When I was a kid, I was bookish, loved classical music and ballet, and took life very, very seriously. My mother was funny, undisciplined, and marching to her own drum. While other mothers pushed piano lessons and extracurricular activities, my mother let me pick and quit activities whenever I wanted and wondered why I needed to practice the ‘cello for two hours every afternoon. She drove too fast and loved to shop for clothes, and once tried to bribe this introvert with a dress purchase if only I would go to a school dance (I didn’t budge). My classmates loved her because they could tell her anything and she wouldn’t bat an eye. I, of course wanted a serious mother who took serious things seriously because life as a fifteen-year-old is very serious.
We expect so much from mothers, especially our own. The more they give, the more we want. We want them to read our minds and meet our needs. We want them to parent us but we don’t want them to parent us; we don’t really know what we want. We judge them harshly, probably because they remind us of the things we do not like about ourselves (“I sound like my mother” is not usually uttered joyfully). When we become aware of just how much we are like them, we pretend we are not, until one day we admit that yes – yes we are – and that being just like mom not so bad after all.
And as we ride this rollercoaster, a mother’s love remains unconditional. Meltdown? They’ll be there when you cool off. No phone calls for a few months because you’re newly in love? Yup, still there for the breakup. A call from the principal, a plea for a ride from a late party, the need to borrow cash, a divorce? Still there. Always there, the mothers.
That, at least, has most certainly been my experience being my mother’s daughter. In her offbeat way of mothering, my mother taught this very serious kid that life was a whole lot more bearable if you laughed stuff off. She also gave me space for creativity, acceptance, love and the understanding that emotional release and the occasional meltdown is not all that bad. Here’s what she didn’t do: get in my way. She let me be myself and pursue my own interests even though they didn’t match her own. Her unconditional love most definitely informed how I try to love my girls now that I am a mother. The deep-seated knowledge that there is nothing I could do to make my mother stop loving me has sustained me during times when I could barely like myself.
Being a mother is not just a hard job – it is more like a radical lifestyle choice. All the hard work of stuff like diapers and food and making it through the first pimple aside, the most unexpected thing I’ve learned from being a mother is that it’s not really about your children, it’s about you. Kids are beautifully made to make you a better person, whether you’d like to be one or not. All those buttons they push so well – over and over – are a gift to you, delivered in the most annoying and relentless manner ever devised by a human (or two or three). You are definitely here to teach them the basics, but in exchange you will receive the most exquisite payment in the form of personal growth.
No people have taught me more about love than my daughters. As they grow, they continue to teach me about selflessness, giving, and patience. They have also taught me what I consider the single most important lesson about how to be happy in life — that my reactions to people and to the curveballs the world throws my way are my responsibility. Let me explain.
Children are annoying. They are unfiltered, incredibly attune to their emotions, and blissfully unaware of social expectations. As they grow, they may become more aware of what is socially expected of them, but if you spend some time with a teenager you know how much they seem to enjoy pushing against these expectations. And push our buttons they do. They drive our calm and collected selves to insane places and uncomfortable corners. They bring out the parts of us we have learned to keep somewhat contained for the benefit of others. They hold up the mirror and force us to do our inner laundry.
If a family member or an acquaintance or a colleague drives you crazy, you can figure out a way to avoid them, or cut the conversation short. If your relationship is strained, you can expect your partner to listen to your concerns and perhaps work together to make changes, but if all else fails, you can avoid them too. But when your kid has driven you crazy for the vast majority of the day and you finally lose your cool and yell, there is no escape. You can’t leave to cool off because who’s going to read the bedtime story, or take the time to find out why your kid is upset? Guess what, you’re up—you have no choice but to stay put and get over yourself.
The other day one of my daughters was annoying her sister throughout the day, and it finally led to a big blowout between the two. The annoyee was sent to her room amid protests of her sister being the favorite. She was crying and angry and said that she hated everyone (not the first time, and surely not the last I will hear these words). I approached her and asked why she was upset, and she re-iterated her complaint about her sister being the favorite, but in being given the room to express her feelings, she soon opened up about other things bothering her. Her concerns were those of a typical 10-year-old growing up and making sense of herself and her interpersonal relationships, but they also sounded true for most adults. Sometimes our emotions are strong, but we do not yet understand where they are coming from. It takes some semblance of maturity to step back and ask ourselves, why am I angry? What is the real reason? This introspection is not given to us at birth – it is a learned skill. We tend to interpret all our emotions as true instead of taking a step back to learn more about what drives us. But if we can learn to stop and consider why we are upset – in my daughter’s case, her sister, or her own feelings – a whole different world opens up. This episode with my daughter took perhaps 10 minutes, but it changed the way she interacted with us and her sister for the remainder of the day. She seemed lighter, calmer. She had learned something about herself and what drove her.
Approaching my daughter calmly when she was being difficult and everyone was agitated from the argument was not easy. What I really wanted to do was leave her in time-out for a bit so she (and I) could both settle down. But in her frustration she needed me the most. Who among us hasn’t been in a less-than-lovely mood and being a pill, making those near you want to avoid you, but what you need most is for them to reach out to you?
Mothering my girls has required me to step back from my initial, gut-driven emotions over and over again. By being vulnerable, facing and sharing my deepest fears and not-so-awesome moments, I hope I can increasingly parent in their best interest. Naturally, I don’t always succeed at this, but I am a firm believer in effort.
This morning I was thinking about how in approaching my daughter at her worst, I let her know that I love her unconditionally, which helped her feel safe enough to share how she was feeling. In the process I learned a great deal about how she sees herself in the world right now. We both grew from approaching an ugly moment with compassion and patience. And then I wondered, why is it that we can readily do this for our children, but we find it so difficult to do it in our adult relationships?
When my daughters make mistakes, I like to tell them that we are all learning, even the adults. While grown-ups look a bit more polished, we are all still works in progress. To walk this talk, I should afford everyone in my life the same compassion and patience I offer my girls when they make mistakes or fail to learn something on the first try. But the truth is I don’t. I get frustrated with my own Mother when I have to explain things twice instead of appreciating her relentless curiosity and free spirit. I expect adults to be able to act like adults all the time (as if I could do the same!). Sometimes when adults in my life are being needy, I wish they would just figure it out themselves because I already have kids to worry about.
If I needed evidence that we are all in constant state of learning, look at how long it has taken me to put two-and-two together: I shouldn’t just mother my children, I should mother everyone. All this letting go and compassion that I continue to gain as I parent the girls should not just be for my daughters, it should be for everyone. I don’t mean this in condescending way – the world certainly does not need a work in progress like myself telling it what to do. But the world most certainly needs more patience, compassion, and a listening ear. Because just as I have learned much, much more from my daughters than I will ever teach them, who knows what wonderful personal growth awaits us when we leave ourselves open to being of service to others?