Give me a parenting manual, and I'll throw it away

My daughter turned 17 thismorning. Seems as good a time as any to reflect back on all these years, especially as the bittersweet waves ebb and flow through me: she'll be gone in two months. This is it, I find myself thinking. I'm almost done…. How could it have only been five years ago that she was in Kindergarten, telling cashiers at the store her name was "FlowerRose?"  Six since she made sacrificial offerings to the elves and fairies of the backyard forest? Seven since I was able to hold her tiny, yielding body over my shoulder and cup her sweet little head with my cheek? Sure, there are many things I wish I could have known about parenthood beforehand -- the kind of truths a close and trusted friend might confide haltingly, not wanting to scare you.  I suppose I wouldn't have believed them anyway.... Even when I scoured books, looking for the back story, the unvarnished version of parenthood, I could only suss it out in bits and pieces. I longed for the magic manual, spelling it all out in advance. But surely, had I skipped over the surprises I discovered below, there would have been others. Plus, I would have missed out on the booty that challenges yield in retrospect -- where you're actually thankful for the hardships; the shimmering relief of uncovered simplicities, layered nevertheless in pain and struggle.

I'd be doing it mainly alone
Like most women, when I initially paired up with my now ex-partner, I had visions of a happy family that extended all the way to the eventual release of our baby birds from their nest -- us standing there together hand in hand, sighing as our little ones bravely flapped off into the sunset. Instead, this has been my reality: I've parented my children alone for the majority of their lives. Not what I'd had in mind, by any means.

On one level, this leaves me haunted by a subtle and pervasive sorrow, wondering as I do about my own weaknesses as a mother; longing for the support and emotional shorthand of a partner standing beside me; a cohort. On another level, at least I know I'm not alone -- all around me, I am surrounded by single parents. I'm glad for the consolation, but I still ache not only for my children, but all the children in this situation. Surely, most new parents embark upon their journey silently insisting (and truth be told, perhaps a little fearfully), OUR family will be different, WE'LL stay together. WE won't end up like all those other people.

Sadly, statistics do not bear this out. Many of them will be wrong. 

Still, would I still have signed up for this had I known that I'd be doing this mostly by myself? Yes. Absolutely and without question. Because I cannot, nor do I WANT to imagine life without my two wonderful and beloved daughters. However, I might have made some different choices in my marriage, regardless. I might have whined less about his dedication to work, I might have let myself be less subsumed by the tasks of mothering small children, and saved something more for my partnership, instead of leaving it the afterthought of cold leftovers. (We both did that to each other.) I admit, I still wish I could have headed off the dissolution of our marriage in theory even eight years later, but it's because I've seen firsthand the schism that divorce creates in children: the dual worlds; the internalizing of faulty, future relationship models; how much they end up missing one, or both, parents; the struggles to accept new partners into the equation. And this, coming from someone who feels incredibly lucky to have crafted close, working friendships with both my ex-husband and his wife, and is in a happy relationship myself.

The mirror is often unkind
I knew parenting would make me grow. How could it not? But I had no way to anticipate the grueling nature of some of that growth. When we imagine ourselves stretching and learning from life's inevitable tests, we often sugarcoat our willingness to turn and face our blind spots, our ability to break through our carefully-cultivated walls of denial. Denial is there because it's served us in some way! Why give that up? I had to take a good look at how my "sad stories" from childhood were in actuality only serving to keep me in a cocoon of self-pity and self-absorption and were, in fact, helping me to create the same exact "wounds" in my own children. I couldn't continue to be lazy about my issues. I couldn't just stay confused or fearful anymore. I had to figure this one out, even if I hadn't the slightest idea where to start. I had to learn how to thaw, how to surrender into the experience of being a mother and stop "waiting" until I felt at peace. Not a pretty realization, and initially, it was overwhelming. Ironically, seeing this ugliness inside eventually led me to where I wanted to be. And I'm endlessly grateful.

There's nothing to it
Ha! Who would have thought that motherhood could also be so damned easy! Isn't anything worth doing also worth slaving over? Turns out, I both under- and overestimated the amount of "work" parenting would be and was proven wrong time and time again by life. In the midst of a toddler tantrum; at the height of pre-teen/teen raging and outbursts, staggering from the arrows of hateful words slung my way - we'd unexpectedly find ourselves making a joke, cracking a smile, lurching forward for a hug. We'd diffuse the conflict, reaching out to each other with relief and sudden, unblocked momentum.

