What My Grown Children Have Taught Me About Love
It’s not too late. It was never too late. This is the most precious thing my two grown children have taught me about love.
My son Frank hasn’t lived at home for more than ten years. My daughter Charity, quite a bit younger, is catching up with that span of time. During their most recent visit home, I had to explain how to turn on the stove since we remodeled the kitchen recently and have a fancy new digital flat-glass cooktop.
“Oh, you have to press the ‘on’ icon really hard,” my son told her, ever helpful. Actually, you don’t. The icon reads the heat in your finger, but it takes a few tries to feel that out. “Sheesh!” my daughter replied, shooting me a look which meant Why does everything around here have to be so complicated? I didn’t try to explain the nuances of the cooktop. They’re adults.
When Frank and Charity were growing up, I was far too controlling. I tried to orchestrate their well-being without realizing that many times, I was simply trying to allay my own maternal anxieties. In an unpredictable world, I over-promised. When my daughter was about four, I coaxed her into a kayak one summer by promising her it wouldn’t tip over when she stepped off the dock. Boy, was I wrong. Fortunately, she was wearing a life jacket, and fishing her out of the water was a matter of seconds. When I tried to convince her to continue the oh-so-fun water outing, she simply refused. We tied up the kayak and went home. I didn’t want her to be anxious, so I had pushed her too hard. After all, that wouldn’t have scared me when I was four.
When I was pregnant with my son, we moved into a new house. Behind us was a field of dirt where the builders had scraped off brush, a bug habitat, to throw down a row of suburban townhouses. For years, we were plagued indoors by large, hairy spiders that jumped toward you, not away from you, when they were startled. I got tired of the pile of jelly that resulted from squishing them, so I used to put bowls over them, leaving them for my husband to deal with. “Don’t touch the bowls,” I told my toddler son, expecting he would read my voice as the voice of God.
His fear of spiders became a well-established fact in the family, although it’s no longer a big deal. “Of course I looked under the bowls,” he told me once he was safely out of the house. Of course! How could I have missed that?
These are Parenting Mistakes Lite. More egregious mistakes followed. My son spent his elementary school years at a private Christian school that was big on rules and short on the grace it espoused. His fifth grade graduation was a big deal since it marked the students’ departure from one campus and their entry into sixth grade at a different campus. At the graduation, awards were given: Most Artistic, Most Helpful, Most Whatever. I watched, my heart sinking, as the last children in his class trooped over from their row of chairs at the front of the class to receive a paper certificate. Every child. Every last child except Frank received an award for…something. My son, sitting there stone-faced, was the only child in fifth grade deemed too unremarkable to be commended for anything. He is a natural gamer who enjoyed changing up the rules of just about any game we played to make it more interesting. He was known for one-line, hilarious zingers. He built elaborate Lego constructions. And he had done well in fifth grade. It’s not as though he’d gotten into trouble or was in danger of flunking out.
Later, I met with his very nice principal. “Well,” she told me, “we couldn’t just make things up. The awards would be meaningless if we did that.”
My loyalty to the school blinded me. I simply sat there and agreed that she was right, and my son entered sixth grade at the new campus along with his remarkable, awarded classmates. Years later, I tortured myself with regret. With the fact that I missed the writing on the wall, writing that only became more apparent as he trudged through high school and we mutually agreed it was time for him to leave. With what I should have said to the principal.
I should have challenged her: “Sure, the awards meant something. What do you think it meant to him to be deemed so unimportant, such a nonentity that you couldn’t think of a single thing to praise him for?”
I can think of other examples of my parental screwups: Correcting what I perceived as my husband’s parenting errors in front of the children springs to mind. Trust me, there’s more. But I won’t belabor the point.
In fact, belaboring the point is the point. After my children became adults, they let us know they were tired of us apologizing for our parenting mistakes. My role was much simpler once I realized that rehashing our screwups made the conversation about us. It looked like we were fishing for reassurance when they’d already forgiven us. The fact is, they knew they were loved, and that has to be enough.
It is enough. They absorbed the unconditional love that lay behind the screwups. To some extent, our deep love actually drove the anxiety that created our parental screwups.
My role now is to accept them, just as they are. To listen, no matter what. To trust them to find their own way through life. Yes, they have done well, and yes, they struggle. Just as we all do.
A few months ago, my daughter wrote this in her birthday card to me: “You were and are the best mother to Frank and me. Thank you for everything! I am so grateful you are my mother!” I felt humbled and incredibly grateful, and I will treasure that card as long as I live.
I’m well aware that not all parents are as lucky as we are. But love, simply offering love without strings attached, is powerful. The bond between a parent and a child is incredibly strong. The resentment some children feel toward their parents is actually proof of this. Yes, maybe it could have been otherwise in our family. Yes, maybe it should have been otherwise. But my adult children have taught me that just as infants thrive when parents express their love through wide open attention and affection, the same attention and affection can actually heal the wounds of the past.