There’s something about becoming a parent, about raising children, that’s really disarming. There’s the usual stuff.
What brand of diapers are we going to choose?
Are we schedule people or cut from the spontaneity cloth?
Will we sleep train or co-sleep?
This is stressful stuff. The early days are awash in seemingly life-altering choices influencing the long-term happiness and well-being of your child. You choose a camp in about a million different areas and this makes you a particular brand of parent.
But then your kids get older, and the challenging part of parenting is less about the choices you make on your child’s behalf and more about what you can’t control and don’t have a choice in at all. You find yourself paralyzed by fear and gripped with anxiety over things so much larger and you’re reminded, again, how overwhelming raising humans can be.
You feel it when you look at your youngest son and don’t just see the shape of your eyes in his, but the same stubborn streak you keep surreptitiously hidden under your surface showing up more and more often in his choices.
You feel it when you see your smile on the face of your oldest, but also the same struggles you battled there too, maybe still battle in your adult self, manifesting itself in his elementary self.
You feel it when you see your loves and your interests start to grow and evolve in each of their developing personalities, but also your insecurities, your weaknesses, your anxieties and your fears.
They’re just like me, you find yourself both exclaiming and resigning yourself to.
Being a parent, in more ways than one, is like living life reincarnated. You come face to face with the past, and you from that past. You watch a miniature you take on the world with a joy and exuberance, with a fresh-faced innocence and with uninhibited wonder. But you also watch that same miniature you begin to learn the ins and outs of shame, of social ranking, of navigating their sense of worth in a harsher world than they first imagined.
You watch as those same shaped eyes as yours, fill with tears of loss, frustration and hurt they haven’t quite managed to put the words to yet.
You watch as the same smile you have, but on a smaller face, wavers at the cusp of change, falters in misunderstanding, and slips out of place when comprehending a social order that doesn’t include them.
Whatever the reason behind this generational and genetic thing, it’s hard. We are observing our kids while in a very real sense observing a piece of ourselves as well. We are witnessing who we used to be in them, but doing so older and wiser. And that results in a totally different kind of challenging. Because as adults we know how the story goes.
We know the pain in our kids we wish to make disappear, is simply a precursor to what life often doles out mercilessly and endlessly.
We know the maneuvering and effort our kids put forth to determine their place and their belonging is a dress rehearsal for adulthood that doesn’t get any easier later on.
We watch our kids, and we cringe because we see them, and in them, ourselves, and it’s all too much to bear sometimes.
So we feel a little too invested and involved in their heartbreaks and insecurities .
We react a little too emotionally about their first hurt from a friend.
We bear their burdens because we get them. Because in a very real sense, they don’t just belong to our children. They are ours. Because our kids are a part of us, and in some strange way they are us.
And so I think the objective in parenting, the goal if we are to be emotionally healthy, is to learn to manage these equally true things. Our kids and their unfolding lives. And us and our re-unfolding pasts in them.
And we will be doing this well if in the process of raising our kids, we end up raising ourselves—all over again.
If we resist the urge to put the pressure of our pain on our kids, and make peace with them instead.
If we fight the draw to put the burden of our loss on our kids, and make peace with them instead.
If we stop ourselves from putting the weight of our squandered skill or unmet expectation on our kids and make peace with them instead.
Parenting is beautiful because we get another chance, because in so many ways it is a do-over. It is an invitation to face head on the things that shaped us—for better or for worse—and to own them as part of our story, while helping our children navigate it as part of their own.
And maybe what makes parenting the most beautiful of all, is when both parents and child are able to come out more whole in the process, as our kids become better versions of themselves, and we, twenty, thirty years later, learn to do the same.
Every day I wake up and look my kids in the eyes that look so much like mine it makes me squirm sometimes, and I have a choice. Will I relive the hurts and aches and bumps and bruises of a childhood in process? Or will I see myself in those laughing eyes, making peace with what has already passed for me, while taking their hand and gently guiding them and urging them towards a future of wholeness and acceptance that is theirs for the taking?
Parenting, in so many ways, is a redo. Imagine the people we might be, imagine the little people we might send out into the world if we managed to do this well.