I have a friend who frequently says, when something has gone wrong while parenting one of her three kids, “They took away my Mother of the Year award today.”
I guffaw every time. I must lose my “Mom of the Year” award about … oh, nine times daily? Okay, maybe only five times daily. But since I only win it back twice a day, then any way you count, I’m not gonna get that shiny special certified-blue-ribbon-and-gold-engraved-plaque-with-my-name-on-it recognition. (Does anyone actually give out such an award? Hah.)
At least from a child’s perspective, fairly often, our “Parent of the Year” awards ought to be rescinded. Whether you’re wrestling with a toddler in a public place and trying to keep your cool while you listen to “No-no-no!” or try not to throw up your hands in total exasperation when a teen shouts for the umpteenth time that “It’s just not fair! You don’t understand! You ruined my life!” … you’re in a tough no-win situation. As parents, we are often perceived by our children as imposing unjust rules, expectations, duties and standards.
In the end, we are the buffer between our children and the world. And sometimes that means we’re incredibly tender and gentle with them, when no one else would be. And other times, it means we’re tougher on our own offspring than any military officer or high court judge would dare to be.
Meanwhile, I’m sure you’ve been told that everyone else’s mom or dad does “it” differently. Better. Or even worse … better-er-er.
And who will remind you … except a very patient spouse or partner (if you have one), your girlfriends, or yourself (yes, you talking to yourself) … remind you that your own child’s view is a little biased? In this example, tipping toward the negative side. Who will remind you that maybe there’s another frame of reference, a different viewpoint, or an alternative interpretation that actually validates your worth and judgment? (Just give it five minutes, the mood and opinion will swing in the other direction anyway.)
By now, you know that I’ve lost one child to cancer. So yes, I cherish the opportunity to watch my eldest daughter grow up. But we have plenty of differences, skirmishes and challenges as she matures into an independent woman, and I remain a … mom. We’re the same as every other family. Nothing idyllic here, just real and messy.
Now let’s be fair. Sometimes we share good stuff. For instance, I hear treasured words such as “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “I love you.” “Can you help me?” “I’m so lucky to be in this family; I wouldn’t trade it.”
Sometimes she lets me into her life. And we occasionally have crazy fun together. Just yesterday we spent the day in Boston, after filing her application for a student visa at the Greek consulate. We did things she hasn’t experienced since she was much younger, such as eating Italian ices, riding on the swan boats and wading in the Frog Pond.
Yet these good moments between us continue to seem … more rare than I might wish. Each one is placed like a deposit into my emotional mothering bank account.
Right? Mothers (and fathers) save up positive interactions with daughters and sons. We stockpile them, as one of my girlriends (aka, mom-friends) phrased it. Then we withdraw those memories of good moments again during the difficult interludes (arguments, silences, slammed doors, disappearances, misbehaviors, rolled eyes and all the rest).
Several weeks ago, one of my girlfriends leaned on the kitchen counter and sighed, “Isn’t it sad that we’re grateful every time they show affection? That we hoard these moments, because we need to know they can happen?”
Whether our children are aged three months, three years, or only three months away from legal adulthood … our offspring can be both our biggest fans and also our fiercest critics. Additionally, while they may be unimaginable blessings in our lives, they also represent some of the most challenging relationships we’ll ever know.
We, mothers and fathers, need our collection of good times to offset the hard ones.
Because we – moms in particular, I think – will often be the targets of their wrath or sorrow. In the eyes of our children, we are the “bad guys” — the instigators — the source of much of the unfairness and injustice and petty cruelties in their personal worlds. They have such deep, unfiltered connections to us … such bonds of love and kinship and every other possible emotion … that we’re also the most likely, the most easy target for any troubled moods they might be experiencing.
Of course, as a mom or dad, you don’t set out to ruin your kid’s life. Far from it. You think you’re being supportive.
Do the tally. Meals you prepare. Laundry you wash and dry. Clean-ups you do. Rides you give. Errands you run. Money you loan. Appointments you schedule. Forms you fill out. Games and performances you attend. Negotiations, talks and interventions you undertake.
