Monday, July 9, 2012

What to expect in your 39th year

As I get older, I’m constantly amazed by how long ago things that seem recent actually happened. 

The event itself doesn’t matter: my mind is equally blown when I consider Bill Clinton became president twenty years ago as it is when I realize Right Said Fred released their first album the same year.  

I don’t know where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain died, but I can remember with precision that I was driving to Ace Hardware in Iowa when I heard that he had been dead twenty years, because it didn't seem possible and made me feel old. 

I didn't feel the same disbelief last Saturday, which was the twentieth anniversary of my mother's death. It feels like half my life since I saw my mom, so it came as no shock that it is.  

I’ve gone through many episodes in my life since she died. I graduated from university, started a career, lived in several states and countries, went to graduate school, got married and divorced, had two children. I’ve navigated my 20s and most of my 30s without my mom, and I think she’d be mostly pleased with how it’s all worked out. 

From birth children begin the gradual process of surviving without their mothers. That’s the point of parenting: to help them grow into self-sufficient people who can live in and contribute to society. Parents only get so many years to prepare their kids before letting them go, and we are relaxing our grip slowly every day. For me, that means allowing my son to drink from a grown-up cup even though I know he’ll likely spill all over himself.  

It is not my job to keep my children from making mistakes. They have a right to their mistakes. It’s my job to help them develop the intellectual and emotional capacity to recover and learn from the mistakes they will make. But it's tricky when progress looks so precarious. It is not easy to allow my son to walk down our steep, dangerous Dutch stairs by himself (with me a step away, of course) while resisting a primal urge to grab him in a bear hug and carry him.  

I can appreciate how difficult this gets when the stakes are higher. The first time my mother agreed to let me drive with her as a passenger, she – not a drinker – had to down a digestive Ouzo at the restaurant we were in to get the courage to do it. She spent the duration of the journey in the backseat, singing the Wolfe Tones’ “We’re on the One Road” and trying not to panic. 

My mother had far less time than many parents to make an imprint on her children, to teach us what she wanted us to know, and to see reassuring signs that we were going to be okay. When it was clear she was going to die, she told me if there were windows in heaven she'd be looking down at me. I suggested maybe we could agree to a schedule, as there may be some things she didn't need to see.  

Being a parent makes you worry. Before having kids, I wasn't really afraid of much. Now I feel more vulnerable, because I have so much more to lose. I worry about something happening to them, but I also worry about something happening to me. After focusing for years on my own loss, now that I’m a parent I think about having to leave my kids – she was only eight years older than I am now – and I grieve more for everything she missed out on than I do for what I don’t have. 

My mom taught by example. She had a wonderful optimism, and never lingered in anger or sadness or resentment. She told me once that if she was scolded as a child, she would just picture herself in her mind riding her bike really fast on a summer day, and imagining that if she had very long hair, it'd be blowing in the wind. She never lost that ability to thwart negativity, even when sick. 

She wanted my sister and me to feel good about ourselves, to act with integrity no matter what we did. When I was cast as the cow in the nativity pageant as a child, rather than landing the coveted role of Mary, she assured me that the cow was very important, because it breathed on baby Jesus and kept him warm. 

She was assertive but not pushy or defensive. She was principled but not judgmental or exclusionary. She had a fantastic sense of humor, threw better parties than her teenage daughters, and, being roguish herself, forgave my teenage trespasses – even appreciated them, if I could make her laugh. 

I had a great mom who managed to teach me a lot in a short time. I know how to laugh at and forgive myself. I know how to feel comfortable in my own skin. I believe people are basically good, in spite of being flawed. More so than anything you can read in a What to Expect manual, my mom helped my sister and me understand how to live good lives, just by being ourselves. I can only hope to do the same for my kids.

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