Friday, May 20, 2005

the high stakes of parenting

This post by Metrodad got me thinking about the concept of parenting and fear.

I'm one of those people who likes to have a plan for every conceivable situation. That means that I spend a lot of time worrying (?) about things that might never happen. I think it a lot of that trait was a defense mechanism that I adapted to the breakup of my parents' marriage. After my parents got divorced, my mother waited about six minutes before getting into a relationship with the man who eventually became my stepfather. (No, I'm not bitter about that AT ALL.) I was never mad at my mom for leaving my dad--he was a vicious drunk, and I knew that it was something she had to do. But I was tremendously angry at her for hooking up with my stepfather, because I thought that she was admitting that she NEEDED a man--and that she would settle for anything, rather than be alone.

My stepfather and I are pretty much polar opposites, and that was especially true when I was fourteen and fifteen years old. He's a right wing nut (and proud of it), an anti-choice, racist, knuckle-dragging mouth breather. Some examples? 1) He once called my sister-in-law a femiNazi because she beat my brother at a game of pool. 2) On the occasion of meeting my in-laws for the first time, he said to me (after they'd left), "Landisdad's father doesn't look like too big a Jew." 3) Landisdad still remembers that, on meeting him for the first time, he described HIS OWN GRANDCHILDREN as "those little brown kids." I mean, how can you be racist about your own grandchildren?

I, of course, am a paragon of decency and compassion. I've also been a raving left-winger since I was 12 or 13, so my own burgeoning political awareness happened about a year before he came into the family.

After my mom decided to date this guy, I spent a bunch of time running away from home. I was the oldest of my mom's children, and my stepfather had five kids--two of whom lived with his ex-wife, two of whom lived with him, and one of whom bounced back and forth between both of his parents. My step-father and my mom made me babysit for all of my younger brothers, plus his kids younger than me--both of his older kids were old enough to work real jobs, and I wasn't. And by babysit, I mean, provide daycare in the summer. Seriously, at age 15, I was responsible for my three brothers (one of whom was three), and three of my stepfather's kids. About a month or two after they got married, I got tired of feeling like the world was doing me more wrong than I could handle, and I decided that I was going to live with my dad. I had enough experience running away by that point that I just packed up my stuff and walked out--I didn't even call to tell my mom where I was until after my dad came and got me.

Living with my dad was a new adventure, and after about another month, one of my brothers (I'll call him Brother Bear) decided to join us. The three of us moved into a new apartment (my dad's single dad apartment wasn't big enough for three), and Brother Bear and I changed high schools. It was a rough transition for all of us. Brother Bear and I basically held my dad responsible for destroying my parents' marriage through his drinking, and we didn't really want to live with him--we just couldn't stand the thought of living with our stepfather. It was a real case of the devil you know being better than the devil you don't. And as time went on, I ended up running away from my dad's place too. We sort of developed a pattern--about every six months or so, he'd get so drunk that we'd have a huge fight, he'd try to hit me or something, and I'd just leave. In those instances, I almost never had time to plan--on at least one occasion, I walked out of the house without my shoes on, and had to borrow some from a friend to go to school the next day.

As you can imagine, now that I'm a parent myself, I can only imagine the hell that I put my own parents through. I look at my kids, and I can only imagine what would happen in ten years, if one night the Bee or the SP got so angry with me that she just walked out and didn't come back. It's terrifying to think that those patterns might repeat themselves.

I am not, of course, a vicious drunk. Nor am I likely (given my own experience) to divorce my husband and marry someone that my kids absolutely hate.

But that doesn't mean that I won't make equally bad choices, that will cause my kids to hate me. It doesn't mean that my kids won't decide to sleeping in a bus station, which I was reduced to at one point, is better than living at home.

We're trying to work with the Bee and the SP to see that families get angry at each other. We're trying to let them understand that everyone-even parents-make mistakes, and that's okay. We're want them to know that, no matter what they do, we will always love them.

The idea that I might cause my children the kind of real grief that my parents gave me is the thing that makes me wake up with tightness in my chest, unable to get back to sleep for hours. I don't want my kids to walk into every room looking for the exit. I don't want them to be preparing six different ways to escape any situation. I want them to be healthy, emotionally and psychologically, as well as physically.

• Posted By landismom @ 5/20/2005 08:38:00 AM
Landismom - what a GREAT post! Anyone who reads your blog knows that you offer your children the very things you want most for them. You are a really, truly great mother.

I suffered from my parent's decisions/mistakes, too and often worry about "screwing up" my children in some way, shape or form. I think the things you said that were important (and right on the mark) are that kids do not need to be shielded from conflict so much as they need to be shown how to resolve it.

I also think that admitting that we (parents) aren't perfect is critical and that when we are wrong saying "I'm sorry" to a child can be a very powerful learning experience for them.

I guess there is a school of thought that every child will be in some way "screwed up" by their parents, and I accept that, to a certain extent.

I just don't want my mistakes to be terminal.
great post, landismom. I think though that there's a big difference between you and your parents. You are conscious of how your choices affect your kids, and you think about what's best for your kids. I also get the sense that you are going to have a really good and open relationship with them, talk to them in ways your parents didn't with you.

And of course kids will be mad at things you do and choices you make, and that's unavoidable. But I think there are major differences between what you went through and what -- if anything -- your kids will experience. I mean, the very fact that you're thinking about the things you write in this post shows me the difference. You are such a cool mom!
Okay, LMom, you need to realize that the mistakes your parents made were on a different scale--neither of them gave you any place to be/feel safe. That's a fundamental mistake, one that's wildly different, in scale, scope, and import, than the typical mistakes that parents make, IMHO. That is, I think it is unlikely that you will make "equally bad choices that will cause [your] kids to hate [you]," precisely because the kinds of mistakes your parents made were of a different sort. Not just bigger, somehow, but different.

I obviously don't know your parents, and I hope this doesn't sound judgmental (and I could be wildly wrong, too), but it sounds like your parents were more concerned with their own lives than with their kids' lives. I realize there has to be a balance--one's life cannot be completely centered on one's children--but someone who's more interested in alcohol than his kids, for example, isn't going to be providing some essential bits for his (or her) kids.

You, on the other hand, seem to be doing an awful lot of the Right Things.
chip & emma--thanks to you both. I know intellectually that I'm different from my parents, it's just that at times, I see so much of them in my parenting style (sort of the typical, I can't believe I'm turning into my mother experience) that I worry. More than I should, I know, but I do anyone.

But thanks for reminding me that big mistakes are not inevitable.
I know what you mean; I see some of my dad's parenting style in myself sometimes. But the fact that I'm on the lookout for it, and that I am consciously trying to be a very different kind of father than he was, means that even if I do replicate some aspects of his parenting, I'll never do the things he did that still make me angry, plus the replications are pretty watered down versions of the originals...
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