Monday, 17 September 2007
the rest of the other one
One of the things I find confusing about being a parent is how often and how easily I get pulled from doing what I believe is right. I find this confusing because in the rest of my life I think I run pretty sure to course.
I am by nature an analytical person. I think it through, do my research, test my theories and then lock the answer in. Not that I'm saying I'm immovable, I'm happy to re-examine my views in the light of new evidence. But I trust my process. I like to move on.
So what is it I believe about parenting that keeps getting lost?
I think children are born pretty much whole. They are not blank slates, empty vessels or even lumps of clay waiting to be molded. They are organisms born with all the tools and instincts to survive and thrive. They have personalities, preferences, desires and dislikes. They have strengths, they have weaknesses. They have imperfections.
Some of them are better placed to be happy or accepted or successful. To run fast or stay free of diseases. To control their impulses or play a musical instrument. To adapt to hardship, to sleep long hours, to be social or alone, to speak or write or draw or read. To be adventurous.
They are all entirely themselves and deserve to be loved and nurtured and given every opportunity to develop. They all need to be properly fed and sheltered and kept warm and educated, to be given health care and stimulus.
But they will all suffer. They will suffer disease and loss and cruelty and frustration. They will all experience the problems of their own shortcomings and while from an objective viewpoint these may vary wildly in scale, they will each feel and interpret their own pain subjectively. Nothing can be done to protect them from life.
Because of this, I think children develop themselves through their experiences. They behave by instinct to begin with and modify their behaviour based on what comes back at them. When it works, they'll keep on doing it, but when the results they get are not in their interests, they'll change.
There are definitely limits to how much they can change. An introvert is not likely to become an extrovert for example, and the kid who is forever on the move with boundless energy won't willingly become a couch potato. And that can present real problems. For kids and their parents too.
Because we know that some of those things, those behaviours and appetites are not good. They can hurt others, or be unhealthy or intensely annoying or lead to isolation and unhappiness. Sometimes that's a transient thing while new boundaries or developmental stages are reached. Other times it is a part of someone's make up as much as their eye colour or height.
So I believe all this with quite a high degree of confidence. That children should essentially be left alone to work it out for themselves, to become who they are unencumbered by the pressures and expectations of their parents and their community to be things they are not. And at the same time I recognise the responsibility inherent in parenting is to shepherd a child from the womb to a place where they can exist as an independent being. To find their place in the world.
So here is the paradox.
I look on my children, particularly Amy who I know so much better than Wil, as my equals in terms of their right to self-determination. Intellectually I can't find any rationale that holds up that says she should have to do things my way, or give up doing things her way. I can also point to plenty of evidence to suggest that the more I try to bend her the more she will resist, if not through battles of will now then through rebellion or repression later on. I don't want that for her. Or me. No winners there.
But neither can I deny that I have a job called mothering. To make sure she eats something more than lollies, that she wears sunscreen, that she learns to be respectful and law abiding. To teach her about the costs and benefits of conforming, to help her understand delayed gratification, to expose her to diversity and help her make good choices. To understand that it takes age to develop wisdom and not expect her to do more than she can for her stage of life.
And part of that job is also about being able to go off duty. To put some limits in place for my sanity as well as her benefit. To recognise that even if I thought she had a right to bottomless needs, I can't provide bottomless mothering. Life involves compromise and pragmatism and better we tackle that upfront rather than take it on as defeat. Be strategic about it.
Even though I'm not one to get too caught up in the chattering about being a good mother, I am not immune to the commonly held fundamental proposition that my children are almost exclusively a product of my choices and mothering. That if my child throws tantrums it is because I have given in to them in the past, if they are a fussy eater it is because I introduced foods wrongly, that if they will not sleep it is because I have established bad routines.
And the challenge is in being able to see clearly between my choices and theirs, indeed between inevitable realities and choices at all.
In those times when I am confronted by the things my children do that I can't easily accept (not sleeping, endless crying, problematic eating, talking too loudly and incessantly, whining, intolerance) or when something goes wrong that could have been prevented (injury, illness, missed opportunities) it all gets very slippery.
With Wil especially, because he can't speak for himself or assert his will, I feel I am at once his advocate and his opponent, trying to secure for him what he wants but trying to stop him from pursuing the wrong things. And all the time trying to love him and console him through the difficulty of his own journey.
So when I have to choose how often to breast feed him, to take just one of so many available examples, my instinct is to let him feed as he chooses.
But then I have to think about whether this is really a good choice, whether his desire to feed is really about feeding, whether he shouldn't be eating more solids, whether this contributes to being unsettled, whether it is in his best interests to get his nutrition and comfort from the breast. Whether this is one of those occasions where I need to shepherd him into the next stage of his life, where I need to help him towards self sufficiency. Whether I ma setting up bad habits, whether being tied to him on an hour by hour basis is really in my interests, the family's interests. Whether it is my choice, not his, to take the simple route to calm and sleep.
This is the hard work of parenting. It's not the nappies and the getting up in the night and buckets of baby food to prepare. It's the not knowing and the questioning. Accepting that everything that goes wrong may not have gone wrong if you had made different choices, but that everything that went right was probably nothing to do with you.
And can I say?
I hate it. I hate that not knowing, that always feeling responsible even knowing that what you do almost certainly makes no difference. I hate that my confidence and reason desert me when I need them most and return when a crisis passes. I hate the way every little decision must be made over and over again and reconsidered each time in a subtly different new light even though the answer is just as surely the same.
And I hate that I just feel the need to complain about it all so much because come on, I have it really good. Like the cat that swallowed the canary. It's just the feathers tickling on the way down.