Even the least prepared parents have some inkling of how they hope to raise their children. When we think about starting a family, we have idyllic dreams about laughter and joy and watching our off-spring grow into happy, successful adults. It must be natural for us to not think too much about the tough stuff of parenting. We naively have no idea what we are getting ourselves into.
I had delayed becoming a parent until my mid-thirties. I was in no hurry. For a long time I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to have children. Then I realized I might regret it if I don’t. I was married, I owned a home, I had a secure job. I was ready to become a Mom. Yet, I really had no clue how I was going to take care of a child’s needs.
Being a somewhat well-educated person, I went straight to the books. I read everything “parenting” related that I could get my hands on. I looked to my friends and family who had children for advice. And when our little bundle of joy finally arrived, I felt prepared. Full belly, dry diaper; we should be good. Uh, no. The poor child was crying every two hours and not napping long enough. I went through about two weeks of this. Finally a dear friend said, “Just feed her!” I was trying to stick with the pediatrician’s advice of 2 ounces per feeding, rather than letting her eat until she was full. The advice worked. Good Lord, if I could barely feed a baby, how was I going to shape her emotional well-being?
Almost a year went by before I faced the realization that I will have to discipline my beloved bouncing bundle of joy. Then she started to crawl, to pull herself up on furniture, and take those precarious first steps. I distinctly remember this as the turning point. My laughing, smiling, happy baby had to hear the word “No.” Suddenly, there were a lot more tears. And so we went through the terrible twos, potty training, tantrums, and so on. We now have the job of teaching lessons. For me, the tool kit included Sunday School and Girl Scouts. I wanted to raise my daughter with the same values that I was taught as a child.
The thing is, life happens. And as adults, we are still learning lessons. Our values are put to the test everyday. And as tough times began unraveling my life, I found myself wondering what I was teaching my child as she observed the way I dealt with it. I not only had to police her behavior, but also my own. “Role Model” had a whole new meaning. My daughter was just 2.5 years old when I discovered my marriage was irreparably broken, but somehow we managed to hide this fact from her for several years. She was so young, that when her father began spending extended time away from home, she didn’t seem to notice. We maintained our home, and I took care of her and it, while he lived elsewhere most of the time. He would come to visit on weekends occasionally. Somewhere deep inside of me I had stuffed the question: did she realize this was not how other families live? Was she somehow already scarred by our weird life? We kept this arrangement functional until she was 7 years old.
Then the arrangement fell apart. And it became much more of a challenge to keep negative emotions hidden from her. The day came when I needed to explain to her that he and I could no longer stay married and keep our home. It was certainly not an easy decision to break up my family. I had not come from a broken home. And I had hoped that my own children would not know it either. How do I put a positive spin on this when I feel so much anger, resentment, and pain inside? I struggled a lot with how I was failing as a parent.
One reason it was important for me to leave my marriage was to make sure I was setting an example for my daughter that fit my values. It became clear to me that in my efforts to keep peace, I was really allowing myself to be a doormat. And while it’s important to be empathetic to others and to show compassion, I also had to set boundaries. I had avoided confrontations with my husband throughout our marriage. I tolerated the silent treatment, which is really a form of emotional abuse. We would have disagreements, and he would end up not speaking to me for weeks. Then one day he’d come home and act like nothing had happened. Stunned, I would simply accept it rather than make waves again. There were secrets and lies that eventually all came out. Was this what I wanted to teach my daughter about how to have a relationship or a marriage? That would be a big, fat NO.
I had to accept that my idyllic dream of family hadn’t worked out. Whatever hard work I had to do emotionally at that point, I kept in mind that I was also setting an example for my daughter about how to face life’s challenges. I scraped up what was left of my self-esteem and started nurturing it back to health. I refused to be bullied. I tempered my anger and pain with trail runs and bike rides. I took us on new adventures like kayaking and zip lining. I let go of possessions that I realized were not as important as my spiritual well-being. I made us a new home that met our needs.
There will be (there are!) people in her life that role-model good marriages and relationships. I was disappointed that it wasn’t her father and I to be that example. But I learned that I was able to model something more important – courage and self-respect. She is 12 years old now. She has a good relationship with her Dad. My boundary with him is set at successful co-parenting and nothing more. I still am not sure if we damaged her. I guess only time will tell. So far it seems that she has turned out to be a pretty awesome person. She is certainly, in spite of ourselves, our greatest accomplishment. And I am dedicated to giving her the tools she needs to stay that way.