Now, I have lots and lots and lots of thoughts on parenting, and especially on parenting despite a ragged emotional inheritance, so please know that this is just the beginning of an unending river of thoughts over time. That’s a disclaimer, a promise, and a warning!
When I think about parenting, and specifically parenting as someone who was raised within a dysfunctional, codependent, and emotionally abusive household I think this:
I understand my mission. My mission is to ensure that the sickness stops with me. I want my children to know that they are loved and cherished, to believe wholly in themselves, know that they have a safe home base, be champions of their talents, and allow love and human connections to fill up their hearts and lives.
Sound about right?
Our fuel must be transformed into a positive force. I know that I will never do to my son what was done to me. I know it deeply. I have no doubts about what a great mother it turns out that I am. Who knew? And yet, oh, do I ever have fears. My fears are scary, and completely unrelated to reality. I have fears. Why? Like, why, if I’m confident in my mothering, would I have fears? Because, unfortunately, I know what people can do to kids, and not just kids we read about in the papers. I know what was done to me, to our pets, and I’ve experienced the lack of disrespect for childrens’ vulnerability and what the lack of interest in one’s children can do.
The mission not to repeat the past is powerful fuel. But, easily misunderstood, too. We must be careful to let go of what we don’t want to happen (“I don’t want to ____.”) and ensure that we transform that anger into a positive, inspiring mission: “I want to___.” There’s a simple but powerful distinction there: “I want” versus “I don’t want to…” (My lovely sister is going to write a piece about that don’t want/want concept for you guys soon!)
What I want is to conduct my life in such a way that my son can say, with all honesty, that his mother took a true interest in him, gave time and thought to doing her best (yes, that phrase) to help him thrive, and loved him in such a way that he never doubted that love. I also want to be happy in such a way that I live from happiness myself and in doing so exemplify for my son that one can enjoy life, people, create opportunity, make choices, change, enjoy one’s talents, and try hard for the sake of getting good at something and learning.
What kind of parent do you want to be?
It’s really easy to say what we don’t want to do — the key, and the challenge, is to articulate what we DO want to do, who we DO want to be. There’s such power there. And – why not take it one step further? Put that into the present tense: I am the kind of mother who takes an interest in my son, who shows by doing, who exemplifies that life is enjoyable, and that happiness is a choice, etc.
What kind of parent are you?
Do your work. If you haven’t processed your pain, you’ve got to; otherwise your pain will become transferred to your child or children, whether you like the idea of that or not – as that’s how unprocessed pain operates. Seek help ASAP if you haven’t done any kind of therapeutic process around your childhood, or enough of it.
You deserve all the benefits that come from healing and being good to yourself.
Only when we’ve learned to honor our inner voice, our needs, and know who we are, can we then champion ourselves and properly model all that for our children. It makes sense, right? The thing is, if we skip the work and don’t cultivate our Self, then we are very likely to unconsciously use our child to get all the reassurance that we didn’t get, we’re very likely to mistake our child for an extension of ourselves rather than an independent entity with his own ego, emotions, and life, and if we don’t work out our codependency issues, we’ll unconsciously engage in interactions with our children that have residual qualities of manipulation. Yikes! Who wants that?
Again, do the work.
One more thing – let me be clear: I mean this in a wholly practical way. It’s not a judgment. We all suffer from the deep-seated worst fear that we’ll somehow repeat our childhoods. You won’t! You won’t! Doing the work will provide you with a confidence, a confidence from within that’s totally new, and it will quiet your fears. You can become living proof that things can be much, much better.
Our sensitivity and anguish give us compassion. Our childhood anguish is just one helpful experience that’s actually going to help us prioritize our childrens’ needs — because we know what it feels like to be ignored, manipulated, and to long for a real parent to take the place of the phony one in front of us.
Our childhoods have made us more sensitive parents. (This assumes that we balance our sensitivity with good sense, that we don’t confuse childrens’ sadness with our inner child’s sadness and that we don’t over-compensate by neglecting to keep the balance between our own needs and theirs and overcompensating for our own long-ago losses!)
We inherited troubles, yes. But I know that we’re in a position to be more sensitive as parents because we got a raw deal. We understand how important it is to listen to our children, because we know how bad it feels to be ignored. We understand how important it is to give our children room to discover who they are, and to support their differences because we suffered from being expected to mirror our parents’ egos. We understand the essential nature of the gulf of love and respect that exists where we end and our children begin.
Our children may laugh despite our tears and cry despite our laughter. We grew up in families where the rule was, “I’m happy, so you start smiling.” We know how that felt. We know better.
An anniversary. Indulge me, because this is not uncoincidental: the anniversary of my mother’s death was yesterday. Nine years. I didn’t remember it. I didn’t remember it, despite an early morning phone call to my father, who mentioned that he’d just been thinking about her that morning, as if it were a coincidence (we very rarely discuss my mom). I’d called him to tell him something about a writing book I’d given him at Christmas, by a Minnesota writer, Brenda Ueland. He remarked that Ueland refers to William Blake a lot. Then he suddenly mentioned my mom, and added, “Kathy loved Blake.” She apparently admired him for being unconventional. Last night I read a Blake poem (from the collection I’d bought after reading Brenda Ueland a few years ago). I read the one poem that I could endure. I read while sitting in the bathroom, while my two-year-old son took a bath. It turns out that I’m not a fan of Blake’s work! I assumed I would be. Sitting there I also re-read an old postcard from my mom. For weeks I’d noticed the postcard sticking out amongst other papers in a drawer in a closet (her handwriting is like spotting blood–alarming, and I’d know it anywhere, no matter how shrouded. Most of my communication from her while I was growing up was through letters.)
I also called my sister yesterday, my mother’s only other child (I’m from my mother’s first marriage and my sister is from our mother’s third marriage). She and I don’t talk too often on the phone, and the three hour time difference between the east and west coast doesn’t help–which is all to say that actually connecting live on the phone is wonderful luck with us when it happens. Talking with her is always uplifting and her life and thoughts about it are always really interesting to hear about–I was energized by the call, and now thankful for it doubly because of the significant day on which it turns out to have occurred.
It wasn’t till this morning, while writing in a notebook and waiting for my commuter bus at 5:30 a.m., that I put the pieces together, very slowly: yesterday was the anniversary of our mother’s death. The clue was in the post card. In it, our mother mentioned not only that she’d bought cleaning supplies the day before as she was now responsible for cleaning her own apartment at the state-sponsored building in which she lived and that she’d won $18.00 at the slots down the street, but that she’d just mailed a birthday card to my sister, who was turning 18. She wrote, “18–wow!” Since the postcard was a USPS-issued card, there was no date on it–precisely the fact that got me wondering about the date. Once clue was the mention of my sister’s birthday, which is in February. If she was turning 18, then it was 2002. That means our mother died a month after sending the card. She died on March 3, 2002.
I didn’t remember that yesterday was the day, yet the universe seems to have done the remembering for me – the poem, the postcard, the call to my dad, to my sister, the two people who connect me to my mother. While my day-to-day routine got in the way of my getting what day it was, I certainly behaved as if I remembered the anniversary. Thank you, dear universe. I trust you.