During tennis lesson last week, I watched as our four year old clamored to gather balls his classmates had gotten to first. He grew increasingly upset, as one ball after another was swiped away from him. Meanwhile, there were more balls coming across the net from the pair who were practicing their backhand.
I called him over (though the coach takes offense to parental direction during class).
“Don’t look at the balls on the floor,” I whispered. I turned his head from the floor to the other side of the net. “Look for the next ball. No one is going after that one.”
His countenance brightened and he burst away, in pursuit of the new source.
We have a sequence of phrases I try to rehearse with him every now and then. The starter phrase is “I love you” because several years ago in one of our long car rides around the city, when I said “I love you,” he surprised me by responding with “I love you too.” Like a call and response in a religious service, we trade phrases in a sequence that remind us of what’s important.
The lesson from tennis class is the latest addition:
“We don’t look at balls on the floor.” (Me)
“We look for the next ball.” (Him)
I realize as we are tossing these lines back and forth I’m teaching him. As importantly, I’m reminding myself of those values I hold dear.
No matter what type of childhood you had, the odds are high that you also have a complaint about it. The stigma of trials are obvious. Yet my friends with well off parents also murmur that they too were at a disadvantage (too sheltered to be prepared for the disappointment of adulthood).
Becoming a parent is an interesting rhetorical move. Yes, you see glimpses of your parents and often not their best traits.
But also you get a chance to teach yourself as you’re teaching your child.
One afternoon I was home, the boys playing downstairs, and I threw myself on the bed in shuddering sobs. I crawled under the covers, like a tantrum spent toddler, and took a nap. I awoke refreshed. Not much else had changed but perhaps the most essential thing: my perspective.
Think what better people we could be if we saw everyone with the compassionate we give to children.
The holidays have come. Thankfully they have also gone. Maybe I’m getting older and the charm of exchanging gifts has worn off; maybe it was never really there to begin with. Growing up in an Hindu household, we did not celebrate Christmas, not even in the secular exchange of gifts as many families of different faiths do. As a child I didn’t notice the lack of tree or tinsel; for sure I knew Santa Claus was a hoax as he never found us. As a teenager, when friends called to see what I’d gotten for the holiday the long pause after answering “coffee cup” exposed the non-idyllic nature of my childhood.
Christmas was like any other day in our house; so was Thanksgiving. Most summers were spent reading in the bleachers reading Ken Follett during my younger brother’s T-ball games.
I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me. The festive deprivation may have been the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.
Treating me like a non-fragile, ordinary creature who was a burden (don’t let her get pregnant! or wind up working at McDonald’s!) rather than precious blessing may have been tough medicine at the time, but now as a parent, this distance is what allows me to be the best mother I can. Ironically having an imperfect childhood makes it easier to parent
I don’t feel pressure to create a bubble of idyll around my sons (or re-create as my friends do).
In my younger days I suffered many disappointments. Ordinary letdowns that are death to a teenager like missed slumber parties (mustn’t let the girl spend the night out. Remember she has a uterus!) or high school field trips to New York City (go to the library, read a book about that place, much cheaper!) meant I dealt with disappointments early on and often. The older I grew, the more sadness and conflict I encountered. My familiarity with the unsavory parts of life meant that as we grew older, my friends came to me for coping strategies. A close friend’s miscarriage crippled her emotionally; it was the hardest event in her life. I was one person she could talk to because I was no stranger to raw emotion or a sense of unfairness.
Now that I’m a mother, each and every one of those hard moments is a reminder that I’m doing darn well for my guys. Yes, I have a demanding schedule as a writer and professor; I’m often away from them and I may not do the things other mothers do. But by comparison, every day for my children is better than most of the ones I had.
I know they don’t need expensive toys (though they do have a Pinterest worthy playroom). I don’t shield them from the word no. If they fall over, in most cases, they pick themselves back up.
Some call this tough love. I call it preparation for life.
I am a typical Virgo and have perfectionist tendencies. But this is one area I’m happy to be mediocre. Rather than be plagued by guilt at what I’m not doing for them, I will celebrate what we do have together. And hopefully teach them some valuable lessons in the process.
What about you? Are you happy with your childhood memories or do you wish you’d had more of something? Any parenting wisdom to share?