I am not ashamed to admit that I have spent the better part of my adult life in therapy. Anyone who has read any of my blog posts or who knows anything about me knows that I had a very challenging childhood and did not reach adulthood without more than my share of battle wounds. The last five or six years of therapy have been the most intense and most meaningful to me because I have had to focus on my own childhood through a new lens – that of a mother.
I entered into parenthood with great joy and anticipation like most parents do. I greeted my two sons with overwhelming emotions. People had told me that you can never describe the love a parent has for their children and I knew that immediately when I took my babies into my arms. It was not until my children were beyond their toddler years and heading towards school that I began to fear that I was deficient because, unlike many of my friends and peers, I did not have parents that served as role models for me. I did not have anyone to call when my children entered new phases of life to ask if I had behaved similarly when I was a child. My family, long ago estranged, were not available as a resource and, therefore, I was forced to rely upon my feeble instincts to make my decisions.
I spent many sessions on the therapist’s couch lamenting about my lack of guidance and direction and expressed my fears that I would fail miserably as a parent. Of course, I knew that, at minimum, if I did the opposite of whatever my parents did that my kids might have a shot but I was not counting on that as expert advice. I really was anxious and afraid and felt like I was heading into a wild ocean without instruments or a sail.
It took me many years to truly confront my fears about being a parent and honestly acknowledge what scared me the most – that I did not believe I had yet grown up myself so how could I possibly take care of children? It sounded silly when I initially spoke the words and it seems entirely absurd as I write the words. How could I have accomplished all the things that I had in my life and still not be an adult. I was already in my 40s – if I was not an adult now, when would I be? Upon further examination, I realized that, because of my dysfunctional childhood, I really had not developed emotionally into a person who could trust that I had the skills and competence to take care of other people. In so many ways, I developmentally arrested as a pre-teen and needed to work through my issues in order to be a fully-functioning adult and an effective parent.
Over the years, I worked very hard to sort through the myriad of bad memories from the abuse I endured from my parents and began to see that something was shifting inside me. It was virtually inperceptible but I knew that I had transitioned through adolescence into adulthood over the course of several years. I sat on the couch one day and knew that I had become an adult and everything seemed a little less scary.
Of course, as I was going through this process, my children were growing and maturing in their own ways and I was watching them go through their stages of life mesmerized at how each new day brought a new reality to our lives. My older son went from being a sweet little first grader who hated reading and loved to draw to being a tall and rugged fourth grader who played competitive basketball and got perfect report cards. His voice got deeper, his skin less soft and his conversations started to taper off. My younger son, in the blink of an eye, went from a cuddly little baby into a big boy first grader who seems destined for stand-up comedy.
This weekend, we had some milestones in our lives. Ones that are irrelevant to my kids but made me catch my breath today. Last night, for the first time our children stayed with our friends’ children without an adult babysitter. The older child in the group is a seventh grader who is turning 13. When I questioned my older son – who is 10 and taller and bigger than the 13-year-old if he had any concerns about not having an adult with them, he pointed out to me that they all had cellphones and knew how to call 9-1-1. It all seemed so simple to him. Not so much to me. How could my children possibly be old enough to not need an adult babysitter? How were they growing up so fast when I had just finally matured into adulthood??
The next big milestone was that my older son walked over to a friend’s house for a playdate all by himself. This does not seem like a significant milestone, especially after my son asked me how old I was when I first started walking to school by myself (5). He is 10 and I still do not let him walk to school alone (primarily because his almost 7 year old brother is too lazy and would whine all the way to school). How could I explain to him all the fears I have and why the world is so complicated that it would seem dangerous to me to let him walk the 6 blocks to his friend’s house?
As I was driving my older son to his basketball practice tonight (with the almost 7 year-old at home by himself for 10 minutes -oh lord!), I talked to him about getting older and readjusting the limits a bit to allow him to have more freedom. He, of course, offered few words and was very casual about the whole thing (because he thinks his mother is an over-protective nut). I realized that he will never understand my journey and how it brought me to be the parent I am today. I certainly don’t ever want him to understand my pain and struggles and would prefer that he thought of me as smothering him a bit rather than thinking I need to be institutionalized! But, nonetheless, I understand that while I have been watching my children grow up, I, too, have been growing up on my own. And I have come to learn that growing up when you are already a grown-up is far more difficult and significantly more scary.
Today, I still wish I had a user manual on these kids. Certainly nothing can prepare you for the onset of adolescence and the anxiety that the freedoms create. Nothing will ebb the tide of emotions that I feel as they enter each new phase of life. However, I feel just a little more equipped because I know now that I have grown up and can help guide them along the way.