“When you were little, you called me one day, upset,” my 94-year-old Grandfather said during a recent visit. “You said your mom was in the closet and wouldn’t come out and you didn’t know what to do.”
Grandpa’s memory is better than mine. I don’t remember much of my childhood, and I suspect I don’t want to. Not only was my dad gone all the time, but my mother has been mentally ill since her late adolescence. I’m almost 45 now, and I worked through all that shit in therapy and through my writing in my own late adolescence and early 20’s. I don’t feel angry, sad, resentful, any of that, anymore. I’ve worked hard enough in myself to know that the pain in our lives can result in our greatest strengths. Anyway.
I can say 2 things for certain about my childhood: I knew my mother, and I knew she loved me.
Because my mother leaned on me so heavily and involved me in her every dramatic emotion, I became very uncertain about where and how to draw boundary lines with my own children. My ex-husband, who grew up with authoritarian parents (who have, interestingly, turned sweet, even slightly indulgent, as grandparents), was hyper aware of my uncertainty. He firmly tried to corral me into some “healthy” distance from the children as they grew.
When he moved out 6 years ago, I had the opportunity to consciously design my parenting style without pressure or constant feedback. I came to the conclusion that I want my children to know me, not all of me, not everything, but plenty. I realize there have been times when my oldest knew too much (don’t we firstborns always?), especially during the divorce. I’m sure I’ve overshared and inadvertently burdened him.
Here’s the parenting belief to which I’m committed: if we want our children to seek us out, to trust us, to talk with us, we need to go first. We have to make ourselves vulnerable, share our (age-appropriate) stories and feelings, respect them, and apologize when we are out of line. You know, like you do with friends–or people you’d like as friends. If I go on a disastrous date, if I am able to do a new yoga posture, if I am reading a book that excites me, my kids hear it from me. If they have conflicts with friends, have a tough team practice, or have a new idea, I hear it from them.
If we want to really know our kids, we have to be willing to be known.
Had I not determinedly worked through the pain of my childhood and then of my marriage, I may very well have repeated a version of the pattern I grew up with. I didn’t feel safe, nor I did I feel respected or autonomous. Based on the evidence before me, which I am continually observing and assessing, my kids seem to feel safe, respected, and autonomous.
In no way do I claim to have parenting figured out. I’m doing what seems right from hour to hour, adhering as best I can to my own values and principles. I know my kids’ friends think I’m cool. And that’s not because I allow illegal or immoral things in my home. It’s because I am genuinely interested in their friends and share a little of myself with each of them.
I understand how I might sound to those who think the way to keep kids from sliding into serious trouble is with rules and a little good, old-fashioned fear of punishment.
My kids are at their dad’s house this week, and I heard from all 3 of them yesterday. My daughters actually called me on the phone to talk to me. My youngest, who is 12, called in the evening, when I was reading in bed. “Hi!” she said. “How was your day? What are you doing?”
I told her the highlights, which included the dog eating a stick of butter off the kitchen counter (“Gross! she exclaimed.) and the book I was reading that makes me laugh out loud.
“Cool!” she said brightly.