Mother and Child, ca. 1911
“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” ~ Elizabeth Stone
In continuing my thoughts from yesterday about love, I have to consider the love that exists between parent and child. That all-encompassing tie that eventually becomes so lop-sided that the parent begins to believe that the child would exist just as happily alone. But not really.
This is life.
I remember when I was pregnant with Alexis, and I would count the days until it was time for her to be born. I would think about how different life would be with a child. I would wonder if I was ready for a child. Only now do I realize that one can never really be ready for a child, but that should not be a factor. I mean, there is readiness, anticipated readiness, total unreadiness. All of the stages. Yes, some people are more ready than others, but the readiness is defined differently for everyone.
For example, I remember when I was pregnant with Alexis, I was essentially the first woman in our division to become pregnant. In the year following my pregnancy, four women became pregnant. I suppose I took that step into responsible adulthood first, and the rest followed, or at least, that’s how it seemed. I do remember one woman in my division whose husband absolutely refused to consider the idea of pregnancy until they had $20,000 in the bank. This might seem like great preparation, but the reality is that it’s not. Yes, they had money in the bank, but they were not ready to be parents if they believed that money would prepare them.
We were not expecting to be pregnant, which means that we did not have $20,000 in the bank, or even $2,000. But once I became pregnant, I embraced the idea fully. I felt more at peace with myself, my body than at any other time in my life, and this happened with each pregnancy, as if I entered a period of near perfection in which all of my inner turmoil seeped from my body, all of my insecurities were overtaken by a sense of well-being that left me completely content.
“When you have brought up kids, there are memories you store directly in your tear ducts.” ~ Robert Brault
I know that some women say that they fell in love with their baby the minute the child was born, and I always used to think that this was a bunch of nonsense—loving someone you don’t know? Loving someone who has only been in your life for a matter of minutes? How is that possible? Now I know. It is possible to love your baby the minute you set eyes upon him or her. You know them as well as you know yourself. This is one big different between mothers and fathers. For many fathers, the newborn is more of an abstract person—someone who needs care and comfort, but not necessarily someone with a personality.
It is only later, years later, when your child begins to exhibit a sense of self that is completely separate from your identity that you suddenly begin to wonder if you know this person at all. Who are they, and where did they come from? This is certainly not the agreeable person who has clung to the bottom of your legs, pined for your presence, demanded more love than you ever thought possible.
And I believe that this is when the parenting gets really hard.
“The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” ~ Sloan Wilson
I cannot possibly talk about what it feels like to be a father, and I know that fatherhood is distinctly different from motherhood, for numerous reasons. But I can tell you that for me, being a mother means opening the heart to unbelievable pain: the first time your child cries, really cries from sadness, the first time your child feels the sting of not being chosen for a team, the first time your child endures the pangs of puppy love, the first time your child realizes that life really isn’t fair and that not all dreams come true, the first time your child’s heart is broken . . .
To be the onlooker of such things and not to have the power to wipe away the pain—that is what it means to feel helpless. Yet at the same time, motherhood brings as much joy as it does pain: the pride in the first school project, watching as the bicycle stays up and doesn’t fall, birthday parties, pushing swings, the first time your child reads you the story. Bliss. Unfortunately, we do not always take the time to relish the moments of pure joy until they are past. As with most things in life, parenting means spending a great deal of time looking backwards while trying to anticipate what may be coming next.
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” ~ Anne Frank
If I am coming across as more abstract than personal, it’s because my children are such complex mysteries to me, and they continue to be mysteries to me with each passing year. Yes, I know what Alexis’s favorite color is, and I know what kind of music Eamonn likes. I know how Brett likes to spend his time. I know what foods they like, what clothes they prefer, who their friends are, what their nicknames are, how much they like to sleep, and all of those things.
But are they happy? Are they lost? Do they wish that their lives were different? Are they disappointed in me? These are areas that children do not pursue for everyday conversation. Eamonn hates to be questioned about personal issues; he sees it as an infringement of his privacy, and in the last three years or so, I perceive a distance between us. Brett isn’t a talker, but he will seek me out to talk when he is upset. Alexis, being the oldest, opens up more to me than she did when she was the boys’ age. We talk about things that matter, important things. But in spite of that, I know that my daughter has an identity that is totally and completely separate from me.
This is perhaps the hardest part of parenting, one that books can only theorize about, and for which you can never truly be prepared. The little boy who ran to you when you came through the door at the end of the day grows into the young man who can go days without speaking to you. Nothing anyone says can ever make you ready for that point in time when it comes.
While this gradual separation of child from parent is normal and as much a part of parenting as changing diapers, it is probably one of the most difficult transitions to accept gracefully.
“When we choose to be parents, we accept another human being as part of ourselves, and a large part of our emotional selves will stay with that person as long as we live. From that time on, there will be another person on this earth whose orbit around us will affect us as surely as the moon affects the tides, and affect us in some ways more deeply than anyone else can. Our children are extensions of ourselves.” ~ Fred Rogers
Some people wonder if having more than one child divides your love. All I can say is that if you can love one child, you can love more than one child. I love each of my three children as the individuals that they are, and that love is different, but not more or less. I love my children more than I can express.
I hope that I have instilled in each of them a sense of morality, an idea of what it means to treat other people fairly and decently, a love of learning and exploration, and a respect for this world in which we live. I hope that I have given them the tools to become everything that they are capable of becoming. And I hope that I have not embarrassed them too much in front of their friends. But most of all, I hope that when they have children of their own, they will look back on the things that I have done and the words that I have said, and they will understand that everything I have ever done has come from that deep, endless well of love that I have for each of them.
This letting go part is hard, but as with all things, I will grow into it. I must have enough confidence in each of them to respect that they will come into their own. I’m still learning to handle the “seasons of my life, and as the song says, “children get older, and I’m getting older too.”
I want to close with this passage from Kahlil Gibran because I think that it sums up what I have been stumbling about, trying to say:
“Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth . . . “
More later. Peace.
The Dixie Chicks, “Landslide”