I reach the other other end of another decade next week, which has given me pause for reflection.
I entered this last decade with a new life in Australia, but ‘life’ as such is rarely defined by the country you inhabit, rather the people you inhabit it with. Inevitably, my most recent decade has thrown up a myriad of new and memorable experiences, as well as some invaluable learning curves
In this decade we moved into the next phase of parenting – the teenage phase. Whichever stage of parenting you find yourself in, the experience offers unforgettably rewarding moments, but for some of us it can also prove an arduous journey.
Beyond the cute stages of first smiles, first teeth and their precious first days at school, (well before the meaning of ‘adolescence’ truly sinks in) time shifts forward a gear and you’re suddenly there, treading water in the turbulent waters of the terrible teens.
As many of you know, the past couple of years with our son, have been a challenge.
The old man and I have shared the sort of parenting journey that when you discuss it freely with new people at a dinner party, causes an awkward silence that there’s no coming back from. It started when our son free-falled off the rails without warning and did all those things we thought only other people’s kids did. He truanted, got uncontrollably angry for no reason, self-harmed and experimented – leaving us mystified, battered, bruised and guilt-ridden as parents. The wounds were penetrating and remain raw, (although the Band-Aid of ongoing therapy has relieved some of the sting), but what we did learn from the experience is that in order for both he and us to grow and develop, sometimes you have to let them go earlier than you planned.
A positive outcome of the situation we found ourselves in, however, aside from the shock of it bringing the old man and I closer together, was an invaluable, personal lesson. I learned what a terrible mistake it is to allow your children to define you, because I realise now that up until that crisis point I had sacrificed my own identity and future for my children.
Do you ever listen to your alter-ego of fishwife screaming in the morning, as you castigate the kids for not doing all those minor chores they are supposed to do, like brushing teeth, getting dressed, packing homework and eating their breakfast? All that stuff that seems so important at the time, yet strangely becomes less of a priority when you witness their mental stability begin to crack.
Found on life-is-worth-it.blogspot.com, via Pinterest.
I spent years worrying about those things, to the point that the stress of getting everything right and not succeeding began to affect my health. I’m an anxious person with a generous side portion of OCD thrown in and I wanted to be that ‘perfect’ parent. But I now know that although I have good kids and love them dearly, neither of them will be grateful for the sacrifices I made until they themselves are parents and make their own self-sacrifices.
You see, I got completely sucked in by the motherhood sales pitch and the promise of parenting glory and so eagerly took up its optional extras of guilt and fear of failure. And before I knew it, I’d sidelined my own personal ambitions and happiness to put my children’s needs ahead of my own.
Until last year, when the realisation eventually dawned on me that not only had I lost sight of who I was (and that it was actually okay to let go of my son, if necessary), but my obsession with doing everything by the parenting book was making me ill and I needed to prioritise my own sanity.
I’m sure that sounds selfish to many of you. My daughter recognised my problem. She has always accused me of ‘not being able to compartmentalise’ my emotions – (a mature level of criticism from a twenty-year old who still believes life rolls like a Disney movie). She noticed that I allowed the fall-out of arguments between myself and her brother to impact everything that happened that day, or even that week.
Therapy has taught me that that when we ‘enable’ our children, rather than ’empower’ them, we are damaging both them and us.
Children and young adults need to be free to make mistakes while they remain in the safety zone of home – in doing so, they learn to take responsibility, value themselves, (and ultimately us) without risk. And the benefit for us parents, is that when we’re not wasting our lives fussing over over decision they make, we make more time for ourselves; to achieve our own personal goals. Which is really important when we’re one of their main role-models.
We western mothers, many of whom have no extended family close by to support us, have had to rely on parenting manuals to teach us how to raise our children. Sadly, the need to attain some sort of altruistic success for ourselves out of parenting – via our kids successes – has devalued our own worth, in some cases. We are guilty of over-protecting our progeny, which is where the ‘helicoptering analogy stemmed from, and this mode of parenting will ultimately damage their confidence in their own abilities too.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my kids’ needs began to overtake the relevance of my own and I transformed into the type of female doormat I despised when I was a younger woman. I only became fully aware of the implications of that change when we reached crisis point last year, when our son tried to assume full control of the power I had innocently provided him with in our household and made it obvious that he believed our happiness was secondary to his. I’d missed the signs, of course; so busy was I trying to be his perfect mum.
What sort of mother would I have been if I’d allowed him to fail?
It turns out a ‘good’ one. And that shift in focus from the importance of my life versus his not only had a detrimental effect on his development, but it affected mine, too. I became over-anxious, irritable, resentful and less confident in my abilities. I was judging my personal success as being mum to my kids, in spite of having a career I enjoyed, friends and a sound relationship. Which meant when either of the kids tripped over life’s hurdles, I saw those trips as my failures too.
Don’t let your children define who you are. Let them be an extension of you rather than your life’s work.