On Children

For as long as I can remember, being a good mother has always been the single most important goal of my life.

I did not have a good mother growing up.  In fact, I had a pretty terrible mother; she was in turns shockingly neglectful and viciously emotionally abusive, so it was practically a spiritual imperative that I would make my mothering experience as a counter to all the bad energy that my own mother poured into the world.  I wanted this for my own children, but I needed it for me.  Being a good mother is how I have been healing the very wounded child that I was.

I think, for the most part, I’ve done what I set out to do.  I have two wonderful daughters who are strong, loving, compassionate, decent human beings.  I have really amazing relationships with these girls, as well, which has been – and continues to be – both wholly satisfying and completely alien to me; until I was a teenager, I didn’t have a model of how mothers and daughters could co-exist in anything even approaching a warm, safe way.  I am loving having young adult daughters; our relationships are dynamic and meaningful and very often a lot of fun, and the ease with which I interact with my girls is an important part of my day-to-day.

That being said, I think I may be a bit of an aberration as a mother.  I am not – and never have been – the kind of mother who hovers or feels the need to be all up in my kids’ stuff all the time.  I have known, keenly and since the very beginning, that my primary job as a mother is to teach my children how to get along in the world without me – so much the better if they can do better than I did – and I knew that I couldn’t reach that goal if I did for them when they could do for themselves.

One of the stories I tell to illustrate this idea involves a pre-school aged Punk, a snowstorm, and pretty shoes.  I have always let the girls choose their own clothes, even when they were little-little.  We woke on the particular morning of which I speak to about 4 inches of new snow, and Miss Madam decided that today was the day she was going to wear a dress and pretty shoes to school.

I took her to the window and showed her the snow, then reminded her that choosing pretty shoes was going to result in chilly piggies and would complicate her outdoor time at school, but she had made up her mind about how she wanted to dress that day.  She knew the consequences of her choices and she was willing to live with them, and so was I.

I helped her pick her way through the puddles and drifts to get to school, kissed her goodbye, and went on with my morning. Pick-up, four hours later, was traditionally outside; parents came to the play yard, checked in with the teachers on outside duty, and collected their children.  As I rounded the corner to the gate, I saw Punk, looking quite pretty and feminine in her dress and pretty shoes, on the pavement talking with one of the teachers on duty.  She was clearly not distressed that she couldn’t be in the drifts digging forts and throwing snowballs; she was perfectly content where she was, doing what she was doing.

I unlatched the gate and made my way to my baby, passing a little knot of mothers who chatted together while waiting for their kids to finish whatever project they were working on in the yard.  As I got closer, I could make out the gist of what they were talking about, and it went something like “what kind of mother dresses her kid in Mary Janes and a dress on a day like today?”

I’m not one to meekly cower in the face of critics, and while I wouldn’t exactly characterize my response as “rounding on” the ladies, I did make it very plain that *I* was the kind of mother who ENCOURAGES her child make her OWN choices about what she chooses to wear.  I pointed out that my child was neither going to freeze nor miss out on some rare and important opportunity due to her clothing choices, and in fact that our morning had been entirely pleasant because, rather than fight about something as inconsequential as pretty shoes and force my will on my child, likely causing her to resent me and making our future interactions more difficult, we had a lovely breakfast together and she was complimented on how cute she looked by the teachers when she arrived in the morning, further bolstering her confidence and self-esteem, thankyouverymuch.

They had nothing to offer in response.

I’m telling you this story to tell you another one, because where I am a huge advocate of compassionate detachment with my children, my husband is not, at least, not about the girls and school.

Mr. Chili found out that, only a week or so into the school year (her senior year, it should be noted) Punk was already missing some assignments in class.  He sent me an all-caps text message expressing his outrage (and just general rage) about the situation, and that he wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.  I wasn’t home when it happened, but what I’ve been able to piece together from the fallout was that he came home that afternoon and DID round on the girls.  I gather he insisted that they be diligently working on their homework when he gets home, that he wants to see EVIDENCE of their doing the work, and that he’ll brook no more lackadaisical attitudes toward their scholarship.

What’s killing me is that he’s making THEIR behavior and attitude toward school about HIM.  He cannot see – and I cannot get him to understand – that the girls’ school performance has NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM.  It’s not a reflection of his capacity as a parent (he insists that it is), it doesn’t impact his life in any meaningful way (again, he says that it does), and it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with how the girls feel about him as their father (there’s the kicker; I think he’s tying their respect for him to their willingness to do their homework assignments, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how he’s doing that particular bit of emotional acrobatics).

What really gets me is that he doesn’t just want them to go through the motions, though that’s exactly what they’re going to do to satisfy his demands, and they’re going to resent the fuck out of him for it.  He wants them to CARE about their schoolwork.  He wants them to CARE about getting the grades and being good students.  I cannot get him to understand some very important things about this; first, that one cannot compel another’s passion.  He can no sooner make them care about something they don’t than he can make them like a flavor they despise.  Second, and this is something that he gets angry at me for pointing out (I AM a teacher, after all!) is that the system is NOT set up to inspire kids to WANT to participate.  There’s precious little that’s “fun” about school the way we do it; we don’t excite kids (in fact, we spend a lot of time, effort, money, and pharmaceuticals getting them to sit down and shut up).  We don’t encourage them to be curious or to dig into things that interest them.  We insist that all kids learn the same things in the same ways, and that they demonstrate the same levels of competence using the same metrics.  It’s fucking soul-sucking.  Really; it’s a wonder we can get the kids to willingly submit to it day in and day out.  Honestly?  I’m pleased the girls are doing as well as they are, given the circumstances; school the way we do it is not kind to thoughtful, creative minds.

I’m having lunch with my husband this afternoon, and I’m hoping to gently ease him back from this rampage he’s on.  It’s going to give him an ulcer, and the only thing he’s going to succeed at in this effort is making his kids hate him every afternoon for a couple of hours.  I’m not sure that I can get to the root of what this is about (it’s clearly something about HIM, but I don’t know a) if I can get to it or b) that he’ll be willing to look at it if I do), but I owe it to my kids to try.  What we’ve got going on now is untenable.

On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the 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.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.


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