I’ve had conversations with other parents recently that highlight a fear we all share: Despite our best efforts, we’ll scar our children anyway.
Most of us can point to examples of things our parents did to scar us for life, and we’re horrified to find ourselves doing the same things.
My father could be a brutal teaser and taskmaster when it came to things like yard work and working in the family warehouse. It always seemed like my best was never good enough. Even as a grownup, I would tell him about promotions and raises at work, and when I told him what I was earning, he’d deliver these stinging words: “That’s it?”
Dad also doesn’t have a verbal filter. If you put on weight, he’ll look at you, smile, and tell you you’re getting fat.
Yet here I am, teasing my kids all the time. And though I’ve historically been the parent most likely to let them get away with stuff, I’ve hardened my stance of late. I feel like I have to, because Sean is a tween with all the infuriating attributes. So I get on him about taking out the trash, picking his clothes off the floor and being a leader in his Boy Scout troop. Meanwhile, Duncan needs a lot of guidance and patience as a kid with ADHD. I often fall short because my OCD robs me of all patience.
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These things used to distress me. Like most moms and dads, I always swore I’d do better than my parents did. But the older I get, the more I realize I haven’t been entirely fair to my mom and dad.
They made their share of mistakes, but they did a lot right, too. With the help of excellent doctors, they kept me from dying of childhood illnesses. They got me through school and made my college education possible. My father has helped me out of more than a few financial jams. Yeah, bad things happened when I was a kid, but they were often things beyond my parents’ control. They tried to keep my older brother healthy, but he died anyway. They tried to keep their marriage together, but it wasn’t meant to be. The fighting around that divorce was vicious, but that’s what happens when a relationship decays. Some manage a divorce better than others, but there’s no instruction manual to help things along.
Some parents vow to quit drinking and smoking when a child comes along and often fail. But addiction is a powerful slave keeper. We vow not to cuss, but if I’m a fair example of the majority, the profanity creeps back before you know what hit you.
There are plenty of cases of parents carrying on like saints or demons, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We adore our children and drive ourselves to the brink of exhaustion providing for them. We show them a lot of love. But we have bad days, saying and doing things that end up in their mental time capsules, which are dug up in adulthood and analyzed for signs of trauma. Most of us have emotionally scarring back stories from childhood. The trick is to keep our shitty parenting to a minimum and get it right more often than not. Sadly, we have to wait until they grow up to see how it all worked out.