Remember when our children were never sick?
Sure, most of us can recall nights with fussy toddlers and days of doing multiple loads of laundry to try to wash the germs out of the environment. But, when children are babies, parents like to believe their children are rarely sick, and they credit that robust health to something they did:
Mom 1: I exclusively breastfed for 16 months, and my baby is rarely sick.
Mom 2: I think my children are healthy because I stay home and don't expose them to daycare germs
Mom 3: Actually, my doctor says that daycare germs are good for children, because it helps them strengthen their immune system. My kids may have been sick as babies, but they've been the healthiest kids in their elementary school.
New parents are pretty intent on having perfect children. I imagine this has something to do with the belief that we have the power to control our children. We're bombarded with messages about how to make our children smarter! healthier! less prone to obesity, diabetes, nearsightedness, attention deficit disorder, fussy eating and learning disabilities! We invest our time in these articles, and we spend our money on organic veggies or simple wooden toys that cost four times what we'd pay for a plastic toy at Target. Surely, this investment is worthwhile, and we reassure ourselves by pointing out our child's strengths and giving ourselves credit for each one.
By the time the kids are 'tweens, parents start to realize that we're maybe not as on top of the parenting game as we thought we were. Maybe the stuff they teach in the book doesn't work, or maybe we've decided to ditch the book in favor of cutting parental corners on occasion. Sure, the book says kids need a consistent bedtime. But our kids balk at going to bed on Friday nights, and we tell them to turn off the lights when they come to bed, because we can't stay up as long as they can, at least not on a Friday. Still, parents don't yet want to admit their parental gaps. Instead, we learn to redirect before the conversation turns to our little dears.
Mom 1: Did we hear about Susan? I ran into her at the grocery store, and she says her 12-year-old is a holy terror. She's talking back, refusing to do homework and texting boys. (Note: Mom 1 does not want to discuss the fact that her own 'tween broke her bedroom door last week slamming it during a tantrum. Instead, she will focus on poor Susan's troubles.)
Mom 2: Why does she put up with that? If she were my child, she'd be grounded for six years. I refuse to let my children act like that. (Note: Mom 2 hopes nobody saw her own 'tween standing on the sidewalk last week, screaming that she was going to run away, and if she wants to fail all her classes, she can!)
Mom 3: That's nothing. Have you seen Marsha's daughter? I saw her at the park last week, and she looks like a 20-year-old. Her face was caked with makeup, and her clothes looked two sizes too small. I can't believe Marsha lets her out of the house looking like that. (Note: Mom 3's daughter is obsessed with her "boyfriend," and Mom 3 caught them alone in the daughter's bedroom last week when they were supposed to be studying in the family room.)
Twelve years after the cute and cuddly stage, parents aren't ready to admit that this parenting gig isn't quite what we signed up for. We don't want to relinquish control to these little humans who are flexing their independence muscles, trying to assert their individuality by refusing our advice. We go out and buy more self-help books, and sign up for more classes, and hang onto the hope that we still have some influence on our children. And according to the experts, we do. They're still listening. Our words and actions may still influence their actions. But we're also starting to realize that we aren't perfect parents, and we cannot control our children's every action.
If we still don't believe that, here come the teen years. The teen-age years serve to humble the proudest parents. Even good teens defy rational thinking at times, and the more challenging teens make us wonder what business we ever had getting into this parenting gig. We struggle, yet we're afraid to tell other parents about it. After all, the other parents all seem to have such perfect children. They're all perfect parents. We're the parental failures.
And finally, someone 'fesses up. The kid is driving her crazy.
Mom 1: Last night, we received a call from the school. Apparently our daughter was caught making out in the janitor's closet. That's not how we raised her.
Cue the confessions. Mom 2's daughter is failing gym and refuses to go to summer school, potentially sacrificing her high school diploma. Mom 3's daughter is in therapy, because she's convinced she's ugly and fat, and last month she made some threatening remarks in a school diary that resulted in professional intervention. Or maybe the kids are just mouthing off. Every. Single. Evening. Mom 1 cautiously admits that her daughter called her a bad name, and she called her one right back. Mom 2 laughs and says if she's lasted this long without losing her temper with her teen-aged daughter, she's behind the curve. Mom 3 admits that the best part about putting her daughter in inpatient treatment was getting a slight break from the daily battle.
It takes a decade and a few years, but eventually the truth comes out. Our kids aren't perfect. We aren't perfect. Don't walk by our houses between 6:50 and 7:10 a.m. on a school day unless you want to hear nagging and screaming with a dash of sarcasm and eye rolls. This wasn't in our plan. When they were cute and cuddly, we imagined we'd beat the odds and raise respectful, talented, happy academic overachievers. We held them as babies. Read to them as toddlers. Volunteered in the classroom. Bought them the cool clothes. Helped them with homework, at least until they knew more than we did. What happened to the perfect children?
Heck if I know.
I do know, however, that I have come to cherish parents of adult children. Remember them? They were the ones who laughed when we produced a funky looking pacifier, claiming it was going to reduce the need for braces in the future. They smiled knowingly when we sent out the emails proclaiming that our darlings won the classroom spelling bee or scored the most points in a game. They withheld their comments when the public bragging came to a screaming stop. And more importantly, they shared their successes.
"It gets worse," one friend warns me. "It gets worse, but then it gets better."
"We went through high school knowing that he could do better, but his grades were horrible," another tells me. "Then in college, he suddenly decided to turn it around."
These veteran parents do more than calm us down. They give us hope, as we look at their well-adjusted, adult children who are successful citizens even if they didn't go to Harvard or make the World Cup team. They reassure us that the journey is worth it, although we may need to readjust our expectations. Perhaps most importantly, they reinforce the notion that we eventually have to let go of our own dreams and help our children discover their own passions, even the passions we never imagined.
So parents, speak up. This isn't a competition. It's a journey we're taking together. We need to be honest, so we can support each other. Nobody's child is perfect. Some are better than others, but I don't think any parent gets out of this without occasionally wanting to assume a new identity and move to a small town in Montana.
Let's hope that someday we'll be the ones telling new parents to hang in there, because it was all worth it.