So, Lyz Lenz wrote this about how to parent babies and toddlers and I’m pretty sure I peed my pants laughing because I’m just that lucky not to have children that young anymore and if I did, I would certainly stop seeking parenting advice from anyone but her because, well, you just have to head over there and read her advice.
On Wednesday, Bubba and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage. Twenty. And, no, I’m not old enough to have been married that long, and neither is he, but we somehow managed to jump the space-time continuum and make it so, anyway.
The past year has been one of the best years of my marriage, for certain, and as much as it pains me to say so, I think it’s because it has been one of the most challenging years of my parenting life. Not despite, because.
The first six years we were married, we worked full-time, Monday through Friday jobs and spent our weekends eating out with friends, going to the movies, taking urban hikes and sleeping late. We spoiled our cats, traveled domestically and internationally and drove his parents crazy as we remained childless. One day, all of a sudden, I wanted to be a mom. I never had before and, in fact, had been quite vocal about my desire to never raise children. (Turns out Bubba never really believed that bluster, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and didn’t challenge me or tell me how much he wanted kids.)
So one day, I woke up and said to him, in a hushed, rather quavery sort of voice, “I think I want to have a baby.” I couldn’t look him in the eye. I whispered it to him as his head lie nestled into his pillow, so close that if he had turned to look at me, my nose would certainly have lodged itself in his ear. He kept very still and said, “Cool. Me too.”
So here we are fourteen years later with one teenage daughter and another one on the cusp of teenagerhood. In those years Bubba and I have grown together and apart, shifted the responsibilities of the household and our lives to accommodate each other and our girls as much as possible without blowing completely to pieces, and at times it has felt fragile. We don’t fight, but we have disagreed on some vital issues from time to time and on at least one occasion I insisted we go see a counselor in order to find common ground. I have never stopped loving him, but there were times when I wasn’t particularly convinced that I could see forward to a time where I would ever be madly in love with him again. Part of that was due to simple fatigue (especially in the early infant and toddler years), other times I felt resentment when I saw his life as dynamic and mine as stagnant, and through certain periods it has been due to an absolute inability to see anything beyond the absolute frenzy of activity filling up day after day after week after month ahead.
But today, two days before we celebrate twenty years of marriage (and nearly twenty-four together), I find myself completely, madly, head-over-heels for this man. And I’m certain it is because of the turmoil and challenges we have faced with our girls in the past year. They are growing up, asserting themselves, doing their level best to find holes in our armor through which to poke sharp objects. They are doing everything they are supposed to be doing at this stage of their lives – testing limits and pushing back and exploiting loopholes and screaming, “INDEPENDENCE OR DEATH!” and it is hard. It hurts your feelings. It makes you question everything you thought you knew. It is ego-bruising, teeth-grinding, upside-down-in-a-hurricane, soul-defeating hard. There are bright spots in all of it, don’t get me wrong, but they mostly feel like opportunities to fill your canteen in anticipation of the next onslaught. Bubba and I are flying blind here, not ever having found a manual for how to parent two such completely different children making their way through this life full of technology and stimulation and choices and emotion.
But we’re doing it together. And even when he is traveling for work, gone for days on end, he never fails to call or text us to check in. He never minimizes the challenges and he always reminds me that I’m a good mom. He lets me know that he is struggling, too, and he works really hard to stay engaged, asking the details of the last basketball game or pop quiz. He just returned from a week-long trip to Mexico with Eve and the rest of her classmates (14-year old girls, all) as a chaperone – a hot, exhausting, Spanish immersion trip where he was pleased as punch to get to know Eve’s friends. He is my rock, but just as importantly, he lets me know that I am his. On any given day, we might spend half an hour texting each other to talk about every subject from the most mundane to the most painful, it’s all on the table, and it’s all important. This period of parenting has reminded me that what we have is a partnership built on mutual respect and trust. That Bubba remains vulnerable and honest about his own challenges while simultaneously supporting and affirming my strengths is huge. The fact that he can acknowledge my weaknesses without accusing or demeaning and step in to shore things up where necessary is just as amazing.