Or the softer, more emotionally-intimate interactions, which are harder for some families to achieve. Sitting down at the table together. Asking about a child’s day. Listening. Playing a game together. Engaging in an activity such as a book or a workout. Sharing rides and talking in the car. Working on a family calendar and making plans for time together. Maybe daring to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder or draw him into a hug.
Every one of these logistical or content-rich items is an act of love. Each one demonstrates the tangible value of your love for your child in time, energy, focus, commitment and love.
This is your parental love in action. Every day. All day. All week. All month. All year. Every year. From the moment of conception until right this very second.
It all adds up to a whole lot of love.
Unfortunately your child doesn’t measure the same way you do. She’s got her own frame of reference.
Your child is tuned to a whole different range of messages. What you do and say, and what she sees and hears, are very different. She listens for tone of voice. Watches for facial expressions. Body language. Perhaps you believe your words and actions convey affirmation, affection and assurance. Or you think they do. Your child detects something else: frustration, criticism, doubt, worry, disappointment, anger.
Due to the many traumas that have shaped our family, we have worked individually, or in parent-child combinations, and sometimes as a family, with counselors. Before and after Jessie was alive … we worked on these issues.
The professional wisdom that I have received has been specific to girls, not boys, since I raised daughters, not sons, but some may be universally applicable. A few counselors have stated such tidbits as:
- If your child cares what you think, and engages in fights with you, you’re actually in good shape. It means she (or he, since I assume it could apply to both genders) feels bonded with you, and she’s invested in the relationship. She’s trying to connect, albeit in a tough way.
- When she stops caring about anything you do or say, that’s when you should worry.
- It’s okay to express your own emotions. Within reason. It’s instructive for your child to know you have limits. That you can, in fact, be hurt by her words. That you expect to be treated with respect. That you have boundaries, and if she crosses them, you might lose your temper and raise your voice.
- Listen, listen, listen.
You are, shockingly, human! Where you love, it’s difficult not to be open to pain, too. You can easily inflict damage. You can be bruised in return.
There’s a balancing act. Yes, sometimes being a mom or dad is really rewarding. I can see more and more of the adult our daughter is becoming; I like and admire a lot about who she is, as she grows up.
Other times, we’re both one big knot of hurt. She’s in pain. I can’t seem to “get it right.” We both feel broken inside.
In such times, I ache down to the marrow and deep into the gut. I’m exhausted. Tapped out.
I’ll bet it’s familiar to other parents, too. Sometimes you want to quit this job. Except there’s no “exit” clause. (Sure, some people have chosen to bow out and disappear anyway … but that’s another topic … and I have been humbled when I dared to have an opinion about such situations, because I cannot be inside someone else’s head or heart, and know what decision is best for anyone else to make regarding their own relationship with their child … what each adult is capable of giving, or losing, or if, indeed the greatest act of love is sometimes to walk away.)
In general, for parents who stay in a familial relationship with children for the long haul, and put in the time to be connected to your offpsring, you hit bottom sometimes. Your can’t seem to connect with your daughter or son. Perhaps for reasons outside anyone’s control.
Whatever the cause, that’s when you may feel as if you just withdrew the very last penny out of your emotional parenting savings-account. We are all, at times, virtually bankrupted (emotionally, if not literally) by the complex and challenging experiences that are still so frequently part of our lives as parents.
That’s when you need a good laugh. A deep breath. And someone to tell you that you’re a good mom. Or a good dad. Assure you that what you’re investing in your child is worth every grey hair and wrinkle, heartache and clenched fist, bitten lip and worn-out pair of soles. Believe that someday she’ll realize it. Or he’ll acknowledge it. Someday.
Who cares if your kid takes away the “Parent of the Year” award that they nominated you for about 12 minutes earlier? You don’t need a medal or a pin or a plaque. That’s not why we do it, right?
But hey, it helps to know that someone believes in you, when you’re in the middle of second-guessing yourself for the gazillionth time, and there’s no voice of reason to tell you differently.
That’s what today is for. I’m putting a deposit back in your parental savings account. Today, I’m going to assure you, “You are the best at raising your child. You are a specialist. No one else can do it better. You are a good mom. You are a good dad.”
Really, you are. (So am I.)