When we mothers and fathers are living in those those early, honeymoon years of parenting – that time in our lives when our children are still babies, or young children – our optimism for the futures that lie ahead for our obviously exceptional offspring is generally shimmering and boundless .
In those first years of this lifelong undertaking called parenthood, we look over at our own four year old daughter, happily drawing pictures of hearts and flowers at the dining room table, or we watch our six year old son carefully creating yet another brilliant Lego masterpiece on the floor, and we simply cannot conceive of any way in which that child – the one we’re looking at right in front of us- could become one of those teenagers – you know, the kind of adolescent who would become mixed up with drugs, or drop out of school, or run away.
Early on, we worry about other scary things that could happen to our children – things like cancer and car wrecks and kidnapping and lightning on the soccer field…the things that are essentially beyond our control. These are the terrifying things that give parents nightmares. But no parent I’ve ever met looks at her five year old daughter playing with her princess dollhouse and thinks to herself, “I pray she never becomes a 16 year old heroin addict willing to do anything to get drugs.” And we don’t generally watch our eight year old son play in his Little League game and wonder whether he might end up in prison at age 20.
It’s very simple, we tell ourselves when our children are little – at a time when our power as parents to direct and protect pretty much every aspect of their lives imbues us with a false bravado:
Good parents end up with good teenagers and successful adult children
Bad parents end up with bad teenagers, and unsuccessful adult children.
Right? Isn’t that how it goes? That’s what I thought, anyway.
(Kind of like how before we became parents at all, we believed that only permissive and ineffective parents end up with three year olds who throw screaming, flailing tantrums in the Target check-out aisle… But I digress…)
As the mother of five kids – including a one year old daughter, a four year old daughter, a fourteen year old son, a sixteen year old daughter, and a son who would be twenty if he hadn’t died of a drug overdose 19 months ago – I’m obviously well past that naively optimistic, honeymoon phase of early parenthood. But I remember very, very clearly how it felt in the beginning to believe with every fiber of my being that my children would pretty much automatically grow into the right kinds of teenagers, and then into superlative adults who would serve as a public reflection of my own stellar success as their mother. After all, that’s how it had worked for pretty much everyone else in my family. None of us grew up to be drug addicts or dropouts or to go to jail. So I would simply follow the same general parenting blueprint as my own parents and grandparents, and just as it worked for them, it would work for me.
That’s what I believed, and intended to do. And frankly, in hindsight, I was delusionally confident that my outcome-based parenting would generally work out just as I planned.
However, twenty years in to this parenting gig, I am no longer certain of anything at all. The only thing I am now able to say with any confidence about parenting is that I have no clear idea whatsoever how children become the teenagers they become, or the grown ups beyond that. Basically, I am unable to connect the dots in any reliably consistent way; I am constantly asking myself how my own behaviors and input as my kids’ mother links to their behaviors and choices as adolescents. What did I do wrong and what specific result did it produce? What THING did I do wrong that failed to protect my oldest child from becoming addicted to drugs as a teenager? And I am equally unsure of what I may have done or am currently doing right – with my son Henry, or with his younger siblings
I mean, I have my theories about where I’ve gotten it right and where I’ve really screwed it up, but frankly, my theories haven’t held up well when I’ve applied the semi-scientific method of parenting several children in pretty much exactly the same way, yet ending up with wildly different “outcomes.”
I have no. freaking. clue.
Ever since my precious, beloved oldest child died at age 18 – the one who was once the brilliant six year old little boy building with those Legos on the floor – I have for the first time become acutely aware that other parents - those who have been lucky enough to end up with healthy, accomplished teenagers – almost always seem to believe very sincerely that their own adolescent is “good” because they themselves have been “good” as mothers and fathers.
And why wouldn’t they believe that? Why shouldn’t they?
Post ergo propter hoc.
Don’t misunderstand; I know very well that the choices and behaviors that each of us makes as parents have the potential to impact what kind of teenagers and adults our children end up becoming. Parenting matters a great deal. I am not in any way claiming otherwise.
