Monday, 31 July 2006

Motherhood and the quest for perfection

The last of my five children is now less than a year from her 18th birthday, the right to vote and official status as an adult. Because of the particular circumstances of our family, it is highly likely that 12 months from now, my husband and I will find ourselves alone under the familial roof. This looming empty nest evokes a number of conflicting emotions for me; regret, nostalgia, relief, and pensiveness.

I always wanted to be the perfect mother. I was wise enough not to expect perfect kids, but not wise enough to refrain from placing the same impossible burden of perfection on myself. If you had asked me, I would have denied doing such a thing, but deep down, that was my goal.

I failed miserably.

This was only to be expected, but I still feel deep regret for the wide chasm between my aspirations and reality.

In our modern anthropocentric world, we feel compelled to take responsibility for everything (or failing that, to divert it to "society" or "government" - but that is a topic for another day) and to think that if we just find the right formula, just the right technique, success is assured. After 25 years of often highly intense parenting, I can assure you that this is pure fantasy.

A formula for perfect parenting does not, CAN not exist. The number of variables is so staggeringly high, there is no way to reduce parenting even to a complex algorithm, let alone a simple formula. Genetics, birth order, individual personalities, the complex and ever-changing web of relationships with parents and siblings, medical conditions, the influence of teachers, friends, relatives and neighbours, financial conditions - the list goes on and on. Any parent with more than one child has observed with some bewilderment how two children in the same family can have two diametrically opposite reactions to an identical situation. And that is only the tiniest tip of a very vast iceberg. Faced with such diversity and complexity, how can we possibly expect our children to perform like vending machines: "Insert coins here, collect product at the bottom."

There is no one size fits all; it just doesn't work that way.

All of my children give me cause for pride: they are all bright, creative, open to others, free of prejudice, disdainful of free rides. It would appear that we have managed to do some things right.

On the other hand, all have given me cause for concern, and sometimes even grief or shame. To what degree have I been a factor in bad choices they've made and bad values they've chosen? Quite honestly, I don't think that's a question I can begin to answer. I wish I could.

Keeping in mind that there are no guarantees of success, because too much of it is out of our hands and too much of it is in our hands, I have learned a thing or two.

Firstly, just about everything is better caught than taught. It's a truism, but no less true for all that. When words and your actions don't line up, the actions will win out pretty well every time.

Kids need to get bored. Entertainment shouldn't be available at all times. If they complain there's nothing to do, offer them housework. They'll quickly find something else to do, developing both their creativity and their autonomy.

Kids need to be treated with respect and consideration. By this I don't mean treating them like mini adults. They don't have the life experience to make informed choices in many cases, which is why they need parents. What I do mean, is treating them the same way you would want to be treated in the same situation. Even when disciplining them, basic courtesy is never out of place.

Anger is highly destructive and the quickest way to lose a child's respect.

Children have free will and intelligences of their own and bear a good part of the responsibility for how they turn out themselves. Parents can be a powerful influence, but they are not the be-all and the end-all.

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Irving Karchmar said...

An excellent post on parenting :) I would recommend reading the poet Robert Bly's book Iron John, on the important role of the male role model, fathering, etc. It is fascinating, and equally important as being a good mother.

Janet said...

OK, Irving, I've reserved it at the library (got to love online services).

Really though, the title was chosen as much for esthetics as anything else. "Parenting" seems to me to be such an emotionless word, so I chose motherhood instead. The post really is not specific to women.

janet said...

Very well said.
Parenting is the hardest thing I've ever done.

Janet said...

janet, ain't it the truth! Everything else in life seems simple in comparison. But then again, I've never lived in a war zone... ;o)


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