Before I was married, I lived near home (not at home) and also near my older brother, his wife, and their (at the time) 4 kids. I used to babysit their eldest two, though perhaps not regularly, at least often enough that I felt close to them, felt like a good aunt. Until I had to punish them for bad behavior. Even using that word--punish--in relation to my nephews, who are now in their 20s, makes me cringe. And by punishment, I mean time-outs. Nothing physical, nothing drastic, no yelling, just: "You know you shouldn't have done that. Go have a seat on the sofa."
And those time-outs never lasted more than 30 seconds because I couldn't bear to see them so little and so sad sitting there like that, tears in their big eyes, waiting for me to tell them they were good and could get down and play some more.
I was so sure I was going to be the softest, easiest, wimpiest mom ever. Ev. Er.
I was wrong. I found quite quickly that it's much easier to punish your own children than someone else's. I rarely had to punish my oldest. All Ron or I had to do was look at Simon as though we were disappointed and even at age 2 he would break down crying. He wouldn't do anything without asking us first. He still doesn't, which is an entirely separate issue now that he's 12 and he really doesn't need to call us while we're out to dinner in order to ask if he can eat an apple. But for those early years, parenting him was a breeze.
The 3 we've had since them? Not such a breeze. In fact, when Ivan started to walk and talk and cause his own brand of issues in our family, I realized God was, if not punishing, well then at least chastising me for a little thing called smugness. I had been so sure up until 4 years ago that I was a great parent who knew how to keep her children in line anywhere anytime, and that all those parents out there with seemingly out-of-control kids really only needed some tips from me on how to bring them under control. I never offered advice, but I thought they should be asking me.
Ha. And ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
My kids are who they are in spite of, not because of, me. And nothing is going to turn Ivan into a child who cries when I look at him wrong. Nothing is going to turn him into a child who thinks to ask me before he helps himself to an apple--and then takes one bite and throws it in the garbage, insisting that wasn't what he wanted to eat after all as he reaches for leftover Easter candy. (I retrieved the apple, by the way, washed it, and gave it to another child.)
I'm not the wimpiest mom ever. I do try to keep Ivan in line, particularly when we're out in public and I know there are other smug mothers around me, ones exactly like I was before I was, um, schooled. But I have also come to love all the uncontrolled energy that makes him who he is. I was pregnant with him during Hurricane Ivan (which is not how we came up with his name, by the way), and I prefer to associate him with a force of nature than with Ivan the Terrible.
I had a dream a couple of months ago that Owen, my almost-10-year-old, had done something so awful that I knew he would never be able to forgive himself for it. And I ached for him in that dream, knowing that nothing I said or did was going to help him. It was one of the worst and realest dreams I've ever had. As a parent, I believe that's what my role is: not to punish my children but to make sure they don't make the kind of mistakes that will prevent them from being happy, from loving themselves, from forgiving themselves. I can't control hurricanes or floods or volcanoes or thunderstorms or monsoons or tornadoes. I can only board up the windows, make sure the sump pump is working, and that we always have milk in the fridge and cereal in the cupboard.
This morning Ivan growled at me as I put him in the car. That's his thing these days: growling. I told him he needed to be nice to me. He said, "Is your heart filled up, Mommy?" Lately, when he hugs me, he holds on and on, his arms and legs wrapped around me, until I say, "Thank you, Ivan. That really filled my heart up." So I answered, "Well, it's not quite as filled up as I'd like it to be." So he grabbed me around the neck and after a few seconds, he said, "Now is it filled?" I said, "Yes." And he said, "Okay. Now a little bit more." And he held on some more.
I was a couple of minutes late getting him to school. And it was worth the delay to be filled up today. He's not perfectly behaved, none of my children are nor will they ever be. But every one of them is perfect. And about that, I feel absolutely entitled to my smugness.