Lessons learned from mothering many…

Being a mother is often a disappointing endeavor. I don’t mean that the kids are disappointing — definitely not. They amaze me all the time. But the job of mother itself can be fairly disappointing overall.

I think, it’s in part, due to the expectations we have as mothers and the expectations other people have both from mothers in general — societally speaking — but also the expectations that spouses, children, and friends have of the mothers in their lives.

I learned early not to have a lot of expectations of my children. Of course, I expected them to have good manners, so I tried to emulate and teach them good manners. They are extremely well-mannered children, so hopefully I did this well. But the other stuff — will they be doctors? Go to Harvard? Be a professional basketball player. All that stuff. Long gone. Be a good person. Be nice to people. These are things I expect now, eight children later.

On the other hand, the disappointment tends to come in waves and it’s mostly disappointment in myself. Have I done enough? Have I tried to give them enough opportunities? Am I forcing too much? Should I make Seamus go to soccer? Or should I just let him do this thing? Sometimes, it seems no matter the choice I make, it will be the wrong one — or the one that comes back to haunt me.

This sounds like a really pessimistic view of parenting and I don’t mean it to be. However, after 30 years of parenting, and children ranging (as of 2022) from 9–30, I have some time to reflect. I have taken children on grand adventures — and then been told that they would have rather had a more boring, one house life. I’ve stayed in one place and sent them to school and been “boring” and then I’m too boring and we never go anywhere. I’ve been told that family dinners are getting too much and then the next set of kids wonders why we don’t have family dinners anymore.

Sometimes I feel like I just can’t keep up and the choice I make for one or all is often the wrong one for one or another.

A comedian I once admired talks about the proverbial dad who takes the kid to all the games, and practices, and plays out in the yard with the kids — always practicing…and when the moment of glory finally comes, he kids looks at the tv camera and says, “Hi, Mom!”

I feel like that sometimes. Even though I’m mom.

And years ago, that would have made me sad, and maybe even a bit upset. It comes from that place that says, “Look at all I have done for you,” right? But I never wanted to be that kind of mom. I never wanted to be the mom that says, “I fed you, clothed you, took you to practice every day…” somehow implying that the child in question now owes me.

They don’t owe me. Or anyone else. But dang, sometimes wouldn’t it be great to get a bit of acknowledgment for that fact? It would. But I won’t hold my breath. Why? Because it’s not about me. I always knew that, I think, innately, but in a society that both reveres and denigrates parents as the wind blows, it gets harder and harder to know what it is I’m supposed to be to my kids.

The old school parents would say to be “parents” not friends. Or that parent means the disciplinarian. The permission-giver. The final say.

Sometimes I am those things. Sometimes I have to be. But I don’t love it. I don’t love being the final say. I don’t love giving my permission for things. I usually just want to say yes to everything.

As a grown-up, I know I can’t. I really do try.

Many years ago, when my oldest was 14ish, we had a row. A huge blow-out. It was ridiculous. My husband at the time was a very formal guy and there were rules for everything then. What the kids could wear, how they could wear it, how many times their ears could be pierced, it went on and on. I usually tried not to make too much of a deal of any of it and satisfy those rules as best I could without causing angst on either side. The peacemaker. That’s me.

Matt did not want to wear a button down “nice” shirt for the school concert. J wanted him to. Demanded he wear it. I got very caught up in the anxiety of it all and started rushing around, getting little kids ready for the concert — Matt was the oldest of five kids at the time, the youngest was Jack, who was just a baby.

So while I am trying to get a baby, a 7 year old, and a 9 year old ready for this silly little concert, I have to go 10 rounds with Matthew over this shirt. Because now it’s my issue. My husband has deemed that this is important but because my oldest is not “his” kid, I have to go fight him for my husband. Which is ridiculous. Of course it is. But at the moment. At that time. I didn’t see that. All I saw was that my life would be easier if Matthew put on this shirt.

It got pretty ugly. Me yelling at poor Matthew to put the shirt on. Him yelling right back, probably telling me to fuck right off (in his head anyway) and who could blame him? I absolutely began to lose my shit about this stupid shirt. I couldn’t believe it. What was the big fucking deal? All of a sudden, J’s rules not only seemed appropriate, they seemed right, and the more Matthew fought, the more I fought back. I couldn’t disengage. Who did this kid think he was all of a sudden? How dare you, a child, talk to me, your mother like that? It no longer mattered what we were arguing about. It only mattered that I won. Right?

Because, “I’m big, you’re little. I’m smart. You’re dumb. I’m right. You’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” That’s from the movie Matilda if you were curious. But that’s the mindset, isn’t it? You’re a kid. I’m a big, bad grown-up. Do what I say.

Matthew and I went back and forth for a while, culminating in one of my finest parenting moments, where I grabbed him by whatever shirt he was wearing — I may have tried to remove it — I’m not sure — and he said something, I don’t remember what. But I do remember being frustrated and kind of letting go and giving up and being just like, whatever.

He looked at me and said, “You shouldn’t raise freethinkers if you don’t want us to think freely.”

Huh. Yeah. Fucker. And it hit me. Hard. He was exactly right. And while it took me a long time to start standing up to my ex, I really took that episode to heart. Today, when other parents come to me with stories about their teens, I often tell them some of my Matt stories. Because I was so horribly wrong about a lot of it, and because I didn’t parent from my heart. I parented based on the comments of my ex-husband, and my father, and my mother, and my sister, and probably a friend or two.

It wasn’t until I really started to not see myself as “Mother — the be all end all” but rather, Mom, the person who knows some things occasionally and has the money, it started to change. Parenting got easier because it wasn’t about the parenting. It became more about the community we were creating.

Actual parenting, it seems, happens in the in between spaces. The car rides early in the morning to the first of a two-a-day practice; the minute and a half you get to chat with a teen before they head out the door; the hug after school pick up. And isn’t about my expectations at all. Maybe that’s what the most disappointing thing is, that after everything we do, for so long, as mothers — all the hours invested, the sleepless nights, the anxiety…our kids are their own people and they need to make their own mistakes, and we need to let them do it. Ugh. Wouldn’t it just be easier if everyone just did what I said?

It would. Believe me. It would. I tell them. They don’t believe me. But you do, right? Fellow parent? You know it would be better if they just did what I said.

But don’t be fooled. I sure won’t. The final four are heading into their teenage years, and I’m sure I have much more to learn that I’d really rather not.

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