I remember thinking that after six years of marriage, I knew Bubba inside and out. I remember thinking that there was nothing that would surprise me about him. And then one day, when Eve was a toddler, he used a washable marker to draw this crazy face on the top of her foot. I had never seen him draw anything before and it was really good. I was surprised. Over the years, I have been surprised again and again as I watch him parent our girls with careful patience, humor, creativity, and so much love that my heart bursts wide open. I know now that twenty years is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to know and love about this man. And I am so lucky to have found him.
According to some, I “rescued” my 14-year old today and I shouldn’t have. Ironically, one of the first things I saw on my Facebook feed this morning was an essay in Brain, Child that spoke to this exact issue and would probably have placed me squarely in the camp of “helicopter parent.”
I beg to differ.
As a child, I was fully indoctrinated into the world of toughlove. The world of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “learn to succeed on your own.” And, largely, I benefited from those lessons – the teachers who let me puzzle through challenging lessons without giving me answers, my dad refusing to bail me out when I got myself into debt because I didn’t think ahead, other adults in my life who showed me they believed in my abilities by not stepping in to forewarn me of some misstep I was about to take. But there were times when I would have done much better knowing that I had support, times when I believed that independence was tantamount to connection and that being able to take care of myself was more important than asking for help. It would have served me very well to know how to even gauge my own thresholds, to know how to assess when I was out of my depth and needed a lifeline. Instead, the message I internalized was that I needed to be fully self-sufficient.
One morning a few months ago, I stepped in to the quiet halls of the school my daughters attend. The students were all in classrooms, the sunlight streaming through the windows and bouncing off the shiny locker doors. The receptionist sat at his computer typing away with the dean of staff hovering behind his shoulder. They both looked up in surprise as I tugged on the front door, needing to be buzzed in.
“Lola left this on the printer this morning,” I waved a sheet of paper in the air in explanation. The dean rolled her eyes and shook her head at me. She would have preferred that I let Lola twist in the wind, that she learn a difficult lesson about remembering her own homework. I felt a wave of shame and defensiveness begin to rise up in my belly but I blocked the words before they sputtered out of my mouth. I turned to the receptionist, kindly asked him to hand the paper to Lola at the next break between classes, thanked them both, and left.
Since that day, I have shown up at the school maybe once or twice to drop off basketball shoes or a hastily-prepared lunch for one of my girls. I will defend those decisions unequivocally and here is why.
As an adult, I cannot claim that I never forget anything at home that I ought to have had with me, despite the toughlove lessons I received as a child. As an adult, I have the ability to return home in my car to get the things I forgot or use my debit card to purchase my lunch on the fly. My children do not have that option available to them. On more than one occasion, Bubba has called me from a business trip to plead that I stop by the dry cleaners to pick up his suit because he totally forgot to do it before he left and he will need it as soon as he returns home. Should I refuse him this kindness in an effort to “teach him a lesson?” I think not. And I won’t do that to my children, either. I refuse to let Lola go hungry at lunch in order to impart some false sense of wisdom. Instead, I will offer them the same courtesy I hope my loved ones would extend to me in my time of need.
There are obvious exceptions, and if there is a pattern of behavior that I think needs to be dealt with, I will of course address that in a different way, but it makes me crazy to envision a world in which my daughters are taught that they are the only ones responsible for every detail of their lives. If that were true, we would all live in a house where we only did our own dishes and nobody else’s and we wouldn’t be able to count on each other to remind us of important events when our brains (and calendars) are overloaded.
