The Good Parent is Really a Bad Parent

When my daughters were little girls, I was a devoted mother. I showered them with love, read stories to them at bedtime, made nutritious meals, cared for them when they were sick, and gave them gifts and presents. I loved to sew and I often made them all matching dresses, and they adored that. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we managed to always put food on the table and have enough left over for emergency doctor bills and birthday presents and new clothes for school each year.

So many people in our small town loved to watch our family. They thought we were the model of a happy family. That allowed me to take pride in the fact that I was doing something right as a mom. And that meant a lot to me, because my own mother had died when I was only fourteen. And my father died two years later. So at age sixteen, I had no parents to model parenting for me. Of course, I learned by the school of hard knocks. But at the end of each day, my children had full bellys, a roof over their heads, a warm bed to sleep in, and the feeling of being loved. I was a good parent.

My third daughter is now twenty and in her second year at our state university. I like to say she is on the “speed plan” for college. She took several college-level classes during high school and earned credit for them when she was accepted at the university. Her first year at the university she took eighteen credits each semester (a usual course load is twelve). This, her second year, she is taking twenty credits each semester. She is planning to take some courses over the summer and is planning to complete her undergrad education in a little over one year. She is in a field of study that usually takes five years to complete, but she will finish in three.

On top of her course load, she participates in a sport that takes up an enormous amount of her time. She has about six weeks off from this sport over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. And her sports schedule in February and March is not as demanding as the rest of the year. But in June, July, and August, she trains up to fourteen hours a day.

Because of her course load and her decision to be a committed athlete, she doesn’t have time for a job, any kind of job. So she doesn’t earn any money. None.

In her way of thinking, I am the most despicable parent on this planet because I will not buy her a car so she can conveniently go back and forth from her sport and classes instead of having to take incredibly long rides on public buses. She made the choice to live in an apartment near the university, but off-campus where there is no food service. And I am an uncaring mother because I won’t buy her a car so she can get to the grocery store at her convenience. Because of her sport’s intensity, she ends up with a lot of doctor appointments and physical therapy. She wants to sue me for child neglect because I won’t provide her with a car to get to these appointments. Did I tell you my daughter is twenty years old?

I cannot count the times I have told my daughter that she has choices. She can quit her sport and get a job to afford her own car and not have to go to the doctor anymore. She can take a lighter course load and get a job and buy a car. She can move back home and share the family’s car. And every time I say such things to her, she tells me I don’t understand anything about life. According to her, I am a horrible parent, a terribly bad parent, worse than pond scum.

And lately, I’ve begun to believe her. I was a really bad parent all those years because I made everything look so easy. I gave her not what she needed, but what she wanted. I showed her unconditional love as a mom. And through all of that, I taught her to believe she is entitled. In her distorted thinking, she believes—and has told me to my face—that because I gave birth to her, I am responsible for her life. At age twenty? Not happening!

At twenty years old, both her mother and father are alive. She goes to bed with a full belly. She has a roof over her head and she sleeps in a warm bed. Her father and I and her sisters tell her we love her. Her father and I both tell her we’re proud of all that she’s accomplishing. And yet, she wishes some other woman had given birth to her.

I am the bad parent who did too much good for my child. I cannot help but wonder, what would I have done differently if I had to do it over again? It’s a moot point. The reality is, I am a bad parent.

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Hiding from View

About eighteen months ago, a really good friend of mine called me up one day to tell me that he and his wife were going to disappear. I laughed. What a crazy idea! But he was serious. They are an older couple, both retired, of sound mind (or so I believe), and while not wealthy, they were holding their own. He told me they had decided to sell their house, move to a southern state, and spend the rest of their lives making friends with strangers. They weren’t going to hide from their children or grandchildren, but they were going to hide from everyone else they had ever met in life. I was shocked and had a hundred questions and just as much concern. But they were committed to this adventure. I haven’t heard from them since. Neither has any of our friends in common.

About two weeks ago, another friend of mine called me to tell me he is going into hiding. Divorced and estranged from his children, and admittedly in a mid-life crisis, he feels he has nothing left to live for. But he’s not a quitter and he’s not suicidal, so he’s doing the best thing he can think of. He’s selling all of his possessions and is joining one of those service organizations, like the Peace Corps, and he’s going into hiding. He knows where he is going, but he’s not telling anyone. He said he’ll send me an email once he’s settled, but his plans right now are that no one of his friends or family will know where he is. Kind of like a self-imposed witness protection program.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve fantasized about running away from my life, simply because they are too numerous. Usually I’ve enjoyed these fantasies while soaking in a hot bath (my cure all for nearly any ailment), only to be brought back to reality by a child storming into the room, bawling and screaming about how mean her sister/teacher/friend is. My train of thought disturbed, I quickly slipped back into the role of mother and got on with my life.

