The parental voice, it’s like the voice of God. It spoke to us with such power when we were small and so we carry it with us for good or for bad.
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” And we learn that our sadness is not true sadness.
“How can you be hungry? You just ate dinner!” And we learn that we can’t trust our own appetites.
“Come on now, Santa’s not scary; sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas!” And we learn that we can’t believe our instinctive fear.
“You do not know yourself as well as I know you!” That’s what those things say to children. That’s what was said to many of us and so we don’t know. We don’t believe ourselves. We try not to cry because our problems are not worthy of our sorrow. We eat when the clock — not our bodies — say. We ignore that sinking feeling that something is very wrong and stay with the person who hurts us.
We parents, we sometimes have a hard time remembering that our children are fully their own people. It’s understandable because for such a very long time they do seem to be completely of us. The infants we carry, the babies we know, the toddlers who need tucked in to sleep even though they want to keep running — no wonder we have a hard time believing them when they insist that they’re full or that they are truly afraid of the bathtub drain. We know them best; we knew them before they knew themselves and those first breaks away are painful and hard.
It takes practice to separate on both sides. It takes practice to say, “I end here and there you begin.” We’ll make mistakes and insist on coats when they don’t want them and buy them gifts they don’t like because we’ve read them wrong. Generally, if there’s love and respect and (importantly) a willingness to acknowledge that we may be wrong our children will thrive in spite of those mistakes. But when we insist, when we tell them that our filters have to rule their worlds, we do real harm.
Some of us do that harm because harm was done to us. We grew up believing that we could not know anything because we were so small. We believe that our parents ignored our wants, wishes and needs for our own good. We repeat the damage because confronting our own losses is just too hard. To acknowledge that our children are separate if we were not allowed to be is to confront the loss of the self-awareness we were denied.
This is one reason parenting is so dang hard. We’re not just parenting our children; we are re-parenting ourselves.
Way back when we were trying to have that elusive second baby, I would go for walks while my then 4-year old son was in preschool. His program met in a pretty, suburban neighborhood with big, handsome houses at one end and modest homes with front porches on the other end. I would pick my routes at random, not deciding which way to go until I hit a corner and found something to catch my eye. Halfway through the two-and-a-half hours, I’d turn around and arrive at the playground in time to see my son race around on a tricycle with his friends during the last free play of the day.
Towards the end of the school year, during a particularly hard time in our course of infertility treatment, I found myself on a street full of smaller houses with detached garages and small front yards. I was walking slowly, admiring the froth of pink and purple flowers spilling out from under porches and the clematis that climbed the wrought iron railings. As I passed one house a woman on the front porch called to me.
“Wait up! Wait up!” she said, waving. “Would you walk with me?”
I stood in the driveway as she made her way down the porch steps. She was an elderly woman wearing a khaki trench coat with a blue gauzy scarf tied over her hair.
“I like to go for a morning walk,” she said. “But I worry about falling. Most mornings my friend comes with me but she’s busy today so I thought I’d wait and see if someone came by.”
She took my arm and we started walking. She had a dedicated route so I let her lead the way and my pace slowed down considerably as we made our way around her block.
We talked about her sons and their children. We talked about their jobs and their wives and their troubles. She told me about her husband who she divorced when her sons were teens. She was matter-of-fact and a little bossy. I’ve always been partial to bossy women so I liked her.
When she asked about my own family, my throat caught when I told her I had an only child and I found myself confessing to her that we were unsuccessfully trying to have another one. I was hoping she’d say something prescient (in those days I was always looking for signs) so my heart skipped when she said, “Oh well, you’ll have another baby” but then she added, “Or not.” She shrugged.
I could barely hear her after the shrug. The shrug hurt. “Or not,” she said, dismissively. I tuned out her chattering as we rounded the corner back towards her house. When we arrived at her driveway and she let my arm go to make her way back inside, I was happy to leave her. I didn’t know her name and I didn’t care to know it.
I picked my pace back up to get to my son’s school before class let out and I fought back tears as I went.
But I was thinking about it. I thought about it while I collected my son and helped him buckle his carseat. I thought about it on the drive home. I thought about it while I fixed the after school snack.
At first I ran her words over in my mind as a way to relive the hurt, like pressing a bruise for no good reason. How dare she! She couldn’t even spare a moment of sympathy? So like the rest of the world! So unfair! So bitter and sad and mean! Everything that infertility already was, tied up in those two dismissive words.
But as the afternoon wore on I started thinking about how things look from an 80-something year perspective. I thought about how many life crises she must have experienced and witnessed happening to her friends and to the people she loved. I realized that at some point in my own life this would be a particular crisis that I would no longer be living. It would be a crisis I had already gone through and I would know the ending. I wouldn’t be here, stuck in the not knowing. Someday, if luck was on my side, I would be eighty-something, too, and I would no longer be an infertile woman. I would have another baby … or not.
And when I thought of that, I was no longer so angry at my walking companion. Instead I realized that this was my first peek — my very first peek — at resolution. I was still knee deep in my experience but when I think back, I see that was my first therapeutic moment towards an end point. That’s when I finally saw a light way, way, way off in the distance.