Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Mother I Never Intended to Be

There seems to be an ever widening margin between the parent I intended to be and the parent I am. As my oldest bears down on the end of his years at home, I am painfully aware of the many things I hoped I’d do and be as a parent but have yet to achieve.

I wanted to be much more gentle and patient. I was going to be the all-accepting parent who fed their dreams and defended their right to be whatever and whomever they wanted to be.

But then personal responsibilities overshadowed free-spirit. There are things a young person must do. Education, society, their health, and my sanity require it. It does matter what kind of grade comes home. As much as I want to bristle at the busy work and chafe at the unimaginative essay assignments, they must be done. Hoops must be gone through. Clothes don’t necessarily have to match but they should be clean. Same goes for hair, teeth, and fingernails. Sure, I’d rather have ice cream for dinner too, but no one can live on a diet of sugar. And while I love their very essence, sometimes I need a little space between their edges and mine.

I tried to explain to my distraught teen who had put off the summer assignments until the night before school started that no, it didn’t matter if either of us felt some of the work was silly, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t have to be done. I explained (badly and somewhat over emotionally) that this work had to be done so that the teacher knew my child was a serious student so that my child could be successful in his class. Then I laid out why it was important to do well in the class and in school for that matter – and here’s where the mother I never imagined I’d be regressed to saying, “so you don’t live in my basement all your life.”

I know my kids are smart. I know they will find their own way; I’m just not ready to stop offering directions. Sadly, it seems they are about finished listening to my directions.

The mother I never imagined I’d be also found herself shouting at a shouting child. That was never in the plan. And when the shouting child said, “You’re so annoying!” that same mother managed to ratchet back her anger, but still muttered (loud enough for the offending child to hear), “You’re more annoying.” Luckily my child took the high road and didn’t challenge me to a ridiculous tit-for-tat verbal battle of who is the most annoying.

I truly thought I’d be a mother who offered unconditional love, but I find myself always looking for what I can get in return for every favor. “Can I have so-and-so over for a sleepover?” “Sure, if you clean your room and vacuum the living room and promise me you’ll clean up after yourselves. Oh, and I need someone to feed the dogs, could you do that before you call?”

I envisioned myself as the kind of mom who kids would talk to, spilling their fears and tears as I gathered them in my lap. But when one child paced the kitchen complaining of hating school, having no friends, feeling stressed out (after one day of school), I could offer nothing but denial - “Already? It can’t be that bad. You have lots of friends!”

When they were little I always had a hand on them – holding, carrying, comforting. I don’t know when I stopped touching them. My youngest held my hand this summer as we walked down the road, only to drop it the moment strangers came into view. He’s too old for that now. I’m glad they are growing up, but it pains me that my children flinch now at my touch, no longer viewing it as comfort, only awkwardness. I want to wrap my arms around each of them, but that would cause them to worry that something terrible had happened. Why else would I be crossing the line of their personal space? I’m allowed over that line for two reasons – to say good-bye or greet them when I will be away on a trip or because something awful has just happened – like the bird died (nothing worse has happened to this crazy-lucky family). Sick children will let me feel their forehead and might even allow a back rub, but only in their altered state. This isn’t the mother I planned to be. I watch other parents wrap an arm around a shoulder or take a hand and I wonder what I did wrong to create these untouchable children. When did I stop touching them? I don’t remember the moment.

I remember the hours spent with toddlers bored out of my skull. Back then I thought, when these kids are older, I’ll play with them. We’ll play tag and hide-and-seek, have monopoly tournaments, go on hikes together, read books, and build sand castles. I’ll teach them to cook and ride horses and play the piano. I’ve tried valiantly to be that mother, but taking care of children and the home they live in can make it difficult to find time to play. I am busy. Always busy. I catch glimpses of my life on the other side of raising children, and I’m working hard to prepare for it. I want my career to be there when the dust settles. And so I ration the time I give my kids. That’s not what I had envisioned. I was going to be the mother who always had time for her children, but now I wonder if such a mother exists.

When I was a young adult, I worked with other people’s teenagers. I truly enjoyed them. They made me laugh and think and be a better person. But with my own teens, I am guarded. Is it appropriate to tell them a story about what I did when I was their age? Will they roll their eyes or will they see my bad behavior as permission to be even worse? Do they withhold the details of their hearts because they don’t trust me to simply listen? This mother I never planned to be tries much too hard to meddle. I try to squelch her, but she is insistent.

Because they are my children I can’t help but see myself in them and interpret their actions through my own warped lens. Just because they came from me and have been raised by me does not mean they think like me or value like me. Yet this mother I never intended to be keeps judging their behavior by her own past. I remember the sharp pain of being left out or the dull throbbing of doubt in my own abilities, friendships, and most of all attractiveness. This causes me to read these very same doubts into my children’s lives. I raised them to be confident in who they are and yet I see right past that confidence to my own lack of it at their age, holding my own teenaged self up against the lives they are leading thirty years later. I am unable to see them without my own shadow falling in their light.

As a teen I remember one parent of a dear friend whom I deemed “cool.” I thought that was the parent I would be if I ever had children. She was fun and beautiful and laughed all the time. But I’m not that mother and looking back from this vantage point I doubt she was either. I only saw the side she pulled out for company.

Maybe none of us are the mother we planned to be. Maybe that’s because you cannot prepare for this role. You have only your own life experience to fall back on. You can take classes and try to follow “behavior systems” and work hard to improve your listening skills. There’s value in all of that. But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more personal or instinctive than parenting. We are the parents our children raise us to be.

And so I keep trying to be the mother I want to be. I have only eight years left of children living in my house (as long as they keep doing their summer work…). Two thirds of my work of raising them is done. I think I do get better in some ways each year. The problem is the children I am raising keep growing too. Just when I figure out how to approach a thirteen year old, suddenly I have a high schooler on my hands.

More and more I am convinced that this is a joint effort. I’m always trying to do better and so are they. We all miss the mark plenty of days. Lucky for all of us, we’re family. We can’t quit on each other. That’s a comfort and a motivator.

No, I’m not the mother I planned to be. I’m the mother I am. But let me tell you, I’m going to be an awesome grandmother! 

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