Thursday, April 28, 2011

Metamorphosis

The Perry Children, Easter 1999

“Do you miss having little kids?”
 asked a friend asked recently as she hoisted her youngest child from hip to hip. We became friends when she was a freshly minted attorney. She was a professional, and I was a stay-at-home mom in the throes of raising five children, from toddlers to teenagers. She had since quit her job, moved away, and begun raising her own family that included three redheaded boys, four years old and under. Now I was the one able to focus on a conversation without the distraction of little ones, and she was seeking some perspective and maybe even validation for her new stage of life.


It wasn’t the first time someone had asked me that question, but it was the first time I was able to formulate the right answer, the honest answer. “Yes,” I said, having a sudden epiphany about myself as a younger mother. “Yes, of course I miss having little kids, but I don’t miss the me I was with them.”

I was never what some would call “a baby person.” In fact, I always preferred adult conversations and was, conveniently, surrounded by such conversations during my growing up years. Besides, children didn’t seem to like me very much. They preferred my little brother who was much less serious and had a knack for making everything fun and funny. So, when I had my own children, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enamored with them. However, I wasn't crazy about my children because they were babies; I was crazy about them because they were mine.

In spite of—or maybe because of—my fierce love for my children, as a young mom I ran a tight ship. I was insistent and strict, at times demanding almost as much of them as I demanded of myself. They rose to the challenges, of course, and seemed to accept me for the mother I was. Fortunately, as this inquiring friend insisted, they have turned out to be great people. “It’s knowing a girl like KaRynn that makes me want to have a daughter,” she said, very sincerely. 

With time, my children's demands of me have lessened and I’ve mellowed, but I’ve carried much guilt about my young-mother days, specifically for not responding more appropriately to their immaturities and natural, childish faults.

But not long ago something happened to alter my opinion of myself, at least slightly: we watched home videos. What a shock to see myself in living color being sweet and kind to my children! I was astonished to see that, even though we had to orchestrate order in the midst of chaotic, everyday family life, my husband and I kept our cool more often than not. Moreover, we were both struck by the great life we helped make for our children by simply doing lots of ordinary things: throwing birthday parties, reading stories, teaching manners, tickling and tumbling and tussling, feeding hopes and assuaging fears, coaching soccer teams, sharing vocabulary words, and just plain loving.

I’m sure if that video camera had been running 24/7, I wouldn’t have felt much better about myself. In that case, I would have had to relive all the not-so-nice moments, too. However, seeing myself through that lens simply helped me realize that the more gentle me captured on film was also an accurate piece of my mother collage.

As I look at photos of when my children were young and innocent, I think, “What’s not to love about those little cherubs? How could I have ever lost my temper with them?” Then I remember that, sweet as they are at times, children aren’t always lovable and good; in fact, their selfish, irrational behavior can often tax a parent to the limit. Nevertheless, kids have a way of shedding their skin without qualms. Indeed, we’re relieved when they leave behind their two-year-old tantrums; we’re thrilled when they begin to think reasonably or when they actually choose to clean their rooms without compulsion. Why is it that we give children complete permission to change—to cast off their undeveloped, sometimes unsavory selves—yet we give ourselves little, if any, time as parents for our own metamorphosis? In other words, we fully expect imperfection then growth from children but unrealistically expect ourselves to be "fully baked" parents from the get-go. Sadly, often by the time we’ve shed our own "skin" and become better equipped to handle the stresses of family life, our children are gone. Why can’t we be our best—or at least our better—selves when we are first entrusted with perfect little beings?

This terrible inequity of character and capacity has ever been God’s plan. I’ve often thought what a pity it is that my children’s sweetness and innocence didn’t intersect with my improved, better self.  This excellent combination, I'm told, is the gift and delight of many grandparents even though their influence and responsibility are at least one degree removed. Once when I was exasperated from having to discipline the same child repeatedly, I complained openly to my father, whose comment stopped me in my tracks: “He’s mine, too, you know.” In one sentence, he not only put all our family roles in perspective but also clearly conveyed his unspoken plea to me to be more forbearing.

In the title track song from the musical, Children of Eden, Eve near the end of her life seems to wrestle with poignant parental pain similar to mine. Lamenting the mortal difficulties her children must unavoidably face, she also grapples with the sheer weight of choosing to bring children into an imperfect world with imperfect parents.

            Children of Eden 
            Where have we left you?
            Born to uncertainty,
            Destined for pain.
            Sins of your parents
            Haunt you and test you.
            This your inheritance—
            Fire and rain.

Eve concludes by begging for mercy from her children for her own mistakes but also, in her wisdom, by reminding them that families—flawed though they may be—eventually close gaps through intergenerational forgiveness.

            Children of Eden
            Try not to blame us;
            We were just human to error prone.
            Children of Eden will you reclaim us,
            You and your children to come?
            Someday you'll come home.

It turns out no one gets perfect parents, but no parent gets a perfect child either. Though the timing is different from what I might have planned, eventually my children and I will intersect evenly. One day we will stand on equal footing when, as adults, we all "come home" holding our own mixed bags of mistakes and rejoicings and where we will all have the same need to forgive each other. 

4 comments:

  1. I really needed that today, Janet, thank you! And by the way, this is how I remember your kids and I loved them so much! I remember Mark being in my sunbeam class. I remember being in primary sitting near the ever energetic Grant and enjoying every minute of him in sharing time. I remember asking KaRynn one day what her favorite food was and she said, "Salad" and I was so impressed that a 10 year old would say that. I could see her maturity way back then. I never worked closely with Craig or Brian but I would only imagine how great they've turned out! I remember coming back to Fremont to visit a couple of years ago and just after sacrament meeting, Craig, Grant and Mark were all sitting surrounded by you. They all turned to you, gave you a kiss on your cheek and left to class. That will stick in my mind forever - Three teenage boys kissing their mother in front of everyone, not caring who would see, it was so sweet. I hope my boys have that kind of respect and love for me at that age. I admire you and Ken and always respected you. Your husband was the first teacher to actually be able to gain respect from my sunday school class - they were a tough crowd but I still remember many lessons and was taught exactly what I needed at the time to make it stick. It stuck! You guys are great!

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  2. The reality is that our hopes, dreams and happiness truly revolve around our children’s hopes, dreams and happiness. So much is required. So much is at stake. No wonder the task and subsequently the outcome often consume us in a way that nothing else in our lives ever could.

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  3. Thanks Janet--you summed up raising children so well.

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  4. I needed to hear those words today...thank you for the gentle reminder that it's ok to cut ourselves a little slack when it comes to child rearing. Figuring out how to reason with a stubborn, yet incredibly capable 4-going-on-14 year old has recently brought out some of my less-than-stellar mothering skills. In the end, I am hopeful that their childhood memories will be filled with enough love, hugs, kisses, and cuddles to balance out the impatient and frazzled frustrations! I miss you!!! :)

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