Despite all the texts about child development you read, proclamations you tell your friends about what you’ll never do, and test runs with other people’s children, you won’t know what kind of parent you’re going to be until you’re really in the thick of it. Until you are sitting with your child in a dance performance, and she’s talking through the whole thing, and people are twisting their heads at you like you’ve brought a baby dragon into the studio. Until your little darling, having just asked you for 15 things in a row, takes all of them and throws them on the ground, and they splash up and ruin the clothes they fought you to get dressed in. Until you really mess up, lose your patience, and regret it, tearfully, at the end of the day.
I am growing into parenthood, just as my daughter is growing into toddlerhood. Parents don’t just arrive, fully formed, just like children don’t come out of the womb asking calmly for a snack and a story. Since I am my own person, rather than some “style” of person, I rarely find articles about parenting particularly resonant with how I am raising Olive, especially since most of them advocate, loudly and with certainty, either the “French style” of parenting that seems to equate detachment with good behavior, or the hyper-involved “American style” (if there could ever be such a thing in such a diverse society) in which parents lose their minds cutting up grapes and negotiating playground politics for their children.
If there’s anything I’m realizing, it’s that “Olive’s childhood” is also my young adulthood. The idea that a child has a “childhood” that is all their own is a fallacy — what is happening in the child’s life in those years is directly related to what is happening in the lives of their family members. Sometimes I talk about my “own” childhood as if it were a fixed thing that happened to me, not a deeply interconnected web of memories and facts from several different people. I am recognizing that now, and it is redefining the way I’m thinking about development.
I have written before about the need for parents to live their own lives as fully as the one they are trying to shape for their children, and my belief in that was only solidified by reading this reasoned article by Madeline Levine in the New York Times: Raising Successful Children. She advocates letting children take their own risks, and find their way out of their struggles how they see fit, with as little intervention from the parents as possible. She challenges parents to own their anxiety and let kids work out their problems while staying warm, engaged, and non-shaming. Well, how does one do this? Levine concludes the article with this gem:
“Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.”
I want Olive to look at her parent’s lives and not see empty shells filled with T-ball practice schedules and perfunctory “Date Nights”, but two adults who are living their lives with passion, taking risks even if it means falling on our asses sometimes, and caring more about having connections with other humans than getting ahead. In order to do this, you have to sacrifice something, and I am choosing to let go of making sure my child does everything perfectly. The title of Levine’s article is a bit of a non sequitur, because the point that she is making is by trusting our children to be capable to meet challenges, rather than urging them to “be the best!”, they will become successful independently.
When I was a child, my father mercilessly taught me to attack my challenges head on. “Face your fear! Fear is your friend!”, he would growl, whenever I showed intimidation. I tried to hide my fears, but my father was impervious to bullshit, and over time, he discovered that I was afraid of the dark, dogs, and cemeteries. So you know what he had me do? I had to walk a dog (a wild mutt from the pound that we had just obtained for the very purpose of making me face my fear), at night, through a cemetery. I was seven years old, which my dad called “The Age of Reason”, so I should have been up to the task. I cried, I cajoled, I sat my bony butt down on the hard earth at the start of the cemetery, but with fear as my friend beside me, I sure as shit walked that dog through the graveyard, and, eventually, got over all three of those fears.
I am not advocating that parents today make their children jump off a diving board if they are scared of heights, or sing a solo in church if they despise being in the spotlight. Personally, I want to find a balance between the “sink or swim” attitude my dad had and the overparenting Levine condemns. Lest you imagine that I have this all figured out and am sitting here from a perfectly balanced parenting perch, judging any mom still wiping their 4-year-old’s bottom, don’t get it twisted. I am a continual work in progress, as is my child, and we’re figuring out the way forward together. I think a good way to do that is by keeping my own life interesting, working on my own internal demons, and letting Olive find creative solutions to her problems, being there to celebrate with her when she does.
So, why am I writing about this, when I profess to be less-than-inspired by parenting advice columns? Because I want us to do better. I want the parenting community of people who read articles like this to be less decisive, more comfortable with doubt, with the fact that we are all working it out as we go along, but trying to do it consciously, so we write, we read, we discuss with friends what it’s like to have another person’s life in our hands — how to help that life bloom rather than wither or be chopped off before it’s done putting down roots. And I want said parents, especially mothers, to feel okay about having their own lives, to live boldly with the knowledge that it is actually helping, not hurting their child to do so, as long as they don’t turn off their emotions towards their children in the process. We must be brave with our lives so our children can be brave with theirs, and that means taking risks, and allowing our kids to struggle in order to watch them fly.