Once A Parent, Always A Parent…
March 11, 2012
Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.
This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on February 19, 2012 (my son's 26th birthday...)
Last week, I had a meeting with a parent at my nursery school to talk about that often turbulent time called toilet training. This was her first-born child, and Mom remarked: “I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I’ve never had a three-year-old before!”.
I smiled and thought to myself, “I’ve never had a 26-year-old before!”
Today is my first-born’s birthday. It is the first time I had to stop and think what birthday this is. Today, I will talk with him on my cell phone or Skype with him on our flat screen TV. I will ask him about what Bloomington restaurant he picked for his birthday dinner, and what his wife gave him as a present. I’ll comment on this being his first birthday with his own dog, while thinking about my 26th birthday holding him as a four month old. I will remember the first time I saw his face, and marvel anew at the mystery of development. I will think about the parent I was, the parent I’ve become, and the parent I still strive to be.
I often tell preschool parents that our children grow up and become adults, but we will always be their parents. Their waning smiles or quiet nods let me know they heard my words, but don’t necessarily believe them. It may be a fact of life, but the only similar relationship that we have experienced is being a child to our own parents. And there was no surer way for my mother to push my buttons than to exclaim at some public event, “You will always be my baby.”
While I remember the day my son was born with hour-by-hour (and sometimes moment-by-moment) clarity, I have never thought of him as always being my baby. He is our son. True, it is hard not to be mesmerized by the rapid transformations of infancy, childhood or adolescence. We count age in hours, then days, eventually weeks and months then finally years. Imagine the looks you would get if someone asked you your age and you said, “I’m 34 years and 4 months old.” The timeline widens with development, changes become more subtle, and our lens more muted to the details.
Yet parenting in the years before children are adults can be like riding white-water rapids: exhilarating one moment and harrowing the next. Sometimes skill or expertise helps to steer the raft while other times the forces of nature toss the technical manual overboard. This is how I imagine my early years as a parent. I was much less able to predict the hidden rapids or upcoming storms. Sometimes I felt like I was trying to steer the raft with one paddle while reading the manual in my other hand. If only I could get to the quiet bay, catch my breath, and restock my backpack. In fact, there were many calming waters around me: my husband, my friends, my extended family. The trick was being able to look up long enough to see them and value their power of nourishing and replenishment.
It was during these earlier years of parenting, especially when we had three children at home, that folks used to say, “Oh, they grow up so fast! Enjoy every minute.” I could hear their words, but I didn’t necessarily believe them.
If I wrote a letter to my younger self as a parent, I think it would have the following pieces of advice. It’s ok to make mistakes. There really is a “good enough” parent within. Your children know you love them, even when you are distracted or exhausted. Love being a mother but keep a strong bond to your inner self. Dream for yourself as much as you dream for your children. Know that every moment you give them, you will see reflected back in their eyes as adults.
And what about my present day parenting self? The river is definitely calmer these days, even with a teen still at home. Calmer waters make it possible to think more than react, and to gaze with admiration at the changing shoreline. I appreciate the challenge of those occasional rapids, knowing they will help me to shine a light by which each of our children will eventually build their own strong rafts.
Perhaps the words of this traditional folk song say it best:
The water is wide, I can’t cross over
And neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.