Can you parent your child in such a way as to protect them from living the same mistakes you made? I was asked this recently by a young woman without children. Can you try to help them avoid repeating the bits of your childhood you dislike? To which I thought, really, can you parent them any other way? Like it not, we are all parenting in response to our parents, to our world, to our younger selves. It is parenting as therapy. Parenting as reinvention. Parenting as proof. There is no clean go of this to be had.
Because here’s the thing, your parenting approach is part advice received, part instinct, part aspirations of the other parent and part muddling through. But underneath all that, like groundwater beneath the field of dreams, runs your childhood and your feelings about it. Dig down and you might find a swamp of fetid water or a gently bubbling spring.
You’ll think you’re suitably distanced from it up here at ground level, tending to your field through the seasons, but actually your parenting is watered just as much by that aquifer as it is by all the new rain.
We don’t know, half the time, why we even do the things we do as parents. My mother impetuously banned pop music as I entered adolescence. I was just falling in love with it when a sweeping, Amish-like gesture was installed in the house. It began with rules about an acceptable volume for listening to contemporary music and strong opinions about those who could possibly find anything of value in pop music, and shifted rapidly on to the complete removal of my radio.
Years later my mother and I found the forbidden item at the back of her cupboard and seeing it covered in kitten stickers I realised how young I must have been when the punishment was issued. I never understood the ban, though being a teenager I interpreted it as resistance to my independence. But I also knew it was a crazy, difficult time in our lives. Sudden single parenthood and instant poverty. An abyss opened up beneath us and my mother gripped the sides of that sinkhole, grabbing frantically for hand and foot holds to steady herself and hold my siblings and I tight to prevent us falling further.
When I came to writing this article I asked my mother about that pop music ban. It is certainly something I have approached differently as a parent, my own children actively encouraged to explore their taste in music. Had she been concerned that pop culture would inspire teenage rebellion in me? No, revisiting it now she wondered if she’d simply been reminded of her childhood.
When her older sister had become a teenager she had developed such a fondness for pop music (and distance, as it later turned out), that she’d carried a radio everywhere with her and shut my mother and everything else out. And that is how much of my own parenting must happen, too. These reflexive, visceral responses.
My mother, worrying how to get the money to reconnect the telephone might have found the radio playing in my bedroom an irritation -- how can she be expected to think straight with that distraction -- but what she was really experiencing was a sinking sense of aloneness.
Someone once said that you parent with the antidote to your parents when what your child really needs is the antidote to you. I don’t mean that your childhood was poisonous and your parents toxic, though Mothers’ Day is passed now and if you want to unload, go right ahead. What I’m trying to say is that you endured certain difficulties in your family and you acquired certain survival skills along the way. That wisdom was hard won.
You were misunderstood as a child, we all were. You’re a mess, we all are. Naturally, you intend to correct those past wrongs with your own child. You don’t want them to live the same insults and challenges, you want them to skip the hurt.
So, maybe you’re trying to impart coping mechanisms or maybe you’re just trying to shape superior taste - banning pop music is not all that different from forcing pop music snobbery on a child. Either way, you are projecting your fears and wishes on to them.
My friend tells a story about this projection. About how growing up her mother kept ignoring my friend’s tomboy nature by giving her jewelery and dresses. These feminine items were not just gifts my friend failed to be sufficiently grateful for, they were invitations for closeness she was perceived to be rejecting. But my friend was feeling her own sense of rejection. Why couldn’t her mother accept her for who she was instead of trying to change her?
Years later my friend has come full circle, her own young daughters are enamored with pretty dresses and cosmetics and now she must think about how to accommodate their passions in her home. Contemplating all this she realised something about her mother. That her mother went to boarding school as a young girl and coming from a rural area struggled to fit in with the more sophisticated city girls. How dresses and jewelry would have been social currency and knowing the pain of not fitting in her mother had tried to save her from that struggle. But what her mother actually did was to make her feel like she didn’t belong, not even in her family. An act of motherly protection gone wrong.
It strikes me from all of this how incredibly difficult it is to disassociate your identity from your child’s. How your child’s differences can easily be felt as rejection just as their expression of self is seen to be a reflection on you. But parenting in reply to your childhood is a conversation with the past. Just as parenting as reinvention is a conversation with an unknown future. What both these conversations lack is the present.
In both instances you are not having a conversation with your child but with yourself. Your child and their unique needs and possibilities go unheard. The answer to this dilemma, I am increasingly understanding, is to be very still and very open to them. And more than anything, it involves waiting.