For most of us, having kids is an experiment in idealism. From early on, we have visions of the kind of parent we will be. For me, I was going to be the kind of parent that raised independent kids. The kind of parent that taught my children to do for themselves instead of doing for them. I was going to raise them to be free thinkers and to challenge the status quo. They were pretty much going to be perfect, because I was going to be the perfect parent.
Then I actually had kids and it wasn’t long before I would have been happy as long as at least one of them learned to tie their own shoes by the age of five – much less graduate from college.
I’ll admit, it took awhile for the break down to occur. When my first daughter was born, I was determined to have a life that integrated her, rather than revolved around her, and I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. Early on, she learned to eat the things her father and I liked – and I was more than a little proud of having a three-year old who ate sushi. We continued to get together with friends, to go out to dinner and to travel. As a result, she learned to sleep through just about any noise in any setting. She was never anxious or shy, because we didn’t hover. Instead, we let her figure interactions for herself. She never begged for things at the store or threw tantrums in the aisle, because she knew I wasn’t the kind of mom that gave into silly whims. Basically, I was killing it at this mom thing.
By the time Girl 2 came along, life was a little busier. With two small people to feed, dress and get out the door every day, it was easier to take some shortcuts. Goldfish crackers became a side dish. TV became acceptable for more than just half an hour one or two days a week. I became a little lax about giving into the occasional request for a treat at the grocery store. And most of the time, it was easier to just stay home than try to negotiate two toddlers in a public space.
Then Girl 3 was born. She spent an entire year eating nothing but bananas. And that’s all I can really say about that.
My point is that over time, my ideals faded. Giving in became the same as surviving. It grew easier to do things myself rather than try to convince, negotiate, bribe or manipulate small, irrational beings into doing them. All too often, my desire to protect them from the world – and sometimes themselves – took over and I was no longer the mom that allowed them to make mistakes and solve their own problems. I over-helped and over-advised. I didn’t think twice about going into battle for them, instead of with them. And without fail, every time I figured out the perfect strategy with one child, the next one came along and demanded a completely different set of parenting guidelines.
I spent years beating myself up, because instead of my vision of a happy family sitting around the dinner table telling hilarious anecdotes about their day, more often than not, I was sitting in a sullen silence because I had just spent an hour making a meal while a screaming toddler clung to my leg. And now that same toddler was throwing said meal on the floor while simultaneously knocking over a drink. It was these moments that I debated the feasibility of moving to the woods and raising free-range children that didn’t require “parenting” or “care” so much as lots of free time and plenty of fresh air.
In short, I was no longer killing it at this mom thing, it was killing me.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point I had an epiphany. I realized that I had it all wrong. It’s not about being the kind of parent I want to be. In fact, it’s not about me at all. Rather, it’s about being the kind of parent that my children need me to be in order for them to become the people they want to be.
Parenting is not about following a simple formula. Each of our children need something different and our only job as parents is to learn to adapt to those needs. Naturally, that means we will make a lot of mistakes along the way, but the beautiful thing is that it’s never too late to learn and improve.
After all, it doesn’t really matter how carefully you map out your master strategy. Kids are going to find loopholes. And like it or not, life is going to throw you off course at some point or another. At the end of the day, we are all just doing our best. We are shifting and adapting and making decisions with the information we have on hand. Sometimes that information is that our kids are jerks. Other times, it’s that our kids are the kindest, sweetest, most loving humans on the planet. And still other times, it’s simply that we are so tired that we would probably sell an internal organ if it just meant that we could have two hours of uninterrupted sleep. The only constant is that nothing about parenting stays the same and our vision of the ideal has to change with the times.
For me, some days, being the best parent I can be is making sure that everyone is fed, on time, dressed, fed again, caught up on homework and, if I’m lucky, actually in possession of a matching pair of shoes. But that’s ok. My children don’t need me to fit some Cosby Show- inspired mold. They just need me to be there for them. To pick them up when they fall. To set boundaries. To understand the uniqueness of their spirits and beings. To love them unconditionally. And most of all, to know that even when my best is nothing more than making sure dinner is on the table, I’m always giving them everything I’ve got.