Saturday, August 21, 2010

Clothespin doll

In three weeks, I have had three discussions with three mothers who are all at some precipice or another with regard to their growing children. One whose young child is entering the “K-3”years, one whose child will enter high school this fall, another whose last child will leave for college in a week. These discussions have the same question at the core:

What now?

I don't want this to be the blog of get-to-the-point, (see preceding post) but I think the parenting career (I refuse to call it a journey. Everybody calls everything a journey) is as fascinating as the period that follows childbirth itself when, without even paying extra, we get to marinate in the new knowledge that we are super-powerful after all, capable of all things in the entire world, because just look at what we produced, even as we were coming apart like a clothespin doll. And men, if they aren’t the obstetricians, reinforce this. I don’t care how many times they wince at Mel Gibson being stretched to death on a rack, crowning wins. Witnessing the birth of our four children changed the way my husband looked at me forever.

That’s how we feel on day one of our parenting career. Blessed, and cursed with the knowledge that we can do anything for our children if we have to, want to, need to, if that’s what they need, even if it hurts.

But I don’t want this to be the blog of I-already-know-that so I’ll move on.

More than once in my twenty-four year parenting career I’ve woken at 3 a.m. with two thoughts: I don’t know what she’s doing. And, what if she needs me? Then the what-ifs start. What if she didn’t lock her door? What if he walked home from a party and got mugged? What if she’s too sick to call and tell me she’s sick? What if he needs me, but he’s too proud to tell me he needs help? What if he needs me? What if she needs me? And so on.

Nobody imagines the worst like a mother can. Mothers imagine things so horrible they won’t even share them with other mothers (even though they should). It’s irrational, but it keeps us on our toes anticipating all that disaster and ways to prevent it. But the question isn’t really about the child’s welfare, because at 3:20 while we’re trying to control our breathing and slow our minds, our child is actually updating her status on Facebook and listening to something on Grooveshark. No, the question is really about a mother’s reach and correlationally, how well the child can possibly be doing if we aren’t involved with it somehow. It’s more than good parenting to wonder, it’s who we are and what we’ve done since our entry-level parenting years when our involvement did determine how well our children did. We told them what to do, what to eat, when, where, how and all the rest, and at that point in their little child careers, they thrived with all that supervision.

And so did we because after all, we didn’t almost split in half for nothing.

But it flips without warning. At some point, it’s time for them to drive, and time for us to shut up when they bump the curb because if we don’t, we’re not advancing them in their child careers, we’re telling them they’re not ready and they will believe us. It flips when they don’t share what they think, when they struggle but won’t ask for help, when they grow quiet and dark and stay in their rooms for too-long stretches while we wait on the other side, preparing a good ice-breaker which, God willing, will lead to a meaningful conversation like we used to have. And then, just as we’re considering the worst (drugs, of course) and talking it over with all our friends, and reading “life with your teenager” articles, it flips anew when from out of nowhere our child asks us to go for lunch, or shows us what they bought at the mall, or tells us something that has the potential to make us unhappy because, somewhere, somehow, holed up in there with only their own minds for company, they found the legs that go with their opinions.

It should feel good when they weather these storm systems in their child careers and emerge stronger and smarter, even if we lose weight and can’t focus on a television commercial while it’s happening, because it means we’re all being promoted. But I can go on forever about “should” now that my daughters and I cry at the same movies and have conversations that start with “So, listen to this.” When it was happening, what it felt like was, “what now?”

Eventually, if we stop telling and start asking, our children tell us “what.” Then they become CEO of their child careers, and we become trusted consultants. This is when we coach, more than we supervise (right, Kris?). This is when they call us not for advice, but support. Not for directions, but guidance. Not to hear the words of worry in our hearts, but the love in our voices.

So if you feel lost in the haze of “what now?” it might help to picture this: you’re ten or twenty years from now, sitting in a restaurant with your son or daughter who has, by now, become Chairchild of the Board. You say this: What was the thing you needed most from me when you were (their age now). They will tell you. If you’re watching and listening, you actually know the answer right now. Be that clothespin doll again, even if it hurts.

And now, I will think of a reason to go boss my fifteen-year-old around, because very soon, he’ll have his license and he will be driving. And I will be a passenger, looking for opportunities to shut up.


  1. "without even paying extra" loved that.
    Do you see why you are my go-to person for every new phase of parenthood???

  2. Right, right right!! I feel so lucky to have a BFF who doubles as a life coach. I love the way your sharp introspection is so universally insightful.
    Well said!

  3. And you have both been there for me more than a couple of times. Thank you, because parenting, when you care about it, is not for sissies.