Motherhood, even the most well-intentioned versions, is messy, filled with mistakes, and infused with worry. We are told from our earliest days that it’s not supposed to be those things. Television and popular culture tell us – have always told us – that successful parenting is simply a blend of a strict-but-loving mother who can handle any crisis with a wry comment and a dose of practicality, and a loving father who backs up mother and throws in a pinch of discipline as needed.
But June Cleaver’s children didn’t show up with a tattoo at the age of 13, and no matter how bad an influence Eddie Haskell was, he wasn’t carrying a little bag of pot in his pocket.
Parents feel immense pressure to turn out perfect children who will go to the perfect schools and move on to perfectly planned lives. And many of these children fit right along with that program, happy to fit in, to excel at school and sports, and comforted by the fact that there is a path for them to embrace and follow. These are fun children to be around, socially mature and interesting. They rightfully do their parents proud.
But what percentage of all children are these children? I ask this, because they become the models – not just for the other children, but for the parents of those other children. They set the parameters of envy, judgment, and self-loathing. Don’t get me wrong –to find purpose and achievement in childhood is an exciting thing and I would wish it for every child. I’m not saying these children have done anything wrong.
Rather, this Mother’s Day message is for the mothers of the rest of the children. The ones who are the distribution on the Bell Curve. The pre-teens shutting parents out completely, experimenting with screamer rock and metal bands, checking out marijuana at an overnighter or behind the bleachers, and unable to focus on schoolwork. This is for the mothers of the unconventional children, the ones who just don’t fit in with their classmates, who did really well in kindergarten and first grade, but by third grade were increasingly shut out and shut down. This is for the mothers of the capable children who simply can’t thrive and won’t stay in traditional school. This message is for all the mothers who worry that they are insufficient, who can’t understand how those other mothers have it so much easier, who wish they could demonstrate their awesome mothering skills with children who had awesome social skills. In other words, this message is for most of us.
Here it is: Be fierce. Be unconditional, uncompromising, and unapologetic in your love for your children. If you have absolute confidence that they are perfect the way they are, then they will absorb that confidence into their insecure little souls and hold onto it like a life-jacket in stormy seas.
If your child steals a golf cart, bashes it into a tree, then taunts the security guards and runs . . . after the police show up at your house and scare the sense out of all of you; be confident. Remember that all the character you have taught and demonstrated and discussed is in there, somewhere, and it will make a stronger appearance in the years to come. Your child can handle the consequences and punishment that you (must) dole out. He can handle the fact that you are disappointed in him. What he can’t handle is the feeling that you have lost confidence in his essential goodness.
If your daughter tells you, at age 15, that she’s pregnant, be there, completely, for her. Let your worry be about her, and not about what other people may think of you. Take a moment to think about what crazy mistakes you made – or almost made – and how hard it is to be a teenager. Help her make her difficult decisions with absolute clarity that you love her, love her no matter what, and that you’ll get through it together. She can handle the natural consequences of the decisions she must make. What she can’t handle is feeling that she is already a has-been, a lost cause, without worth or potential.
I suspect that society’s fixation on the average child is actually a fixation on the easy child, the conforming and compliant child. And like good company men and women, we have accepted – at some place in our own little souls – that our parenting skills are judged by the conforming, performing children we churn out.
But there is no such thing as an average child, nor should we will that on our children. Each one thinks differently, expresses himself differently, behaves differently, and makes different choices than the other children. If they get the message that their essential selves are unacceptable, inadequate, or disappointing, they start losing pieces of their identify before they have even formed it.
How do I know this? Because I did not have the easy children (to be fair, I wasn't one myself). Every example I have given you so far is from our lives. Luckily for my children, I received an essential piece of advice from my own mother when my oldest child, at the tender age of 11, showed her first signs of teenage rebellion. My mom said, “Honey, what you must remember, every day and with anything that should happen, is that your children are not actually a reflection of you. They are a reflection of themselves, and where they are at the time. If you can remember that, you can be there for them and give them what they need. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking it’s about you.” So with each nauseating drop of the roller-coaster I remembered that advice and did my best to make it about them.
Today my children are lovely, accomplished, interesting, and still-evolving adults. I prefer their company to almost any other. They did things the unconventional way, and often the hard way, but I accept that the routes they took to adulthood were the routes they needed to take. I see that what I was supposed to do, as their mother, was be there, available, often on the sidelines, assuring them of my unfaltering belief in them and giving the insight and advice they wanted from me, even if they hated me for it at the time. I learned that motherhood was only about me and my children and our family, and that my job was to help them to become themselves despite peer, social, and school pressure.
Be fierce. Be unconditional, uncompromising, and unapologetic in your love for your children. Have unwavering confidence that they are absolutely perfect just the way they are. It’s the work of a lifetime, and we mothers were made for it. Happy Mother’s Day.