Q: Did you see that article in the New York Times on October 23rd about kids sleeping in bed with their parents? I am a bit relieved, because my four year old sleeps with us all the time. We all enjoy it, but I was too embarrassed to tell my friends. What do you think?
A: You are the parent, not your friends. The rules in your household are set by you and reflect the kind of home you want to establish and the kind of values you want your children to grow up with. So, let's start with your insecurity about your own parenting skills. Understandably, many people look to their community to determine the framework for their parenting. If everyone in the car pool does it, then it has to be right. But in accepting the group wisdom - or at least what the group is saying - you may be selling yourself short, not reflecting your own values and what, after all, are your legitimate parenting choices. The science of parenting is something of an oxymoron; it's more of an art than anything else.
Once you have defined for yourself what your beliefs are and what is important to you, you will still find that there are times when your instincts just take control. You may think having the child sleep with you is bad. Then the kid comes into the room and, out of nowhere, you crave the contact. You may think it's okay for the kid to crawl into bed, but then when it happens you hear the admonishing of "Oh, oh" from somewhere in your head. Pay attention. You need to observe your own behavior and search for any hidden emotions in a situation. In other words, your own insecurities or fears may be playing out with your children. But here's a rule of thumb: If you feel good about something your children will, too. And if you are quietly angry toward someone - say, your snoring spouse on the other side of the bed -- your children will pick up on that. And if you are stressed out, they will certainly feel that.
Probably the unspoken fear has to do with sex. Is sleeping with your child in someway erotically tinged? If you are ready for me to dismiss this consideration, sorry, I can't. Sometimes -- not always or maybe not even usually -- it's part of the mix. If you hear a single mother say, as I have many times, "I don't have a man so my little boy is my man," the red flag should go up. This is a crushing burden for a young child. He's come to you for comfort and you are sending signals you want it -- you NEED it -- the other way around. You cannot ask a young person to satisfy the responsibilities or role of an older man. NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!
Or if a father, even though he is unaware of it, loves his daughter more than his wife, another situation you see quite often, this should raise another red flag. Again, NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!
So if you are overly seductive or overly in need for the comfort that once came from a relationship with an older partner, the child will feel the oppressive discomfort of the situation.
So, know yourself. Take the time to question your own motivations, your own feelings of insecurity, and your own hidden needs and once you have given yourself the green light, give all the parental coziness and love to you child that you want -- in your bed or in theirs.
Q: I had lunch last week with an old childhood friend. Both of us are now in our early sixties. While catching up on our lives, I became very depressed. She has done so many more things than I have -- so many more adventures. Even though I know that I've raised my children well and I've enjoyed my career as a dental technician, I felt like I had wasted my life. My husband, who is also retired, and I enjoy our grandchildren, but now I feel depressed and empty. I think I always felt dissatisfied, but I just kept trudging along. Now I feel like it is all bursting through. I'm angry and frustrated. There is nothing I can do about it now! Am I going to feel like this forever?
A: ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!
But it will require a rigorous appreciation of why you chose to live your life the way who did. And, just as important, it will require acceptance of who you are and, maybe, a reframing of where you go from here. At a certain point, we need to reflect and accept the successes as well as the limitations of our lives. Erik Eriksson's Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development labels the last two stages of life as "generativity vs. stagnation" and "ego-integrity vs. despair." That's shrink talk for finding ways to look to and support the next generation while at the same time having a complete sense of ourselves and our fulfillment.
You are going through the transition to these stages and you were confronted by your friend who represents to you the path not taken. For all of us, there are points in life where out of choice or inescapable need we take one path and forsake another. In your case, you may have had responsibilities that took up time or money and defined your choices for you. Or perhaps you hesitated to experience the sort of adventures you now envy in you friend because you were frightened or shy. You choice or construction of your life was made by who you were at that time and by what was important to you at that time. In fact, a clue to what was important to you is even the way you describe your life and list your priorities. "I raised my children well" means family was number one. Now you are reaping the benefits of that choice - those grandchildren you mentioned. What's more, you say you liked your job. A good family, grandchildren and a job you liked hardly sound to me like a missed opportunity.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that both of your priorities involve being a caregiver. This is a wonderful aspect of your personality that you should cherish and be proud of. So, perhaps what you are really feeling is both satisfaction with the choices you made in life and, at the same time, a desire to branch out, seek yet another aspect or dimension of yourself.
Well, go for it!! You can be that wonderful caregiver, but you have the time now to experiment with other paths. I have a favorite expression that LIFE IS A SERIES OF LITTLE LIVES. You can accept Eriksson's theories. You can agree that you have lived your life successfully and have transitioned through each stage successfully. That's no reason to quite. It is, instead, a sound foundation to now experiment with another dimension and aspect of yourself. GO ENJOY THAT NEXT LITTLE LIFE!