Published 4/8/17 on Ohio.com
A friend only a few years into her adventures as a mom posted on my Facebook wall: “You need to write a parenting manual for me.”
I think about parenting a lot and have for a long time. So I quickly responded:
1. You will screw up but your kids will always give you a do-over.
2. Show up. Be present in heart and body whenever you can. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t.
3. Push your kids to be the best they can be and then support them in their efforts.
4. Read NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
5. Remember, nobody will ever know you as well as your kids do. Nor will anyone else love you as unconditionally. Remember this especially when they are acting ugly and/or mad at you.
6. Make your parenting decisions thinking about how your child will look back at age 20 and wish you’d parented.
7. Love them knowing it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.
8. Responsibility breeds contentment.
9. It’s not your job to make your kids happy. That’s their job.
Am I an expert? Hardly. I am like a research scientist who collects data and applies the findings in my own lab with plenty of trial and error. Still, the results have been largely successful, which is both a pleasure and a relief. Relief because children learn best from what has been modeled for them.
My parents met at a freshman-sophomore mixer at Chicago Teachers College in the mid-’60s. I was born the day after my mother turned 19. Being a teen when giving birth does not guarantee poor parenting, but in my case, neither of my biological parents ever committed themselves to the task. (And if this sounds petulant, let me be clear: their neglect was far and away better than their attention, which was often violent in word and deed.)
For my mother, I was an inconvenience she would hand off to others frequently but never permanently, because that would make her look, well, like a bad mother.
Luckily they were not the only adults in my life. Even though years of my childhood passed without seeing them, my father’s mother and his second wife immediately and always claimed me. Neither was perfect (who is? see point 1), but my grandmother loved me like the daughter she never had, which is to say unconditionally, no matter what I did (oh, the list is long).
And my stepmother, who divorced my father in the early ’90s, and her husband are the grandparents my three big boys grew up with and adore (see point 2). None of us can recall when they realized Grandma and Gramps, married 22 years this month, are not biologically related to us.
Parenting is work just about anyone can get. But parenting well is a humbling exercise in leadership (see points 6 and 9) that can never be completely mastered. For each day is the first day of having a family the way it is. And while that may be hard to observe every 24 hours, compare years and it becomes clear:
Until this year, I had never had a child with a college degree who was earnestly, if not anxiously, trying to course his adult life.
Until two years ago, I had not realized my recipe for college acceptance and funding did not apply to my second son the way it had for my first son and me (study your butt off in all subjects and it will work out). My second son works hard at one thing: music (see point 3). He is also far more talented than either he or I knew when he began auditioning for schools.
Until months after his second birthday, my third son did not talk. He remains a quiet observer, which is how he has amassed a stunning amount of knowledge on all inhabitants of the planet Earth for one so young (16). In this house of creatives, I did not anticipate a biologist, particularly one who, like a tenured professor, can calmly give presentations to large groups of people.
Until my fourth son was a toddler, I had never experienced a child of mine being a daddy’s boy. The first three were barnacled to me when they were little, but then again, they did not have Max until they were older.
And until my daughter came into my life, I did not know I could love a child so hard I would try to use all my skills, and develop new ones, to change the world for her.
The pain of being an unwanted child bleeds like a wound that looks healed over until you pick at the scar. How I might have turned out had my parents wanted me, I cannot know. But it is from this wound that I chose to study parenting even before I knew I would have children of my own. And parenting my children with intention has cauterized, for the most part, my injuries (see points 5 and 7).