This morning while at the gym, I was working out in front of a bank of televisions. One had an episode of Friends playing on it, the focus was Rachel’s baby shower. This otherwise competent professional was in a panic since she didn’t know much about babies. She thought a breast pump was a “beer bong for babies” and she was shocked that newborns have at least 10 bowel movements a day and that she shouldn’t leave an infant on the changing table while she went to the dumpster to dispose of dirty diapers. She called the bassinet, a “pretty basket” that had contained some of the gifts. In real life, there are parenting classes that guide prospective parents in the literal care and feeding of their child.
A few years ago, I was in the presence of a young woman in her early 20s who told me that she had a miscarriage after getting pregnant unexpectedly. As sad as she was over the loss, she realized that she wasn’t equipped to be a mom at that point in her life. “Think about it,” she explained, “when you have a baby, you are not raising a child. You are raising an adult.” I had not thought of it that way, but it made sense, since parents are responsible for their child until they reach adulthood. It would be a good idea to decide how you want to do that.
The show called Motherhood: The Musical played in Philadelphia a few years ago and I went with friends — some moms, some child-free. I laughed and nodded in understanding, even though I am not a biological mother. We adopted our son when he was nearly five, and I say that my stretch-marks are on my heart and not my hips. The show portrayed a mom to be who idealized the experience, until she discovered that the cute and cuddly little being that came out of her body had needs to meet that superseded her own, such as those for sleep and food. Fortunately her circle of friends came to her rescue and gave her a break so she could shower, change clothes and rest.
A mother of two and stepmother of one sometimes feels like a single parent, since her husband, a successful professional, is not as engaged and active as a father as she wishes he would be. He sometimes becomes impatient with the high intensity the youngest two embody and seems not to know how to handle their energy. He expects her to manage them when they get rambunctious. He also expects that she plans outings and activities. At times, it seems that he is the babysitter and not the daddy, when they are together. No doubt that he loves his children but isn’t certain how to be present. This is her observation. His is different. Since she is a stay at home parent, the understanding is that she will spend more time with them. The suggestion was to remind him that the relationship they forge now will positively impact their ongoing interactions. It is also likely that when they reach adolescence, they may not want quality time with dad.
A beautiful thread woven through a father child relationship is featured in a commercial for a French cell phone company, called Bouygues. In it, a father is dancing with his toddler son to the Redbone tune, Come and Get Your Love. As the boy and his father age, the song becomes a sign of love between them.
Each of us are products of our environment; in and out of the womb, nature and nurture overlapping. The ways in which parenting is modeled is either a thumbs up or thumbs down on the ways in which we parent. And yes, that is a verb. A story about two brothers who grew up in the same household with an alcoholic father describes that each made a different choice. One became a teetotaler and one an alcoholic. When asked how that was so, the first one said, “I watched my father.” The second one said, “I watched my father.”
As a parent, you are indeed on stage and your children are always watching and listening. There are no perfect parents and there will be times when you fall back into unhealthy patterns, some from your upbringing, some newly acquired. Several good questions to ask yourself and share with the other parent:
- Why did I become a parent? Some people do it out of expectation, some because they truly love children and want to raise them well.
- What was my childhood like? If it was traumatic, what can I do to heal those wounds, so they don’t affect my parenting?
- Is what I am doing or saying something I want my child to do or say? In the era in which I grew up, the line, “Do as I say, not as I do,” was standard.
- Is the relationship I am in with the other parent, whether or not we are still together, what I want for my child? Even if you can’t remain together as a couple, your responsibility is to take care of this human being as lovingly as you can. Unless there is abuse perpetrated by a parent, parental alienation syndrome need not obscure the relationship.
- Do I speak to my child with the same courtesy, respect and caring I want them to address me with? “Respect your elders,” is the adage taught in many families. Kids deserve respect too.
- What are the values I want them to embody? Is it important that they be kind, caring, compassionate, of service, responsible, self-respecting, successful, motivated, honest, trustworthy? Developing a conscience is important.
- How can I encourage both cognitive and emotional intelligence?
- Are there some family issues, like addiction and abuse that I need to address and patterns that I need to break? Remember that your history isn’t your destiny and you are called on the break the cycle.
- How do I want to handle discipline, especially if my partner and I grew up with different styles? Violence has no place in a home which you want to be a safe haven.
- If I could see into the future, what kind of person would my child grow to be, and will I take at least partial credit for how they turn out?
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” – James Baldwin