But as my very, very wise friend Jillian says, good parenting should be less about an outcome that we really can’t reliably predict, and should instead be about being the best parent we are able to be to our child today – about attempting to make the most honorable and healthy and kind and loving choices in how we care for our children because it matters right now, not because it guarantees anything later.
So much that happens to our children as they grow up is ultimately beyond our control – no matter how much we may want to believe otherwise – but we can go to bed at night knowing that on that particular day, we made sure that our children were protected and educated and loved as fiercely as we know how to love them.
Because no matter how things end up fifteen or twenty years later – no matter whether the outcome we get is a Rhodes Scholar or a heroin addict – we will never, ever look back with regret when we recall those individual hours and days of ”good” parenting of the child we adored. No matter how hard we try, or how much we love, our precious child’s ultimate outcome may not be the one we hoped and prayed and planned for, but our own outcome as good human beings who did our best will still be one we can live with.
One of the cardinal rules of good parenting is that a mother should never compare her children to one another, but when you are a mother who has lost her oldest child to drugs and crime - when you’ve been painfully and very publicly branded by many critics – including by your worst critic: yourself - as a terrible failure in your first attempt at successfully raising a child to adulthood – it’s almost impossible to express parental pride in your other children without people assuming that you are comparing. I have found that since Henry died, I pull back from engaging in the kind of proud parental bragging about his younger siblings that is a normal and healthy and enjoyable part of being a mom because I don’t want anyone to think that I was not proud of Henry – because I was in so very, very many ways – or that I am trying to divert attention from my “bad” parenting, using my other children as unwitting decoys.
So I keep my mouth mostly shut when other parents are talking about their own teenagers’ grades or team win or volunteer activity because I don’t want anyone to think I am comparing, and I don’t want THEM to compare my children.
But lately, as I’ve realized that I’m doing this, I have also realized that this is not fair to my four living children, or to me. And I know for a fact that no one was prouder of his younger siblings than Henry was – no one - and he would never want me to let the ugly judgments so many have about a boy who became addicted to drugs – or about his mother – prevent me from openly expressing my pride in the character or accomplishments of his little brother and sisters.
I am so, so proud of the amazing young woman that my sixteen year old daughter J is becoming. She’s a junior in high school now, and she’s one of the most sensible, level-headed and productive people I’ve ever met…at sixteen!
When I was sixteen, I was boy-crazy, scattered in my work habits, and far too concerned with what other people thought of me. I also had a wildly impractical approach to preparing for my future as an adult. J is just the opposite.
Even after the terrible last two years she’s had in losing her brother, to whom she was exceptionally close, and the deep grief she now lives with every single day, she is fundamentally comfortable in her own skin, and she’s secure in her faith. In fact, I am inspired by the depth and conviction of her personal faith.
She’s a very solid student at a big, very diverse public high school, and she has a wonderful group of girlfriends who all really support each other in an organically feminist way. She is kind and without snobbery, and she consistently reaches out to other kids who are not as blessed as she is in various ways. She has played on the school volleyball for the past two years, and was accepted into her school’s academic honors program for this year. She’s active in several clubs, and she earns 90% of her own spending money( and now even buys many of her own clothes) through babysitting and her part time job at her stepmother’s dance studio.
She has a busy social life, but she’s healthy and moderate in her choices, and she still makes plenty of time for her whole family.
Basically, she’s all that any parent would ever hope for in a sixteen year old daughter. And if she had been my first, I’d probably believe that I had a whole lot to do with that. But I know better now. In fact, I have absolutely NO IDEA how I managed to end up with such a brag-worthy teenage daughter. And I also know now that anything happening in our lives now doesn’t guarantee how anything will go in the future.
So I enjoy today. I make sure to give thanks. I never take her for granted, and I also don’t take credit.
To the extent that my mothering has mattered at all, really, the only thing I can tell you about that is that I don’t know how I did it.
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