Certainly I’ve had my share of some pretty dark days. And I’ve managed to dig myself into some pretty deep holes. I’ve even enthroned myself on a pitty pot for weeks at a time. But I’ve always managed to come back to reality and get on with my life.

Do I want to run away and hide? Some days I do. Will I? Doubt it.

My oldest two daughters never ran away from home when they were growing up. Well, if they did, it was for one night to a friend’s house whose mother called to tell me my daughter was safe and sound. My third daughter threatened to run away all of the time when she was in high school, and one night in a fit of anger I called her bluff and told her to run away. Clearly she was old enough to manage just fine on her own. I told her she was welcome to leave, but she couldn’t take the car or her computer or her cell phone. Sure, she could take one suitcase of clothes. And I told her to let me know when she was packed and I would take her wherever she wanted to go. She didn’t leave. Not to be outdone, my youngest daughter did run away, while in middle school, on more than one occasion. But she always took her cell phone with her and usually answered when I called or would respond to a text message. So I knew she was safe. And eventually she would tire of life as a hobo and she’d return home. She’s eighteen now and I can legally ask her to leave my house. Funny how she doesn’t seem to have the desire to run away anymore.

What does it say about life, about society, about the times we live in, when sane adults choose to go into hiding? I’ve often wondered if one of the husband/wife team is terminally ill and this was a way to go quietly into the night. I’ve been wondering if my divorced friend is running from financial ruin. Surely these are logical reasons for behaving illogically.

I love going on a trip. I love the excitement of planning, then having the adventure and seeing new sights and eating strange foods. But sometimes the best part of being gone is coming home. I sleep best in my own bed. I relax most thoroughly in my own bath. I am most comfortable in my own kitchen. I guess the bottom line is, despite all my cares and woes, I must like my life very much. If not, then I must be the insane one for staying in it and not hiding from view.

One Second in Time

Weeks and months. Days and nights. Hours. Minutes.

Good and bad. Victorious and defeated. Happy and sad.

One week a football team is undefeated, and the next week that same team is the loser in the Super Bowl. One day an unemployed person is depressed and deflated, and the next day he is on top of the world with a job offer. One minute a woman is pregnant and the next she becomes a mother.

Life changes on a dime. In the blink of an eye.

Former Representative Gabby Giffords understands this notion. So does every Olympic athlete. Even Kate Middleton comprehends how life can change in an instant. So does Queen Elizabeth.

When my granddaughter was six months old, her mother called me on my cell phone as I was escorting another of my daughters into Urgent Care for strep throat. My oldest daughter very calmly and seriously informed me that my granddaughter had rolled off the kitchen counter and landed on her head. It took my breath away.

We are all blessed. My granddaughter had no injuries and quickly recovered from her fright, and my daughter’s strep throat infection rapidly responded to antibiotics. But my oldest daughter’s life was permanently changed. She said she turned away for one second and turned back to witness her daughter’s fall. It’s an experience I never had as a mom and I’m adding that to my blessings count. Surely as the mother of four children I experienced some harrowing moments, but none when I could have emotionally beaten myself up about nearly killing my child. Three days after “the fall” I asked my daughter how she was doing. She said she doubted she would ever forget how close she came to losing her daughter. “When she was first born,” my daughter told me, “I paid attention to every breath, every sound. And each one was proof of what a miracle a baby is. I guess I grew comfortable in my role as a mom. I haven’t paid attention to every little noise so much. And now after this, well, I notice every single breath and every single giggle and every single whimper.”

For the last few days, the Hello Dolly! song “It Only Takes a Moment”  keeps playing in my head. I heard it on the radio on Valentine’s Day, probably the only day when a station has the courage to play it. But I was reminded of the phrase “it only takes a moment” a few days later when news spread of Whitney Houston’s death, followed by the story of the Dutch Prince buried in an avalanche. And a local story of a fifteen-year-old boy killed while train jumping with friends.

There is an Irish proverb that instructs us to “dance as if no one were watching, sing as if no one were listening, and live every day as it if were your last.” What awaits you in the next moment?

