing the conversations and concerns of these newer parents brings back so many memories and brings forward an insight. Please forgive me for clicheing here, but now that I have a longer view, I’m more aware of what it means to miss the forest for the trees.
I see these earnest discussions on-line, the same kinds in which I engaged back in the day, about things like whether it’s okay to use the words “good job” to encourage your kids. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. If you don’t use those words, or you do, it’s not going to make or break your child. If you love your kid and make them a priority and try your best, then you’ll pretty much do your best for them. It’s okay if you look at a drawing they made and say “Good job.” And it’s okay if you say, “I especially like the shade of blue you used for the sky.” And it’s okay if what you say is, “I love it.” And it’s okay if you say “You really worked hard on that.” What they care about is sharing their joy and accomplishment with you. You’re not going to give them a bad character by choosing one set of words over another. I wish I had spent less energy worrying about things like this over the years.
At least I’ve learned to stop clicking on links to articles that recount the ways in which well-meaning moms and dads (usually moms) are ruining their kids. Ruining them, I tell you. Because they help too much or too little with homework, or they praise too much or too little, or they’re too critical or too accepting of clothing choices. Which brings me to the next lesson I’ve learned as a parent. A million or more people are trying to make money by feeding into your desire to know how to do this sometimes bewildering job. Be selective about where you get advice. I’ve read a few things that helped me in a practical way and many things that were waste of the alphabet. In general, I’ve benefitted by reading accounts by other parents who admit they don’t have all the answers, who want to share the struggle and joy and what worked for them. I’ve found no benefit in articles and books that issue heavy-handed judgments for, I don’t know – spending a few minutes looking at your phone while you push your kid on a swing. I was going to mention specific books, but I think I’ll save that for a separate post.
I do have a few other gems to share, however, now that I’m an all-wise and knowing mom who has mostly raised her kids (ha!) The first being, that you never get to the point where you feel you have all the answers, or if you do, that’s when you get into real trouble. The life of a parent is a life of continual surprises. Here are a few more things, as they occur to me randomly:
*There is no finish line. When I was trying to decide whether to have kids, I’d think to myself “Well, it’s an 18-year commitment.” 19 years in, I laugh at young me. I see now my mom is 89 and still concerned about her children, still wanting to make sure we’re okay, still offering advice for treating that head cold.
*You get what you get. You can’t custom manufacture your children. They come into your life with personalities and characters and talents and struggles that are not of your choosing. A friend of mine once said she thought of it as tending a garden where someone else picked out the plants. A daisy is a daisy, a sunflower is a sunflower, and a bell pepper plant is a bell pepper plant. You can’t change one into another. What you can do is work on nurturing and creating conditions to allow your daisy to thrive as a daisy or your bell peppers to thrive as bell peppers.
*Keeping with the garden analogies, you can’t force a plant to grow by pulling on it. Again, you can nurture it and do your best to give it conditions in which it will grow and bloom. And that’s all. You can’t make your children reach developmental milestones on your schedule, or at all. Often, I found if I was having a real struggle teaching my kids something, the best tactic was wait and try again later. As a small example: my son didn’t learn to tie his shoes until he was seven. But then he learned in five minutes and I never had to show him again. Because he was ready. True story. In the meantime, I gave thanks for Velcro.
*Things will happen to your children over which you have no control. Sometimes these things will change the way you parent. A few years ago my son had a serious health crisis, involving major surgery and the need to keep him from being too active for several weeks. All of my carefully constructed policies about computer time went straight out the window. Also, because I had been so afraid he might die, I became much more indulgent in fulfilling my kids’ desires. It wasn’t a rational or planned response; it was pure emotion that made me say “Whatever they want, I’m going to get it for them if I can.” The pendulum swung back soon enough and I adopted a more balanced approach. But, boy howdy, did that event put my mind into focusing on the present, since the future is so uncertain. (He’s healthy now, by the way.)
*There’s nothing like seeing your child imitating your behavior to motivate you in breaking bad habits.
*Forgiveness is essential. Model it. Expect to need it.
*Don’t be too attached to your things. They’ll get broken or lost. One of my kids has broken a total of four windows over the years, each time in a new and creative way. One pulled the sliding door of a minivan right off its track, when we were already running late, and it was raining. People before things. Make it a mantra.
*Once you have a child, your comfort zone is a thing of the past. You will primarily reside outside of it. The upside is that you’ll experience a lot of personal growth. I’ve gone a long way in overcoming my own social anxiety because I’ve been forced in my role as mom to call strangers on the phone for various things, interact with teachers and other parents, and have awkward but necessary conversations. I’ve found myself in the principal’s office for the reasons you don’t want to be sitting there. I’ve reached out with invitations in ways I used to avoid for fear of rejection because I didn’t want to model fear-based relationships to my kids. I’ve found myself calling a woman I barely knew to tell her that her kid had pilfered Grandpa’s prescription pain pills after I found out about it accidentally. And you know what? I survived all of those things. I’ve discovered that discomfort is temporary and not fatal. And this discovery has helped me cope in other areas of life, including my paid work.
Despite my occasional fantasy of packing my car and driving away to find a studio apartment somewhere by myself, under an assumed name, I’d say motherhood has been good for me. It’s taught me a lot about life and generally made me a better person.