My children and I almost always, if not right after, then at some point, make sure to apologize and make amends. Maybe it's with a massage, a cup of tea, a hand on the shoulder, a small offering of some sort or another. No matter the state of things -- a messy house, looming stresses, whatever -- our family routinely finds great joy in simple playfulness, acts of kindness and generosity. Sometimes I find myself thinking, why all the anguish?  Piece of cake!  This makes my heart swell and helps me to feel that, if they at least take this lightness, this insistence on connection out there with them in life, everything else will be okay. 

I'm just not that into you
The older they got, the more I realized, it really was less about me, and more about them. It's all well and good to spend lots of time refining and implementing your ideas regarding discipline, structure, routine and consequences. But it can come as a rude surprise to bump up against this: you're still dealing with separate individuals who have their own life spirits and personalities. Sometimes you have to ask yourself  - at what point are you over-imposing your own will and preferences upon them in a way that has more to do with your ego, than what's best for them? I suppose this question is only natural to consider as your children assert themselves in adolescence, but it bears analysis during earlier childhood as well. How many of your "rules" for childrearing come from a place of fear? From lack at what you did or didn't have? From a place of not wanting to lose the power struggle? It's possible to "steer" and guide without domination, but it took me many years to understand that getting this didn't mean I was giving up something.

It goes by so very, very quickly
When your children are tiny and you're getting up for the seventh time that night, then have to suffer through the demands of taking care of an infant or toddler all day, it's easy to feel like the hours of your life have slowed to a crawl. You sleepwalk through your days, only to begin the whole cycle again at night. And when they're a bit older, there are colds and messes and stresses and all kinds of challenges that keep you up at night worrying, fretting, and wringing your hands. Some problems feel like they're NEVER going to get better. Plus, you secretly worry about under-living your own life -- the dreams and goals knitting scarves from dust bunnies under the bed; the hopes and wishes withering in the corner.  Sometimes it's only when you notice the absence of a problem that you later realize it's gone. Everything changes.

Life seems to speed up once they hit adolescence, especially when they seem to care more about branching out based on their own interests and impulses, and less about pleasing you. You realize with a start that they often forget about you! Try picturing that kind of behavior from your little five year-old darling!

The last three of four years in particular have whizzed with my children.  I can't believe my own child is about to set out on her own, out there in the world, without me checking up on her every day. I'm about to become more of a bystander, someone she simply touches base with. Part of me just cannot take this in -- too much has gone by in a compressed blur, I’m shocked at how fast it's all happened. I wish I had savored the moments more, even the difficult ones, instead of wishing them away. Someday too, your children will be gone and you'll miss them.

It ain't over 'til the very end!
I know intellectually that my job as a mother isn't finished once my children walk out that door. I'll always be wondering how they are -- if they're happy, feel good in their own skin, are living their lives with a sense of purpose, richness and meaning, surrounded by love. But since I haven't lived through an empty nest yet, I'll have to just figure it out as it happens, like so much of motherhood.

As we sat around the breakfast table this morning, we talked about what kind of people we wanted to be when we were older. My youngest daughter Madeleine, in typical fashion, was still sleepy and wasn't much for talking, so she just listened to Sophie and I meander in our conversation. Sophie wants to be a musician, a writer, a chronicler of experiences and adventures -- essentially, a wanderer, since our own family travels have inspired such a massive sense of wanderlust. I want to be an "old lady rower" who continues to plumb the depths of the world myself. It was weird imagining Sophie closer to my age (43), trying to get a sense of how her life might feel and unfold -- and also see myself moving closer to my own end, diminishing in strength, but hopefully, not vitality.

For all of us, I wish us a strong and healthy connections, rooted in love and compassion, caring and growth, exploration and discovery. Our story as a a family is at once uniquely personal, but also universal. Even if I'd had a manual spelling out all the astonishments above -- fundamentally, there's not much I would have changed, and that's deeply and surprisingly rewarding.

(This essay was inspired by the Blog Blast: Tell Us Your Truth About Motherhood challenge from the Parent Bloggers Network, examining what you wished you might have known before you had children.)

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

 

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