When I originally found out I was pregnant with my oldest son, I did not have too many expectations of what being a parent was like. I was 19 years old, and living a fairly unstable nomadic life at that point. Finding out I was pregnant was like adding fertilizer to the garden. My growth increased, I started to unfurl, but it was not instantaneous.
Going through childbirth is to this day the one experience in my life that was the most intense. I think nothing else captures that sense of pain, exhaustion, joy, and expectation that the delivery process is.
I am an insatiable learner, and devoured books on parenting whole. I was determined to "do this right". Raising children was going to be my opus magna. Then, reality set in. I was doing it by the book, but the books often conflicted, and my son had his own ideas. We were poor, and by the time he was two I was working 50 hours a week, taking 9 credit hours in school, and still doing the brunt of the home and child care. By the time he was three, I was tired of the supermom life and moved my family 200 miles away from our home base to go to school full time. Along came my second child.
That was when things got really interesting. Things were not going well. I learned, I lived, but I fell prey to self-doubt. I believed I was the one going insane, when in reality, it was the chaos swirling around me. I had to let some things go, and grab on and hold tight to other things. I was damaged, but I survived. My children survived. My marriage did not. My career did not. My confidence in my abilities as a parent did not.
After that Winter came the Spring. I started to grow again. I adapted to the new life I had, learning to live and to parent anew. I embraced a new identity as the mother of a child with special needs, as the mother of boys, and as a single mother. I embraced motherhood.
And yet, I did not realize yet that those nebulous expectations still existed. I still expected my children to be children. I still expected that those in my life would respect my role as their mother, and as my older son's caregiver. And, even more importantly, I expected people to acknowledge the fact that I am not perfect. I still had needs beyond motherhood, and one of those was the need for a break.
I had not realized that I had not confronted the fact that my expectations of what life would be like at this point have been completely shattered. I have not mourned the loss of the life I dreamed of. I thought my children would be working towards independence and my life would look a lot different than it does.
Each day was and is a new adventure. I never know what to expect. And I have found my expectations to be shaped by the life I lived and by my experiences. I fall short of those expectations, and find myself revising them. My children do not fit in those expectations and I find myself revising them. And sometimes, something happens that makes me re-examine everything.
I have a quote in my e-mail signature that I get a lot of compliments on: "Bringing up a family should be an adventure, not an anxious discipline in which everybody is constantly graded for performance." ~ Milton R. Sapirstein (Paradoxes of Everyday Life). There is currently a lot of conflict in my oldest's son's Child and Family Team. (.pdf) A therapist I am seeing was reviewing the issues I brought up, a lot of which were a direct critique of me and my parenting, and a recommendation that my son go live with his father. This is not the place to go into details about the how or the why or even the rebuttals against some of the accusations being leveled at me.
But the point I am trying to make is that she said something that blew me out of the water. She looked at me and told me that she did not know if she could handle someone examining her parenting to that level of detail. I looked at her blankly for a second, and slowly realized a new paradigm. While I had verbalized the quote above, I had not internalized it. I had merely accepted the fact that my parenting was going to be scrutinized with a fine tooth comb because I had invited people into my life for help. I had internalized the "Your son has problems, therefore you must be a bad parent" message. I allowed others expectations and perceptions of me to guide what I was doing, instead of really figuring out what was truly best for my family.
We had had a discussion last week, because I am not doing so well at school, about failure and perfection. I realized something and said it through tears, "I can fail at school, but I can NOT fail at parenthood. The stakes are too high." That evolved into a discussion of how vulnerable you are when you present something as your best creative work and people tear it to shreds. People have been doing that to me for years. But now, I think I am ready to say it.
Raising my children, giving them boundaries while allowing them to develop into their own people, and coaching them and helping them through their lives, is my best creative work. I have put myself into it body and soul. And in spite of all the hardship, all the trauma, and the extra help our little family needs, I am proud of it. I am a good parent. I am not a perfect parent, and no one has a right to expect me to be one.
"Each of us must come to care about everyone else's children. We must recognize that the well being of our own children is intimately linked to the well being of all other people's children. After all, when one of our children needs life-saving surgery, someone else's child will perform it. When one of our children is harmed by violence, someone else's child will commit it. The good life for our own children can be secured only if it is also secured for all other people's children. But to work for the well being of all children is not just a practical matter-- it is also right!" - Lilian G. Katz, Phd.