Thursday, July 25, 2013

"I gave you life so that you could live it. . ."

Motherhood. A fearsome and loaded word. A life choice not to be entered into lightly, and yet, we do. Rarely does a person consider the ramifications of begetting children, until those children are already under production, well on their way to becoming little people capable of creating chaos and wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting folks who unwittingly invited them into their lives. And then we fall in love with them, and their domination is complete.

I recall staring into the face of my newly-born first child. A beautiful little girl, who looked as if she'd dropped into my arms straight from heaven. I couldn't imagine, as I gazed lovingly into her eyes, that I'd ever find occasion to raise my voice in frustration, or, heaven forbid, yell at her. I would, I vowed, always treat her with love and respect, remembering this moment when she looked so innocent and adorable. It took three weeks. Three long, tortuous, sleep-deprived weeks. She wasn't innocent, and she certainly wasn't adorable. She was a she-devil, come to punish me for enjoying sex.

As she grew, it became ever more apparent that her goal in life was to thwart my every attempt at happiness. Okay, not entirely true. But the child did seem intent on breaking me down and stomping on my soul. From dumping out an entire bottle of maple syrup on the floor of the pantry, to flinging honey all over the kitchen with a butterknife (thus ruining the blinds and carpet), to decorating the baby's room with permanent black magic marker (including the baby sitting quietly in the crib watching), to drawing artful murals on the walls complete with captions, to adorning my bathroom walls with feminine pads and toothpaste, to taking scissors to my carefully crafted dried flower arrangement. All before the age of three. She tried my patience, and found me wanting. Sigh. Had we had any idea of what was in store for us, she would have been first and last. Fortunately for us, we had already put in our order for a second. Then a third, and a fourth. None of whom ever tested our patience like number one did.

I adored this kid. I mean I really, truly adored her. She was so funny, and so smart. And always a step or two ahead of me. I still adore the adult she became, who is still funny and smart, but I wasn't always sure the kid would make it to become the adult. And I wasn't always sure that I would survive those years with my sanity intact. They say insanity is hereditary; you get it from  your kids. And she did make me crazy.

The elementary school years proved to be even more challenging than the terrible two's, three's, and four's, just in different ways. This child struggled academically and socially. Not because she wasn't smart, but because she saw the world in her own diverse and original way, and her style of learning didn't fit well with the style of teaching public school had to offer. We were fortunate to find a teacher in second grade who recognized our daughter's unique gifts, and she helped her learn to use them in ways that propelled her ahead. By third grade, she was reading on a high school level. But by fifth grade, her social skills still lagged, and she couldn't seem to find a way to fit in with her peers. That year was a tough one. The other girls were trying out their teenage personas, experimenting with make-up and gossiping about boys. My daughter was not interested in either activity. She loved horses and science fiction. And her insistence on being uniquely herself manifested itself in ways that led to some pretty intense shunning.

That year was tough on both of us. As a room mom, I attended each class party, and was privy to the bullying that went on. The girls didn't even attempt to hide it from me, her mother. As a kid, I'd always been part of the 'in' groups, so I struggled to understand why she couldn't just fit in. But, she stood out, and not in ways that brought admiration from her peers. For example, her much older aunt had given her a turquoise, floor-length, down coat, that was at least 2 sizes too big. She insisted on wearing it to school, and came home in tears. The kids had made fun of her, as I'd known they would, and she was not just hurt, she was angry. I gently suggested that the coat be put away until she grew into it, to which she replied, "It's my coat! I'll wear it if I want!" I couldn't persuade her to reconsider, even with the memory of the kid's mocking fresh in her ears. She wasn't about to be bullied into giving up what was, to her, a precious gift from her aunt.

And then there was the braid. She got her hair cut early in the school year, a cute chin-length bob, but wanted to leave a small strand of hair at the temple long enough to braid. I figured the kids at school would relentlessly tease her about it (which they did, calling her "Obi Wan Kenobi"), and she'd cut it. Nope. She came home in tears, again, but angrily insisted that it was her hair, and she'd wear it any way she pleased! I so admired this kid's chutzpah, and wished I had some, but I also ached that her elementary school years were being spent as an outcast. And I felt helpless to change that for her. I was her mom, but I couldn't fix this. I couldn't change her into someone more acceptable to her peers. And yes, I wanted to. As much as I admired her strength and courage, I wanted her to be more like me, and at least attempt to conform. I'm not proud to admit that, but there it is.

Toward the end of the school year, I had an experience that forever changed me as a mom. I had been consumed with anxiety over my daughter's inability to make friends. I worried about her incessantly, lying awake at night thinking of ways to help her fit in, strategies to increase her social capital. It killed me to see her spending her time alone, and lonely. I have always been an extrovert, a social butterfly, and I couldn't understand how I ended up with a daughter who seemed to be the exact opposite of me. And while I'd like to say that my anxiety was solely related to her unhappiness, I have to admit that my ego recoiled at the idea that my child was the kid nobody liked.

With these thoughts weighing heavily on my mind, I had a rare moment alone in the car one day. As I drove along, I took the opportunity to talk to God. Those were my best prayers, back in the day, just chatting with him as if he rode beside me. I don't interpret the experience the same way today as I did back then, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. Anyway, my overwhelming thought that day was, "God, you screwed this one up. I'm not the right mom for this kid. I can't do this." And what I heard in my head was a gentle chuckle, and the thought that maybe I was the one getting it wrong. I was worrying about all the wrong things, and wasting precious time agonizing over that which I could not control. My job as a mother was actually much more simple than I was making it: love her, set a good example for her, and let her have her journey, whatever that was. That was it. I could let the rest go, trusting that she, herself, would figure this out. What a relief! The anxiety, the worry, the sleepless nights were all superfluous, unnecessary. It was truly a lightbulb moment for me, the moment when I stopped trying to save her, and learned to just love her.

I'd like to say that all my parenting woes were fixed that day, and I never experienced another moment of worry over one of my children. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I have had many moments when I've wondered what the hell I was thinking, why I thought that I was capable of raising these children adequately before unleashing them onto a world unprepared for their level of crazy. In fact, the idea that I could end up parenting for all eternity was one of the factors that sent me screaming from the church. No thanks. I have zero interest in populating worlds without end, and watching from afar as they screwed up both themselves, and the planet we spent six long days creating just for them. Nope. That kind of eternity is not for me.

But, back to parenting on this planet, the one we call Earth. I think sometimes we make it too hard. We agonize over things we cannot control. Which pretty much includes anything and everything. I may have invited these children here, to be part of the family hubby and I created, but what happens next is on them. The journey is theirs, to be enjoyed or not. I have to give them the opportunity to create something that makes sense to them, that looks like them, and feels authentic to them. Just as my parents have done for me. My parents may have wished it was otherwise, and that their offspring had chosen the path leading back to their god, but they have recognized the futility of forcing that choice on us. And they have given me the room to be myself, to think for myself, to believe differently than they do. Which has done more to preserve our relationship than attempting to push their agenda on me could have. I'm just trying to pass that legacy on to the next generation.

So, what have I learned about parenting? That my kid's choices do not define me. Their failures do not define me. Their successes do not define me. They are not extensions of me, put here to fulfill my hopes and dreams. And that has been the most freeing realization of my life. I can love them, set a good example for them (or at least, attempt to), and let them go. Whatever happens to them in this life will be because of who they are, and what they do, and has relatively little to do with me. I gave them life, now they have to go live it. (Brownie points for anyone who gets the movie reference!)