I didn't know what I was saying

When our babies were little, we could see that the primary needs of a small human being were the needs for stability and connection. We pledged to those tiny people, so small and helpless and infinitely charming, the following words. (And I'm not kidding - I thought of it like this -- and we discussed it exactly like this.)

"You will learn by experience that come hell or high water, no matter what happens, no matter what else changes, you can count on your parents." We will not surprise you with sudden or unexplained explosions of strong emotion, and we will respond to your overtures to us, and we will not allow you to cry unheeded. (That last one used to really get my goat. Why would anyone allow a baby to cry uncomforted and unacknowledged? It's just so horrid and cruel. If we treated our spouses like that, it would be readily seen as abusive. And how can we train compassionate toddlers if we spent their infancy ignoring their pain?)

"You can count on us." That's what we wanted to teach them. You are free to do your work because your world will not shift under you. We promise.

But I didn't know what I was saying. I didn't realize that yes, they would learn to count on us, but the another thing would happen. We would change. We would become people who, eventually, after a couple of decades of stubborn insistence on being dependable rocks in their foundations ... we would become what we had been becoming. The rocks in the foundation can feel every vibration from the building resting on them. I didn't know. We didn't know that we were asking to become people who feel everything that happens in our children. Forever.

Another thing we used to say to them - a pledge we made before they were old enough to understand the words - was this. "We will not expect anything from you that you have not learned, and we will refrain from doing for you what you can do for yourself." (Or, the short version: "If you can, we won't.")

We meant that one too. We waited, and tried to erase every trace of looming impatience, while tiny hands tied tiny shoes and easily-distracted minds learned the skills of concentration. We read to them until they wanted to go do something else, and we read to them after they could read to themselves - because listening is a skill to get good at. We gave instructions, and then gave the dignity of our waiting for the will and the action to come from the child instead of asking for something and then doing it ourselves. We didn't say stupid parent things like: "Your shoes are untied" when we meant "tie your shoes." We refused to give an audience for a lack of self-control because we would not do their self-control for them (tantrums weren't tried very often though), and we refused to re-make beds after they'd been made by children - because the skill is the goal - not the lack of wrinkles.

And this too became a habit. We meant it. "If you can, we won't."

But we didn't know what we were saying. We didn't know that someday it would become a matter of shame vs. honor - for us, I mean! Now - with our kids as big as we are - we would be ashamed of ourselves if we jumped in to "help" without being asked. We'd know we were way out of line if we tried for "fix" things for them. And they wouldn't allow us to anyway.

So I've been thinking. Was I just naive? Maybe I'd just never seen parents of adults going through this separation process. Shouldn't I have known this? It could probably be inferred from "a sword will pierce your heart." Mary knew what it was to watch and be only able and allowed to feel - but not to do. The New Eve - the Theotokos - she knew. Shouldn't I have known?

But ... no. I guess this isn't something you know until you live it. Probably, I suppose, the difference is the view from the beginning of a journey and the view after you've been traveling awhile. At the beginning, you can see a lot - but there's simply no way to see all of it until you've gone over those hills, through those dales, and into and back out of the various valleys along the way. Like nothing else, with parenting "you had to be there."

There's another thing we used to say - or, giving credit where credit is due, my husband used to say to me. He used to talk about how wretched and terrible it seemed to him to become "useless" in this world. He'd talk about how the old people who kept finding their next useful place in the world were the people he wanted to follow, and how doing what seemed socially sensible was too often a matter of following along like one of a herd and how that wasn't very useful. Come to think of it, he says the word "useful" a lot, my husband does. We even have a conversational shorthand for it in the family now. If we're seeing herd behavior in people, we just say, "moooooo."

Until recently, I didn't know what he was saying - I didn't know why I needed to know that. It seems a bit silly to be talking about being useful if your children can't even put their shoes on the right feet. (And wouldn't you think the chances of that would be about 50/50?) Useful is what the parent of small children can often wish they weren't - at least for a few hours every once in awhile.

But now I see the wisdom. Now I know it and I am trying to live it. I've returned to the library so that I can be useful to a system I believe in (is there anything in the modern world as useful as a public library??), and I can be useful in household income at the same time. I can set up a writing habit that works now too - or ... I can pretty soon.

This week the second of the offspring moves out, and that frees up one room, one shower time, several laundry loads, and one scheduling attention block. After this week, I can't wake him in time for work or school, if he's late I won't know it, and if he gets fired he's the one who'll have to deal with it. ("If you can, we won't." He can. And what's better, he wants to.)

But ...

um ....

well, see ...

If the household's Mom has to pay attention to times and schedules and the obligations of her kids, she's useful. When the kids no longer want or need this ... then who is she? What is she for?

I didn't know what my oddly wise husband was saying back then and ever since when he has talked about being useful. But I'm starting to figure it out. Now, with the changes in being the Mom, I can be useful at work and in our budget (on the income side now too, I mean -- not just cleverness with the outgo side). I am putting together the bits and pieces of usefulness, and there are parts I have figured out.

The part that is still a bit like stacking BBs or responding to toddler talk as if I knew what the toddler was saying is the Mom part. I'm not sure how to do that yet. I know that I have to be unshakably dependable - and I know that if they can, I mustn't. But dependable what? Mustn't what?

Blessed Mother, pray for me. After two and a half decades, I'm not sure how to be the Mom any more. And I think I need to figure it out.


Di said...

Thanks for your musings, Stephanie - similar ones going on in this head here, with no firm conclusions either, just continuing questions of how to be a mom to an almost-adult and how to put my own energy and emotions and time to their best use. And your explorations in words are helping me to focus .....

Polly said...

I think putting these thoughts down on paper and chatting with wise women who have gone before will help you get thru this. I know it's helping me, and I just have a foot in the door of this stage.

Mary's watching and feeling but not doing has much to do with our Christian life, does it not? It's what we do at Mass -- all we need to do is receive. Taking the host directly in the mouth in stead of putting in your own mouth is another picture of this. To just sit and be fed . . . .

Anonymous said...

This is a different stage, a different season. Not bad or better, just different. And evolutions are slow, really. And God prepares us little by little. So it's ok to cry and mourn, but please, believe me (just as we tell our children to believe and trust), you WILL feel and be as fuliflled in the next part of your life as you were in the mommy with kids at home part. I PROMISE. I've been there. I'm on the other side, and it really is great. Total and complete, lacking [wanting] nothing.