Mothering is both harder and easier than we make it out to be. It’s tricky trying to figure out, in a given moment, whether this moment is the kind where you should lean toward: this is really not that complicated…breathe…just move forward with purpose and trust what you already know. Or whether this moment is the kind where you should lean toward: not all answers are evident, get some input from people you trust…it feels hard because it IS hard…you are going to make mistakes and this is OK but search beneath the surface to find what isn’t volunteering itself to you. Most moments are probably the kind where we should do a little of both, and this bothness is the great intellectual puzzle of parenting, through and through.
Our children are not going to turn out the way we thought they would. It’s exactly that simple. Even if you are a solid planner and executer of the plan, even if you’re one of the incredibly hip and open-minded parents who thought your plans or hopes for them were loose and totally open to their interpretation, even if you’re otherwise really good at “letting go” and “releasing it.” And, admit it, this fact is pretty disappointing. And then that other fact—that you have the gall to be disappointed (it’s so some other generation)—is disappointing. You worked so hard to avoid “disappointment” in your mothering practice. It sounds so trite when you hear someone say your children will go their own way that it’s nearly impossible to grasp that you haven’t already accepted it. (I mean look how YOU turned out, relative to what your parents had imagined for you, for heaven’s sake). You know this. You do know this. And yet, here you are, wishing for different outcomes, outcomes more like the ones you conceived than the ones they did. The struggle with that wishing, with accepting the fact that you are that kind of mother, like so many others before you and around you—including the ones you fancy yourself different from—is absolutely core to parenthood, especially once the children aren’t little anymore. You spend our children’s younger years putting in place the mechanisms that will offer direction but grant them freedom, and teach yourself to embrace their individual humanity, and then you spend their later years rather shocked that it sort of didn’t work. And confronting the fact that all your effort landed you squarely in a position that looks suspiciously like the one you saw your own parents in, or parents down the metaphysical street, or parents on film or TV at whose troubling disposition you shook your head or rolled your eyes back in the day. I would that we were all better at “releasing it” and “letting go” because this puzzle is absolutely the way of things. The error isn’t in the disappointment; the error is in thinking you won’t have it. And there’s not much to do with it once it settles on you, accept to not assign it more weight than it already has—whether coming from how you judge your children or in how you judge yourself.
I think we struggle similarly with wanting to be seen as more than someone’s mother, with wanting our children to see us as a whole person and not just “their” whatever, with wanting cultural messages to represent us as having more than maternal concerns on our mind, as having other commitments to honor too. And I think that, as with wrestling through “letting our children be,” even those of us who fancy ourselves enlightened thrash around in this a bit, and then find the presence of this thrashing in our lives quite quizzical. We already know we’re not just mothers. We firmly hold to our right to full personhood. Yet being absorbed in self too frequently feels like a crime, like we’re robbing our children, even older ones, of what is first their right. We can’t ever shake the feeling of being a convict released on a technicality, a member of the seedy underworld of maternal criminality, where mothers are people first and keep getting away with it, even if under ever-increasing surveillance and policing harassment. And again, I think the error isn’t in struggling with these “convictions,” but in thinking we won’t have such struggles and being surprised all over again when we do.
We are, very simply, going to have plans for our children that they do not unfold, and we are going to struck by that in some way, and then further struck by the way we are so struck. And we are, very simply, imbued with full personhood, and we are going to struggle to embody that, and then be struck that we are so struggling. It’s exactly that complicated.