February 2, 2020
If you want to know who you are, have a child or two.
I suspect that if you are a parent still in the process of supporting your children into adulthood or looking back at how it was, it hasn’t been easy. And you are not alone. We parents are better at sharing than we used to be. But we still have a long way to go. Because there’s something about that role that makes us think we should already know what we don’t know.
In some ways, it’s even harder for moms to share the hard stuff, because there’s something about that title that makes us think we should already know what we don’t know.
In the Beginning
He was a miracle child. We had been trying to have a baby for a long time, working with doctors, until I threw up my hands and said, “I quit! I will never see another fertility doctor again!” Two months later, we were pregnant.
I had never felt as incompetent as when, at thirty-seven, my son was born. All my friends had their kids long before me. I didn’t want to bother them. My mom was in the city, working full time, so she wasn’t available. Besides, I was thirty-seven–I should know what to do, right? What stands out to me is how profoundly alone I felt.
Eight weeks of maternity leave may have been the longest eight weeks of my life. Again, I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes my son’s dad would come home from work and find us both on the bed, wailing. Nothing was wrong. And everything was.
Exhaustion was a new companion. Regular showers, alone time, structure, or any degree of predictability were a distant memory. Relaxing weekends, romantic dinners, stimulating conversation, and waking up refreshed after a great night’s sleep —all gone!
What had we done? And who was this cranky, weepy, selfish woman inhabiting my body?
Breastfeeding was a disaster because things got clogged up, so I felt like a failure in that area. And knowing I was going to return to work, a new job, created massive guilt.
New baby, new job, raging hormones, and guilt about leaving my son with some stranger when I returned to work. All of it fed my insecurities. The great news is that the stranger turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. She was a stay-at-home mom with a new daughter who was my son’s age. Over the next two years, my son and her daughter became best friends. I trusted that mom like I trusted my own mother. She was a Godsend. My son loved her. And then she moved away. Klunk!
The Middle Years
The next two years were a nightmare of trying out new daycare options. I won’t go into detail because I think I still have some PTSD, and guilt, from the experience. My son says he doesn’t remember, and he seems okay. But until we found a Montessori preschool, I was a wreck.
So for the first few years, my primary learnings were that I could persevere, that I’m not a quitter, and thank God for small favors, I’m capable of great love. Best of all, I learned that children are resilient and forgiving of our limitations.
Fast forward to elementary and middle school. My son became more insightful and challenging and intellectually stimulating than some of my adult friends.
Feelings of incompetence were tamped down through practice and experience. But the truth is they never totally went away. As he became more verbal and interesting, life handed us new challenges — bullying, school activities, sports, girls, grades, puberty. My life’s focus became how to get him where he needed to be while juggling being a single mom, working full time, and going to school.
I realized early on that he would outpace me if I didn’t do something to stay ahead of him. So, I raised him through Bibliotherapy. You know, books!
I had parents who were terrific in some ways and limited in others. But I didn’t end up with a workable parenting model. So I resorted to what I knew. New challenge? Grab a book. Another phase? Find a book. Yet another mistake? There’s a book!
By the time he graduated from high school and had been accepted at The Citadel, a military college, we thought we had everything nailed down pretty tight. After a month-long orientation over the summer, he came home with a whole new plan. He was going to enlist in the Marines–he didn’t want to wait until he graduated. Klunk!
The rubber hit the road. As a Buddhist mom, the last thing in the world I would have suggested as a career path for my son was the military. But that’s where his heart took him. He wanted to experience being a leader and turns out he’s good at it. His dad and I got out of the way and supported him in doing what felt right to him. We learned patience, acceptance, and humility from this one. If we ever wanted a sign that we are not in charge, this was it.
My son is still a Marine, and he’s doing great, as is his wife, and their two brilliant girls who are just as awesome and challenging as their parents were.
We Shaped Each Other
Through raising a child from infancy to adulthood, I saw the best and the worst of myself. I was lucky that I understood the importance of being clear about values, because they are what held things together when my smaller self just wanted to stamp her feet and say, “I quit! It’s too hard!”
Life hands us the people, situations, and experiences we need to see ourselves. We can choose to take advantage of what shows up, or not. I don’t think I’d have become as familiar with my shadow side without my son. The parts of me that can be petty, selfish, greedy, and thoughtless were pretty deeply tucked away. He was what I needed. We grew up together.
Yes, I played a role in shaping him. But I suspect the role he played in shaping me is something that will keep unfolding. Seeing my shadow side, owning the parts of me that I find less than attractive, has made me a better therapist, and I think a more compassionate human being. I haven’t overcome my limitations, but I think I act out of them less because of my son.
One of our interactions stands out to me. He was around fourteen, mouthing off a bit, and I turned to him and said, “I want you to speak to me with respect.” And his response was, “When you talk to me that way, I will.” Here’s the bite. He was right. I had been complaining and demanding. It must have been a good day when my head was on straight because I stepped back and said, “Bucko, you’re right, that’s on me. I’ll work on it.” And I have.
Being the best parent we can be is hard. And every one of us wants to be that. So, if and when you’re having a hard time, reach out, read everything you can get your hands on, and give yourself a break. You can’t know what you don’t know before you know it.