February 2, 2020
If you want to know who you are, have a kid or two. The point of this post is to say that if you are a parent still in the process of supporting your kid(s) into adulthood, or looking back at how it was, I suspect it hasn’t been easy. And you are not alone. We moms are better at sharing than we used to be, but we still have a long way to go. Because there’s something about being a mom that makes us think we should already know what we don’t know.
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, “No other doctor is going to touch me for anything to do with fertility, I give up!” Two months later, we were pregnant.
I had never felt as incompetent as I felt when my son was born. I was an older mom, 37, so all my friends had their kids long before me. Their kids were in middle school, and I didn’t want to bother them. My mom was in the city, working full time, so she wasn’t available. Besides, I was 37 years old — I should know what to do, right? I remember feeling profoundly alone.
I only had eight weeks of maternity leave before returning to work, and they 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.
I was exhausted. 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?
I couldn’t breastfeed because things got clogged up, so I felt like a failure in that area. I knew I was going to return to work and felt guilty. I was going to a new job as a Personnel Manager in an advertising agency.
Pre-pregnancy, I had left my previous position as a Director of Operations for a large sales promotion agency to return to school for my Masters. Two weeks after giving my notice, I found out I was pregnant. “Hmmm…can I go back to them and say I want to stay because I need the insurance coverage? Probably not.”
While waiting for the baby, a friend got me a clerk typist job at another advertising agency, and it turned out to be a pretty awesome hand up. I worked as a clerk typist throughout my pregnancy, and during that time, saw they were growing and needed a Personnel Manager. I talked them into giving me a shot at it after my son was born. They agreed. So, my first day back at work after leaving my son for the first time was as a Personnel Manager, not a clerk typist.
I had a new baby, a new job, raging hormones, and massive guilt about leaving my son with a stranger when I returned to work, and they all fed into 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 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 that they never totally went away. As he became more verbal and interesting, life handed us new challenges — bullying, school activities, sports, girls, grades, puberty, and life that revolved around how to get him where he needed to be while I was now a single mom, working full time, and going to school. I realized 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. I resorted to what I knew. New challenge? Find a book. New phase? Find a book. New mistake? There’s a book!
By the time he graduated from High School and had been accepted at The Citadel, a prestigious military college, we thought we had everything nailed down pretty tight. He went for a month-long orientation over the summer and came home with a whole new plan. He was going to enlist in the Marines. He didn’t want to wait until he graduated. My heart dropped to the floor.
The rubber hit the road. The last thing in the world a Buddhist mom would suggest as a career path for her son was for him to join 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 both 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.
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!”
I think life hands us the people, situations, and experiences that we need in order 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.
I think I played a role in shaping him, but I suspect that 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 do 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.
I want to close with the reality that 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.