Some of the examples of enabling the author called out in her essay felt to me as though they were oversimplified in the making of her point. There is a difference between ‘rescuing’ our children and teaching them life lessons that will serve them well one day. I long ago stopped doing all of my girls’ laundry for them, but if Eve has hours of homework to do and her basketball uniform needs a 12-hour turnaround, I’ll offer to help out if I have time. I don’t pay the girls’ library fines if their books are overdue, but when I realized that it was getting to be a problem, I offered to help them brainstorm ways to make it easier to find and return books they had checked out. Instead of letting them believe that there are only two solutions (Mom does it or I do it), I hope I can teach them that we are all in this together and that makes it a better world for everyone. Yes, they are ultimately responsible for their own stuff and their choices and behaviors, but there are times where you just mess up and other times when you can’t solve the problem all alone. I know that the only thing stopping Eve from zipping home to get her own running shoes and socks today at lunchtime was the fact that she isn’t old enough to drive. Given that we live five minutes from school, I have absolutely no problem heading down there to drop them off because I think the lesson here is that I’m willing to help her out when I can. I would rather raise my kids to be compassionate team-players than super-responsible, hyper-independent individuals who refuse to help someone find their misplaced keys because “it isn’t my problem.” I would rather raise them to know that it’s okay to be human and ask other people for help occasionally, that getting assistance doesn’t lead to dependence and lethargy and laziness. Most of my early adult life was spent pushing people away, feigning that I was capable of handling anything that presented itself. While I felt a great deal of pride in my accomplishments, I was also scared of the next thing that might come along that I might NOT be able to deal with and I was pretty damn lonely. It feels a lot better to know that someone has my back and if my kids learn that I’m there for them when they can’t do for themselves, I will be able to sleep soundly at night, whether or not you label me a “helicopter mom.”
I am writing this as a parent who is incredibly grateful that the school my girls attend teaches media literacy aggressively and early. Beginning in the 5th grade, the teachers present the students with examples of how we are barraged every day with messages that may or may not represent us, but whose sole aim is to sell us something, even if couched in the guise of “entertainment.”
And so I was not terribly surprised to see the article in this morning’s New York Times regarding the MTV reality series “16 and Pregnant.” (Disclaimer: I have never watched, nor do I anticipate ever watching this show. I cannot speak to the relative merits or pitfalls of it, and I’m more interested in the larger theme of media influence, in any case.) The Nielsen company, responsible for television ratings among other things, released a report suggesting that this show and others like it may have “prevented 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.” Don’t ask me how they did the study. I didn’t delve too deeply in to it, but I suspect some other folks will, given the voices that have been raised in opposition to shows like this since their beginning. The people in that camp believe that these shows glamorize teen motherhood by featuring the teens on television, thus rendering them celebrities, and may convince young girls to go out and get pregnant before they are ready to. Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not with regards to this particular blog post. What strikes me is that what both sides have in common is the assertion that television shows, among other media sources, have a strong impact on their audience, so much so that they can influence major life decisions. With that, I will agree.
Last week on the way home from school, Eve reported that the 8th graders had begun a new unit in their health class involving body image.
“We’ve had two classes on it so far and, man, there’s no way we’re ever gonna get through even fifteen minutes without someone bursting into tears. I mean, even though we know that pictures are Photoshopped and nobody looks like a Barbie doll, some of the girls in my class have such low self-esteem because they think their bodies are all wrong that they can’t stop sobbing.”
I confess to being surprised. This is a school that has encouraged families to watch the critically acclaimed Miss Representation with their children, a school that has the 7th grade students create their own posters using images from magazines to demonstrate their understanding of media messages and how harmful they can be, a school that embraces and holds up diversity as a source of power. And yet, there are girls who are still so divided in their loyalties to themselves versus someone else’s idea of what they ought to look like that they can’t make it through a class on body image without feeling awful.
Let us not underestimate the power of both the media and the perpetuation of those messages among our youth. Let us continue to talk to our children about what is truly important and worthy. Let us help them to think critically about what they see and hear and decipher which messages are there to lift them up and which ones are there to tear them down and open their wallets. As Stephen Colbert once said:
“But if girls feel good about themselves, how can we sell them things they don’t need?”