My mother came to visit us recently at our rental out on the North Fork. Being with one’s mother as an adult and a mother is always a good reminder of how parenting is so very random, even when you pretend that you have a plan.
“Parents today…” my mother said with a shake of her head many times during the week, the end of the sentence not so important as that of the beginning, that dreaded beginning.
It’s not that I disagree that parents today, myself among them, give in too easily, that we ask our kids too often what they might want, that we panic more than slightly if tears should be shed or the pouting goes on too long. I see those things as clearly as she does. It’s just that I’m not as sure as she is that the things “parents today” are doing is so wrong. Sometimes we imagine that what we wanted and didn’t have as kids would have produced a much better outcome, though we’ll never know. The best we can do is to try our theories on our own kids, just like our parents before us.
This is what makes time it challenging to be with one’s parents and one’s children at the same time. Anything we do differently than our parents will, almost by necessity, be viewed by the oldest of the three generations as wrong. Lo, these 40 years after my mother had me, there is nothing she can go back and do differently. I know firsthand that it is no fun at all to look back at one’s behavior with regret, especially when there might be ramifications on other people.
My mother and I had a lovely week. She exhibited her self-proclaimed trait of “always trying…” by keeping silent in many moments where I knew from experience that she disapproved of my parenting style. At lunch, for example, when the kids desired to read their books at the table as we waited (seeming interminably) for our overpriced fare at a Shelter Island mainstay, I looked at my mom and her pressed-tight lips and told them to give me their books.
To be fair, I know myself that I should encourage them to participate in conversation at the table, that I should push through any whining and complaining and engage them in scintillating conversation of the type I hope they will learn to expect themselves while dining with other humans. But during these lazy rule-less summer days, I let them have Cookie Crisp cereal and even ice cream for breakfast. Holidays aren’t normal — that’s why they’re holidays.
But under the judgmental pretending-not-to-be-judgmental gaze of my mother, I asked them to put the books away.
“You don’t think they should read books at the table, do you Mom?” I asked.
Lips still slightly pursed, she closed her eyes and shook her head and put up her hands then in a double “Stop” sign as if she was not going to weigh in, even though she already had.
“But,” she added, “parents today…”
I smiled. Luckily, on this point, we agreed. It’s not that I don’t ever allow my kids to read or play on my iPhone at a restaurant. But in the back of my mind, I always fast-forward to their adult future when they might think it is OK to sit across from a friend or lover and not speak. I don’t want to be the parent who raised kids who are so focused on hand-held devices that they can’t “connect” with their peers even when they’re at the same table.
My mother and I discussed this evolution with far less hostility than when my children were younger, when the ways to get them to eat, sleep and poop seemed far more mysterious than she recalled three decades after she’d done it herself.
I realized during this particular week, partly because we were outside the pressure-cooker of our normal, rule-filled Park Slope lives, that my mother was right about what she said about always trying. She cared for me and my sisters to the best of her abilities by using the judgment she developed from her own natural and nurtured instincts coupled with whatever parenting advice du jour that she chose to implement. In fact, she did just what I’m trying to do, taking what worked for her and jettisoning what didn’t. I have fabulous traits and failings, of course, and it is impossible to say, even with hindsight, how anything she did differently might have produced a different outcome.
There is an understanding one gains in those moments when being both a parent’s child and a child’s parent.
When Eli cried out in pain from swimmer’s ear, my mother winced in anguish at my son’s upset and at my inability to help him.
“See,” she said, defending her own silent and sometimes-not- silent judgment. “It’s hard to watch and not want to help…”
Yes, I see that, now more clearly than ever.