Learning from Poor Choices

For the most part, my firstborn followed the straight and narrow path through life. The worst thing she did, that I know of, was to call me a bitch when she was a senior in high school. At that moment I thought it the worst thing any of my children would ever do. My secondborn had a more carefree spirit and liked to live spontaneously. I’m sure it was her need to find a place in the world next to her older sister who lived by order and structure and self-discipline. Preschool teachers referred to my second child as a strong-willed child. Indeed she was. She taught me many things I needed to learn as a mom and gave me experiences I could have lived without. I was horrified when she was fourteen and the police called at one in the morning to tell me she had been caught drinking and I needed to come get her. I told them to keep her overnight so she would learn from the poor choice and they told me they didn’t have a place to keep her so I had to come get her. I was mortified when I found a marijuana pipe in her bedroom when she was sixteen. Scared someone would find it if I threw it out with the trash, I drove miles from my home and dropped it into a river.

Four years separate my second daughter from my third. If you know anything about birth order, then it makes sense when I say she is very much like my oldest daughter. Number three is driven by a need to succeed, to set goals and achieve them. Her world is full of black and white decisions (not much gray for her) and for the most part she makes good choices. But she has slipped a few times and she would be furious with me if she knew I made that statement publicly. She has a bit of perfectionism, so she doesn’t see the poor choices she’s made. Her three speeding tickets were not her fault, but the ridiculous attitude of the officer. The dent in the car door was the fault of her passenger. Our biggest arguments in the present revolve around the fact that she doesn’t want to share a car with her younger sister, and doesn’t feel her younger sister’s school and activities are as important as hers are in college. But she doesn’t have a job to pay on a car loan and car insurance and doesn’t foresee having the time to get one.

As for my youngest daughter, all of her life she watched from the wings and took notes. She studied how to get around the rules, how to take advantage of a situation. She can manipulate life as well as Houdini. Please understand, she is not a bad person. She is incredibly smart, beautiful, loyal to her friends, and has a fabulous sense of humor. But she regularly makes poor choices. Sometimes daily. And each time she does, I am absolutely shocked. She was raised in a household where clearly everyone understood right from wrong. She learned early in life that there are consequences when you don’t follow the rules. This was reinforced to her in middle school when she got caught shoplifting and when she was caught skipping school. Affirmed again a couple of years later when she received a ticket for minor consumption of alcohol. Currently as a senior in high school, she is learning the consequences of choosing to attend school only two or three days a week. Unfortunately, her recent choices will follow her the rest of her life as she is now an adult in the eyes of the law.

As my daughters grew up, I shared some of my own life’s lessons in order to help them understand what happens when you make poor choices. I doled out appropriate punishments and never once did I let them doubt my love for them. When life presented a learning moment, I found a way to bring it to their attention. But now, as I struggle daily with powerlessness over the poor choices my eighteen-year-old daughter makes, I am reminded of the old adage “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

I am learning from her poor choices. I pray she is too.

Welcome to my world!

When my first daughter was only a few hours old, the doctor was doing his rounds and, finding just the two of us, sat down and chatted for a few minutes. The doctor and I had known each other for many years, so it was not unusual for us to have a more personal conversation than most people have with their doctors. In that quiet moment, we talked about parenting and thought into the future, wondering what this precious baby would become as an adult. The doctor made a statement that has stayed with me. “You are now a mother and will be one until the day you die.”

I didn’t find it a morbid statement. Just hours from having given birth to the most beautiful baby in the whole world, I was proud. Yes! I am a mother! And always will be!

As time went on, I had three more daughters. As my children were growing up, I took pains to be a good mother, teach them well, all the right stuff. And I had this vision that when the youngest turned eighteen, my job of being a mother would end. Instead, I find the doctor’s statement has come back to me.

My oldest daughter, now twenty-six, is married and a mother herself. Her daughter is a precocious eighteen months. My second daughter, twenty-four, is six months from getting married. My third, is twenty, and attending college. And the youngest, as I mentioned, is eighteen. About six years ago, I married for the second time and welcomed two other daughters into my life. They are both in their thirties, both married, both have two children (a boy and a girl each).

Six daughters. At times our lives define the word drama. I could write a master’s thesis on adolescence and hormones and uncontrolled insanity as opposed to controlled. Instead, I’ve chosen to share moments of our lives, of my four daughters plus two.

February 2012