Conversations worth having


A few weeks ago an old college friend, the mother of two young children, reached out to me via Facebook.  She asked me for general parenting advice.  What she got in return was likely more than she bargained for! I hammered out a heady email (posted below), with the thoughts just streaming out faster than I could type. She responded in kind. Clearly, this was a conversation that we both craved in some way.

I recently came back to this email thread and realized that this conversation was important not just to share, but to encourage other parents like us to engage with each other more.  So, I’d like to start the conversation here and see where it goes. What are your thoughts on parenting, self-worth, social contributions? What do you struggle with?  What advice would you share with another parent?

Dear X,

It must be the phase of life that we are all in, but I’ve been ruminating on these issues for the past few months. I will give you as thorough an answer as I am able.  And forgive me if this is not what you are looking for. Bear with me as I’m not quite sure where to start, so I’ll just start in the middle. 

First, the grass is always greener from the other side. Don’t believe the lovely FB posts and photos; no one’s life is perfect and mine certainly isn’t.  I am not unhappy, mind you, but like many parents of a certain age (ahem), I am struggling with where family ends and I begin. Or, put in another way, what would the younger me think of me now?  

It’s cliche, but I am older and wiser now. I know that idealism has its limits and reality always perseveres. I know that life is not black and white, and moreover, I live/think/feel in the grey areas. I know that as a woman, a mother, a daughter, I am constantly choosing (with my full intention) to put the needs of others before my own. I also know that that’s not what I wish for my daughter or other women. But it also happens to be the most expedient, efficient, financially responsible and loving choices that I can make at this time for my family. I know that I would regret choosing otherwise. And somewhere, in the midst of all that, I fear that I am losing a part of myself. Contradictions abound. 

I wonder daily what kind of mark will I leave? What contributions have I made? I am also simultaneously reminded, in my ever so super-ego-realistic way, that there is still time. That Julia Childs wasn’t Julia Childs until way into her 40s. Deep down inside, there is also a small voice that tells me that I have made contributions, that I have made a difference.  But the ambition in me tells me otherwise.  Again, contradictions. But while I hear both voices, I just don’t know how to reconcile them and where they will lead me next. 

As for motherhood, well, I will be frank with you and tell you that it gets easier and it doesn’t. There will be an end to the fog and you will sleep again, but the worries and stress over sleep and feeding will give way to more difficult concerns. With a son and a daughter, I am keenly aware of the world that they will grow up in and inherit. I worry about bullying in middle school and how to prepare my son for the inevitable disappointments, frustrations and failures. I wonder if his fear of dying (and the tears and anxiety) will manifest in other ways. I wonder how many social expectations my daughter will internalize–she already prefers the beauty of blue eyes and blond hair. I wonder if I am setting her up for failure and confusion by not sharing the truths about our misogynist and racial society. I wonder how to instill in them compassion for and curiosity about the world and people around them. I worry that they are too far removed from poverty and struggle to value hard work and sacrifice.

I am also fully aware that I don’t have many answers, that I will have to do the best that I can (with Mr. No Nom of course), to navigate their childhoods. At the end of the day, I try to remind myself that they will hurt, they will cry, and the best I can do is teach them how to pick themselves back up and move forward.  And above all, I want them to be kind to others and themselves.  But it’s all really a crapshoot, isn’t it?  Just as none of us were able to choose our children’s personalities, tendencies, and talents, we cannot control their path in life–the highs, the lows, the periods that will require great fortitude and personal strength.  We can only try to lead by example, to translate our values into real actions. We hope that we will have given them the skills that we think they will need, and then we keep our fingers crossed. We will fail, in some parts or many. I still have a hard time coming to terms with that.

That I even have time for such wonderings is a massive sign of immense privilege.  Some days I don’t even know how I got here, so far from the little girl who once shared a small apartment with 13 family members. The past seems so far away, and yet a scent, a picture will bring back all the old anxieties and fears. I had forgotten how much has happened and all the way points of this journey. And I realize that much of journey had been running away from things that I now finally have the courage and strength to embrace. 

Older and wiser. I hope that I am doing some small justice to that statement. We are old enough now to have seen something of the world with all its imperfections and moments of transcendent humanity. I think the best we can do for ourselves, each other, and our own children, is to be supportive, to not judge. We each have our own stories and struggles, and as parents, we owe it to each other to appreciate and support each other. Our children are watching and listening. 

I hope you do not regret asking me for words of wisdom.  I’m afraid wisdom is always a work in progress.  But since you’ve asked, this is what I’ve got:

– Be kind to yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. 
– Showers are overrated. 
– They will not be wearing diapers when they’re in college. Ditto for not sleeping through the night.
– Don’t give up who you are — the kids will need to know how to not give up who they are.
– Pacing is everything. There’s plenty of time left to make your contributions to society.
– Ask for help when you need it. There is no shame in that.
– Don’t believe the lean-in shit by Sheryl Sandberg–most of us don’t live with that level of privilege.
– Talk to your friends as much as you can.  I can’t tell you how many extra years I will live because I can bitch to Mrs. Next Doors on a daily basis.
– Trust your instincts and trust your love for your family.

– Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, it’s a losing proposition. 

I think that’s all the wisdom I have for now.  My apologies for going on such a rant and if it’s not entirely coherent. Thanks for reaching out. Let’s make sure to catch up in person soon! In the meantime, I’d be delighted to keep the conversation going.  You are not alone!

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