The next part of my novella will, in part, deal with a time in my life while I was married. Undoubtedly my children will come up during that piece as well. Thus I want to explore parenting roles and their effects on both parent and child. My own perception of my role as a parent has largely been negative despite third party assurances that it was far from. Regardless it is an excellent topic to dive into.
I was a boy when my kids were born; maturity hadn’t set in enough for me to call myself a man. Despite my youth my wife and I had decided that we wanted to parent our kids different than how we were parented. That meant spending time with the kids by focusing on them and getting down to their level. It also meant focusing on the positive, taking focus away from the negative, and being stern with follow-through on punishments. This parenting relationship was rather cohesive, but my part in it, I feel, was far less than I make it seem. I certainly did discuss all of the above with my wife and supported it all as well. However I was becoming increasingly absent as the marriage moved forward thus leaving my wife to do a bulk of the work. There were brief periods where our roles were reversed, but I always ended up going back to work and leaving the wife with the bulk of the time spent with the kids.
After we had divorced parenting became a different beast entirely. It had become competitive — exactly what it shouldn’t become according to all the right research on the matter. Most likely due to my (unknown at the time) borderline personality disorder I feared abandonment by my kids and feared the fateful day that they might declare that they loved mommy better than daddy. This led me to becoming a “weekend” dad who focused more on friendship with the kids over discipline. Basically being at dad’s was a big vacation for the kids. Now I cut myself a little short here. I actually turned play into teaching most of the time. It was effective and my kids are brilliant to show for it. Yet that “competition” still haunts me. I wonder at the actual damage done to my kids as very subtle jabs are thrown at the opposing parent.
When my ex-wife gave me physical custody of the kids I really was just as unprepared as my first foray into parenting just 8 years before. The kids and I fell into a comfortable routine that was easy but definitely did not challenge them in many ways. Also I was never good at going to the doctor myself and thus the kids were never taken to the doctors either. I tried encouraging them to take extra curricular activities at school, but if they said no then that was good enough for me. I would learn later that my son said no because he knew we were poor and he didn’t want to make it worse. My perception of my parenting skills as bad was exacerbated when my kids made the decision to move back in with their mother. After doing so they ended up involved in extracurricular activities, they were having regular dentist and doctor appointments, and they overall seemed to have a much better quality of life than what I imagined I would have given them.
At the end of the day, the truth is that there isn’t really a competition between parents to determine who is the better parent. When I ask myself, “When I look at Meaghan and Sam am I happy with what I see?” and I can respond affirmatively, that is when I know that my parenting was fine. The kids never had just one parent. They always had two. Even if the two didn’t always cooperate, were sometimes competitive, or in many cases immature, my kids had the best of both worlds.
This leads me to consider how other parents beat themselves up for their parenting skills. Some worry that they let too much slide. Some worry that they are too strict. Some worry that they aren’t “fun enough.” In a single parent family it is very easy to just think that you’re screwing up your kid for life. I learned this after several talks with my mom while my dad was in the hospital. She was a single mother to three kids for a long time until she met my stepdad. I used to hold a lot of resentment for those years. As an adult I was able to see things from a far different perspective. Knowing who I am, who my sister is, and who my brother is, I was able to see how raising three mentally ill yet genius children could impact a single mother. She did the best that she could. There was no textbook on raising children in her circumstances. There was just experience, time, and patience. And the three of us exhausted each of those.
What about the mother who raises just a single child, is married, but the husband works far away? In many ways she is like the single mother. Each and every day that her husband is absent she must simultaneously be her child’s confidante and disciplinarian all while keeping him on a routine schedule. Dad comes home and suddenly the child is staying up past his bed time, is getting to engage in activities that are normally reserved for non-school nights, and begins talking back to mom because she’s not as fun as dad. She ruins everything. Does she ruin everything? That mother has to play every role for her child. In many ways having one child is harder than having two! At least with two the eldest learns to be the caretaker and occupies the youngest while the mother attends to chores. A single child doesn’t have that luxury. He must learn to occupy himself or attach to his mother. Naturally the mother doesn’t ever want the child to feel isolated thus she allows him to cling to her. This is absolutely natural and there is nothing wrong in this instance.
Chaos breaks out when dad gets home. Mom had been everything to her child for the past couple of days and now must take on the additional role of dutiful wife. Sure the dad has worked super hard and deserves a break. The problem is that his job has set hours. Hers is 24/7. Let’s add to the mix that this guy, a really likable guy, doesn’t take anything seriously. So mom disciplines the son and dad just kind of grins and says, “You know how mom gets when she’s mad.” He isn’t really supporting her at all as a parent. Now, does the kid think dad is the greatest and mom is a spoilsport sometimes? Maybe. But a kid is also going to think eating cookies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a great idea. Trust me, mom knows it isn’t!
Ultimately my suggestion to any mom in that spot would be the same advice I gave myself, “When you look at your child are you happy with what you see?” If the answer is yes then that’s great! It took both parents to build the kid that way. My suggestion to dad would be, “Recognize what your wife is doing, has done, and continues to do without asking for reward and give her a fucking break. Oh, and stand up for her to your child rather than undermining her.”
Parenting can be one of the greatest joys, however it brings with it tremendous anxiety as well. We hold in our hands the very well being of a future person. In many ways we feel that that future person is a reflection of us today. I think we need to give ourselves a break more often and recognize that we can only do our best. Just like my mom did.