As we walked into the grocery store, I stopped by the bouquets. Oh flowers, I said, wouldn’t that be wonderful on our Thanksgiving* table? Which one should we get?
My 2-and-half-year-old daughter pointed to a bunch. I checked the price tag. It was not the bargain bunch I’d been eyeing, but a proper bouquet over $10, which qualifies as luxury. It was also (to my eyes) the most tattered: red lilies half smashed against common scotch broom (how did that weed make it into a bouquet)?
Hmmm, I said. You don’t want these healthy-looking sunflowers for half-price instead? No? You sure? Ok.
I felt guilty but I put them in the cart.
I adjusted the remainder of my purchases accordingly.
I didn’t surreptitiously switch them while we were waiting in the checkout lane.
I didn’t ask my daughter again.
I felt guilty all the way home from the store.
The List of Parenting Mistakes To Avoid
The List of Parenting Mistakes To Avoid was considerably shorter before I became a mom. Before I became a parent, that list was about four twelve lines long and mostly comprised of things that seem almost impossible now: don’t yell, don’t lose your temper, be patient.
I spent most of my daughter’s first year terrified that I was failing. I set the expectations pretty high: as an adoptive mom, I wanted/needed to be better than my utterly imperfect self.
In an agonizing therapy session during that time, my counselor asked what I thought I was doing RIGHT in mothering. I had to think. Hard.
Finally I said, “well, I guess one good thing I do is that I almost always let my daughter be herself. Whatever she wants or needs or feels, I don’t talk her out of it. If it is something dangerous, then of course I say no, but I don’t make fun of her for wanting it. I let her be her.”
“But that doesn’t seem like a very big thing,” I said. “Not as big as say, not yelling and being patient. Not as big as sleeping through the night, making friends, and learning the alphabet. Plus I have meltdowns. Over little stuff. I hate it.”
My therapist said affirming your child’s true self is actually a pretty big thing, and I thought, well for ME it is. Because nearly every important decision I’ve made, from my choice of a mate to graduate school to my second career, has been something my parents didn’t want for me. So being allowed to be myself is a huge issue for ME. But what if my daughter really wants other stuff, like moms who are good at sports or have mad social skills and brilliant tips on being popular?
I want to be the kind of mom that my daughter needs, not the kind of mom I need to be for my own personal healing.
Recently I read the Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett (one of my favorite authors). Gorgeous writing, heartbreaking story, troubling characters, messy ending.
I finished the book quickly because I wanted Rose to redeem herself as a mom, and of course, that never happened. I was moody the rest of the day: WHY did Rose abandon her family? WHY couldn’t she be a good mom to her daughter, Ceceila?
The answer woke me up in the middle of the night. Rose couldn’t be a mom because she was so estranged from her own mother. (This isn’t a truism that applies to all moms, but I think it fits in this case.) This thought lodged in my tummy and kept me awake.
When I am fighting with my own mother, it is hard to rock my daughter to sleep. Easy to rock her, hard not to cry while I’m doing so. Mother-nurture-need gets all tangled up inside me.
In order to be present as a mom, I have to be whole as a person.
It is hard to be whole when I am trapped in fighting to be myself.
Being Her Self
When we were writing our adoption marketing material (which should clue you in that adoption in this country is all kinds of broken), my wife and I said we “couldn’t wait to help a child grow and become who they were going to be.”
It turns out I had almost no idea what we were talking about.
I had this vague sense of supporting a child’s independence, nurturing curiosity and fostering imagination. I assumed that conflicts would come in the preteen years, spats over politics or religion or cheerleading.
I wasn’t prepared for moral dilemmas so early into the journey.
As it turns out, supporting my daughter’s sense of self involves letting my daughter pick out the toy/T-shirt/flower she wants, not the one that is the best value or the safest or the one I would want.
As we paid for the flowers, I battled the critical voice in my head saying: “she’ll never learn about money. She’ll think she can have whatever she wants. She needs to learn now: life is expensive. We can’t afford luxuries. She needs to get used to disappointment.”
And I thought: I know that voice. This isn’t about you, Papa, or you, Grandmother.
Being My Self
Being a mom requires me to work to free myself from the places where I am wounded, so that I can refrain from passing those wounds on to my daughter.
I don’t want my daughter to spend her twenties (or thirties, for that matter) trying to figure out what she REALLY wants because all she knows is what other people need.
What I really mean is:
I don’t want to set my daughter up to meet the emotional needs of others. I want to her know her own mind first, and hear it loudest and clearest. I want her to be free.
One thing I learned early in childhood was how to read emotional weather and take precautions for storms. When I got older (say, 35) I realized it wasn’t so much me I was protecting, it was my parents: the furious, out-of-control father who couldn’t manage his rage, the never-mad mother who couldn’t claim her anger. I was their emotional processing power station, my transistors and resistors tuned to help them calm down, settle and feel safe.
I want to be the kind of mom that is MOST what my daughter needs, not the kind of mom I need to be for my own personal healing.
In order to do that, I have to take care of myself, so that my daughter doesn’t have to do it for me.
If I have a problem with something she is doing, I have to figure out why I am struggling.
When my daughter is pushing the limits, she won’t look me in the eye. I read somewhere that discipline is about connection, about engagement. Since my wife and I don’t believe in spanking, I often teeter on the edge of near-equivalents: using bribery, threats, or sheer emotional force to induce compliance. I rationalize: but she HAS to eat vegetables. She NEEDS to nap. I REFUSE to raise a rude, disrespectful person.
Mostly what those precarious moments do is challenge me to look myself in the eye. Where is my connection with myself? Which of my parents or grandparents am I trying to shield or placate? WHO AM I AFRAID OF?
The more I stand up for the right to my own life, the more I’m able to be at peace in myself, and the more open I am to letting my daughter explore the world on her own terms.
Two days after buying those flowers, I sit down in the kitchen with cold feet during nap time to write this out. Because I need it for me. So that I have less to carry and more room in my arms for the daughter I’ve chosen to love for herself, whoever she turns out to be.
*I’m aware that as I publish this, it is New Years Day, but I wrote this at Thanksgiving and am just now finding time to post it. I really wanted to back date it to make it look like I am not the overcomitted crazy woman that I am, but this blog is all about being authentic, so here we are.
**I struggled with the title for this post. “Emotional Freedom”…is that what I mean? What do you think I’m talking about? Does this resonate with you?