“You must first teach a child he is loved. Only then is he ready to learn everything else.” ~Amanda Morgan
If I had a nickel for every parent who asked me, “So, if we do (…insert a strategy they have been given…), can we know for sure that he won’t have to deal with (…insert list of problems here …) when he grows up?”
Sadly, there are no nickels for hearing the question, nor guarantees to offer anxious parent. In fact, parental anxiety exists largely because life has no guarantees.
Nevertheless, the question in itself is worth considering.
So let’s look at it. Essentially, every parent wants to know “What should we be doing to guarantee that our child is a ‘successful’ adult who won’t have to experience avoidable pain and suffering?”
Let that sink in.
Of course, we want to have this reassurance.
Of course, we want our children to never have to experience the pain and suffering that we know are possible in life.
And, of course, we want to do what we can, proactively, to help them avoid the pitfalls.
But can we?
It’s September 2020 and as I write this, I am highly aware that my only child was born twenty-five years ago tomorrow. I’m a bit melancholic.
Twenty-five years ago today, I was preparing for my maternity leave from a workplace I thoroughly enjoyed, providing mental health care to children, teens, and their families. I put in extra hours when it was needed, not out of a sense of obligation, but because it was truly inspiring, meaningful work and I felt blessed for having the opportunity to do it.
And I had a plan! I would take the maximum six months paid maternity leave, but after that, I would be returning to this wonderfully demanding job. I would find quality childcare. All would be well.
But that plan changed when I met her.
Due to complications, I was not conscious for her birth and so, when I met her, two hours later, she was asleep. I couldn’t have been more dumbfounded if I had woken up to a pink, polka dotted dancing elephants in my hospital room.
She was in an incubator at the foot of my bed, wrapped all in pink with a little pink knitted hat on her tiny head. It was a girl! And I was in awe. And completely in love.
In that moment, though I didn’t quite know it yet, my plans were going to change.
My doctor stopped by on her rounds the next morning.
“Any baby blues?” she asked.
“Does crying during the Freedom 55 commercial count? You know the one where they show you that little girl being born, grow up, and then she’s bringing her children to visit her mother?”
She laughed. “You’ve got more than a few years before you’re worrying about that, Judith!”
“Ah. Then, no. We’re good,” I muttered.
But was I?
In those earliest of days, as I waited for us to be discharged from hospital, my whole experience of who I was and what mattered to me inexorably changed. My only priority was to care for her. And, so long as I was conscious, I could put my arms around her and meet her every need!
In the end, I took an eleven-month maternity leave and then quit my much loved, but demanding job. I negotiated part-time contract work that was financially and practically workable and did not require “extra” time. And that was that.
By the time she was starting pre-school, I turned my career back to working with children because, beyond enjoying working with children, I could learn strategies for “how to be a better parent” through my work. And my experience as a parent contributed to improving the quality of my work with the children and their families. This was a win-win.
What came to matter most was making sure my daughter was protected, safe, and had everything she ever needed to be a happy, successful, competent, confident, independent, compassionate, kind, loved adult. My efforts in all other areas of my life were guided by this intention.
If I took time for meditating, it was to be able to be more present with her.
If I continued with my music lessons, it was to be an example to her of how leisure and learning are lifelong pursuits and part of a balanced life.
I read self-help books to help me navigate my role as a parent in the most responsible way.
I did some things well. Really well! At other times, I messed up and then apologized and made things right.
I know I will continue to do well sometimes. And not so well at other times. I will continue to be a fallible human mother in a relationship with her fallible human child.
And now she’s twenty-five years old. She has finished her post-secondary program. She has loving friends and family. She has skills and talents. She has my full support when she wants or needs it.
And despite everything I know, have learned, and done, I still cannot guarantee that she won’t experience pain and suffering in her life.
At this point, like her peers, she is trying to launch into an adult life during a global pandemic. And it’s hard. But, as hard as it is for her, it is equally hard for me to witness. While I can still put my arms around her, I can no longer meet her every need. And no matter what either or us do, there are no guarantees.
So, my answer to that golden question is: No. There are no guarantees that any of the strategies we use will give our children lives free of struggles, challenges, pain, and strife.
At the end of the day, there is only one thing that will really matter. It’s whether or not we’ve had a healthy relationship with them in which they have felt truly safe and loved.
A relationship in which they know they can choose to turn to us for love and support during those inevitably painful times in life, knowing we will be there. Holding a safe space. Arms open wide ready to hold them.
And when we’re no longer able to be in this life with them, that they can have the deep imprint of love through the lived experience of the secure, safe, honest relationship they had with us.
How do we do this?
By showing up.
By getting things right.
By getting things wrong.
By making apologies and making amends.
By creating a relationship in which they feel seen, heard, understood and loved. For who they are. Not for who we expect them to be.
When I think of my daughter and her upcoming birthday, I immediately see a little bundle wrapped in pink. And I smile. She’ll be okay.