Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why I Hate Walt Whitman and other parenting lessons I've learned

As Sylvia nears her 21st birthday and Riley starts college next month, I'm about to enter the next era of parenting. It will no longer be my responsibility to get them to school or feed them dinner anymore. Of course, being a mother never stops, but it certainly changes.

This feels like a good time to assess and to share what I have learned in these years. One of the earliest is why I hate Walt Whitman.

He (and others) depicted motherhood for us. Let's just start with the wrongness of that sentiment, shall we? One of the many "pale males" telling us what good motherhood looks like. We are to cradle our babies in a rocking chair, soothing, nurturing, with all the patience in the world.

Sure, I have memories that I will treasure forever of holding these girls in my arms. I also have memories of feeling like a failure because giving birth didn't automatically gift me with patience, or stop me from caring about my own life, career, wants, needs. Yet the messages that are instilled in us through portraits, poetry and commercials is one of that forever patient nurturer, with no thoughts or feelings of our own.

If you're a new mom, let me just tell you, it is okay to think about yourself. It is okay to want someone else to hold the child from time to time. It is okay to care for yourself.

Not only is it okay, it's good mothering.

Let's think long-term, shall we? What do we want for our children? Do we want them to be dependent upon us for the rest of their lives? Or do we want them to become independent, caring, productive individuals? Do we want them to pursue their dreams, or do we want them to always put someone else's needs before their own?

A child can't possibly learn to think for themselves, care for themselves and others, and explore all that the world has to offer if their mother (or father or other primary caregiver) never models that behavior for them.

As always, it's all about balance, of course. As a parent, you do have to make sure they're fed, bathed, housed, and yes, loved. But don't buy into the Walt Whitman model. Caring for yourself, and even caring for others besides your child, is the only way a child will learn how to be a whole human being.

Another harsh lesson: you will not be able to shield your child from being hurt, and unless you hurt them yourself, it will not be your fault.

I was watching a TV show where a woman was crying about her failure to protect her child. Now, of course, I also feel it when my child has been hurt. It sucks. It's never what we want. But our job in those moments is to help our child manage and get through their pain. If you believe that you're a failure because your child was hurt, you're not only delusional, you're welcoming self-hatred for no good reason. And when you practice self-hatred, guess what? You're also modeling self-hatred to your child. Stuff happens. To everybody.  We are not shaped by the hurt or failure, we are shaped by how we respond to it.

I also learned how to separate myself from their problems. I learned this from a book on sibling rivalry: what's their problem, what's my problem, and what's our problem? When it's their problem, I learned how to just become a sounding board. Maybe offer up some ideas, but still make it clear that it's up to them to find the solution. My problems meant I owned up to them. I could discuss it with them, make it a "teachable" moment, but they knew I was making the decision on how to move forward. Our problems were opportunities to collaborate and compromise. Of course, these didn't always result in win-win(-win) situations, but once we know how to move forward, if someone was feeling slighted, then that moved into "their problem" territory and my job was not to fix it, but to help them deal with their disappointment.

I became a better mother (and person) when I stopped giving a crap of what other people thought of my parenting. I had to do what worked for me and for us. I got better at it when I stopped reading parenting articles (like this one ;) and when I just went with what felt right. That doesn't mean I didn't continue to make mistakes. Of course, I did. But I took responsibility for them, explained why I made the decisions I did and then just kept going.

Listen, my kids aren't perfect and neither am I. Again, it's a one-way street to disappointment and failure if anyone thinks otherwise. But I do feel comfortable in my skin. And I do like my children. Not all the time, but enough to make the statement. We have lots of laughs together and I'm so excited for and proud of both of them. When something happens to either of them or me, we tell each other first. We are honest with each other, we fight with each other, and we fiercely love each other.

I tell our story not to brag or boast or tell another family how to live their lives, but to hopefully, bring some comfort and strength to any mother (or father or other primary caregiver) that doesn't think she fits the "mold" of motherhood. Smash the mold, find your voice, and you and your kids will be all right.