I just got back from spending Thanksgiving in Paris with my eldest child, and it got me thinking about the point of parenthood.
Michaela, 21, is studying at the American University of Paris this semester. She is homesick, and although we couldn't really afford it, my husband and I decided that I should go. So off I went, and Michaela and I had a wonderful time sightseeing, eating wonderful French food and hanging out together.
Five or six years ago, I would never have believed that Michaela and I could happily spend four days together. She wasn't the easiest adolescent. She pushed limits and spent a whole lot of time grounded. I didn't really exist to her as a person; I was just someone who drove her places, cooked her meals, did her laundry and bought her only a fraction of what she thought she needed or deserved. I existed as the person who made her life miserable -- and she was happy to return the favor.
Michaela doesn't argue with any of this. She remembers it the same way I do. Neither of us can remember the moment when, or the reason why, it changed. But over time, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back, zig-zaggy way, we found our way through. "It gets better," older and wiser people said to me. "Hang in there. Remember that it's not about you."
See, that's the thing: Parenthood is not about the parents. It's not about how we feel, or about how our children's success (or lack thereof) reflects on us. It's not even about the affection we get. The point of parenthood is to raise children to be healthy (physically and mentally), honorable and hopefully happy adults who can take care of themselves. (For the parents of children with special needs, this takes on a whole different meaning -- but that's a whole different post).
Now, I'm not really one of those older and wiser people yet. My eldest two are just 21 and 20. I've got a lot of years ahead with them (and a lot with the younger three, too). And I'm not silly enough to think that I get full credit or blame for how they turn out -- life is way more complicated than that. But as I start to see the light at the end of the tunnel with my older ones, it seems to me that there are four things parents can do to help them through:
1. Be consistent with both love and limits. This is really hard sometimes. It means being supportive when your child is hateful -- and it means being strict when you know your child would be happier if you weren't. It means standing up for your child -- and standing up for what's right. Sometimes it means standing up for yourself.
2. Give independence. Do it slowly -- but do it steadily. Kids can't learn to do things by themselves if they never practice. They will screw up. You will too. It comes with the territory. You'll both get better at it, especially if you actually try to learn from your mistakes.
3. Don't take things too personally. Again: It's not about you. A certain amount of attitude and nastiness comes with the territory too. Yes, you need to enforce reasonable standards of behavior. But to the extent that you can, let things roll over you. Vent with your spouse and your friends and those older wiser people. They will understand.
4. Have a little faith. In your child. In yourself. In life. In the fact that possibilities are always endless. Things don't always turn out the way we expect or want, but if you keep loving and keep trying, things do have a way of, well, working out.
They have certainly worked out with Michaela. She is a smart, capable, responsible, fun and interesting person -- and a really good friend, too.
I know I still have a lot to learn when it comes to being a parent--and I'm right back in that tunnel with my 15-year-old. But having faith, at least, is a little easier.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire