There is an old saying that God only gives you what you can handle. If that’s the case, she must think I can handle virtually nothing in the parenting department, because my parenting experience has been absolutely magical.
Since before kids are born, you’re taught to dread the teenage years. Goodness knows that if their infancies were any measure, I was in for a lot of trouble. They were terrible babies and toddlers. Or, rather, they were perfectly average babies and toddlers, but I was completely unprepared for the steamroller known as motherhood. I didn’t get much sleep deprivation (they were great sleepers from the start), and I never had to worry about them eating (they were little vacuum cleaners, inhaling anything I put in front of them), but I was just not ready for the sheer intrusiveness of children. I didn’t go to the bathroom without the door open for at least five years. I gave up on the thought of sleeping without one of them kicking my ribs. When they were awake, they demanded all my attention, barraged me with their needs, and distracted from anything I wanted to do. With two babies a year and a half apart, and a husband who worked at his businesses seven days a week, it felt like I was under siege at all times. It was overwhelming.
But then I got up to speed. And they did their part. They stopped dropping in the middle of supermarkets for temper tantrums. They stopped turning purple in their car seats from screaming as I drove with frayed nerves. They stopped writing on my walls. They went off to school, and I got a small sliver of my life back. I coached their soccer teams and volunteered as class mom. By the time I got divorced, when they were 9 and 7, they were eminently sensible, and the divorce encouraged a sense of cooperation and calm among us. Without the unhappiness and the fighting in the house, they flourished. We became a team. We laughed at silly in-jokes, and watched movies cuddled up on the couch. They forgave me my bad cooking and were always game for take-out. Somewhere, when I wasn’t looking, they became the best thing that ever happened to me.
I published a book, a lifelong dream that changed the way I felt about myself. Suddenly I was a doer, a woman of accomplishment, if only in my own mind. I looked back to trace the clues that led me there, and I saw their fingerprints on all of it. My ability to focus had been honed by the challenges of their childhood. My desire to work toward something bigger had been fueled by their existence. My ability to push through discomfort and disappointment had been enhanced by them, because they dwarfed the significance of all challenges. They were my mission, and they made me a woman I was proud to be. And, by being the woman they made me, I was finally able to achieve dreams that had eluded me before them.
But there were still the dreaded teenage years to face. I clung to them, with their honest, clear eyes, and tried to drink up every last moment of sweetness before it disappeared behind the surliness and opposition that I was assured was right around the corner. I cringed when my daughter, my eldest, turned 11, then 12. Twelve was a little bumpy, with her newfound desire for (mostly digital) independence, and I braced, just knowing it was the slippery slide into a contentious adolescence. It passed. She fought me her whole 12th year to join Facebook (I had a 13-and-older rule), only to become utterly bored by it a month after joining the day of her 13th birthday. High school started smoothly, and stayed smooth. My son, a year and a half behind, remained sweet as pie, open, kind, even as he zoomed past me and towered over me at an inexplicable six feet tall (I’m 5’6″, his father is 5’9″ tops). There were no late nights. No forays into bad behaviors. We talked about absolutely everything, and I tried really hard not to be a pearl-clutching Victorian about questions on sex and drugs. I told them that curiosity was natural, and that I’d be there to help them as I could.
After a year or so of waiting for the worst, I let myself hope that maybe it wasn’t coming. I did my best to be a real person to them. When I didn’t know what to do, I confessed that to them. When I was concerned about this or that behavior, I tried to explain why as I might want to hear it explained to me. I tried not to yell (and succeeded mostly, although I failed on a few occasions). I remember, during my own painful and highly adversarial adolescence, promising myself that I would do it much better as a parent than I felt my parents had done it. I wasn’t sure how that would be. But I told myself I’d never make my kids feel like we were on opposite sides, that their wants were wrong, that they were somehow defective and I had to correct them. I would be open about what I knew of the process of growing up, and transparent about what I didn’t know. I reminded myself, from their earliest, food-flinging days, that my responsibility wasn’t just to the children in front of me, but to the adults they would one day become. I tried to parent to the adult, not the child, asking myself if I really wanted to stamp out traits like independence of thought and questioning authority. I wasn’t sure if that would work, but it was all that felt fair and honest. So, stumblingly, and without a blueprint, a moment at a time, that’s what I did. And I think it may have worked.
My daughter is a year away from her adulthood, and I can see the woman in her, responsible and single-minded in her pursuit of goals, bright and full of dreams I’m sure she’ll make happen. My son is two and a half years away, and he’s an entirely different person from his sister, but he’s sober and considered, a thinker but still playful. They are two admirable human beings.
So, the universe sends you only what you can handle. I am grateful beyond measure for what the universe has sent me, two of the best and brightest and funniest and most thoughtful people I know. That I get to know them at all feels like a great privilege. That I get to call myself their mother feels like a blessing of impossible proportion. When I told myself, so many years ago, that I wanted to get it right, I could not have imagined that it could be like this. And that’s because I didn’t know them yet, and they’re the secret ingredient to my everything.