Hold on loosely

When my kids were two, I decided–based on conventional parenting wisdom–that it was time for them to be potty-trained.

I did all the things a parent was supposed to do. I bought a potty seat. I read potty books to them. I talked it up. I took the kids shopping for big boy and big girl undies. I chose a date to begin–our first day of summer vacation. We were psyched and set.

In the first 45 minutes of Operation Potty they each went through 3 pairs of big boy/big girl undies–frankly, a urine output the likes of which I’d never seen–and I deduced that something in my approach was not working for them. “Should we try again another day?” I asked. They nodded their agreement with my new plan, and I think we were all relieved to know that I still had a good supply of diapers.

I decided to wait until they told me they’d like to try again. They never did. “Well, they won’t be going to kindergarten in diapers,” I told myself as we all went back to school that year, a mantra (adaptable to any number of issues) that got me through their toddler years.

Sometime that fall, the daycare ladies took over the job of teaching my children how to use a toilet. My daughter, from the get-go a lover of feedback, extrinsic rewards, and instruction from someone other than her parents, was highly motivated by and successful with stickers on a potty chart. My son, not so much. As that school year ended, several months past their third birthday, he showed little inclination to embrace his big boy undies, no matter which super-hero adorned them. He didn’t care about stickers or M&Ms or any other kind of reward.

“How come you don’t want to wear big boy undies and use the potty?” I asked one day in May. In complete sentences, he explained that he wanted to wear Pull-Ups because they did not require him to stop playing if he felt the need to pee or poop.

“Well, you have a really good point,” I conceded. “No one likes to have to stop playing to go to the bathroom.” I then explained that even though his reasoning made sense, he was still going to need to wear regular underwear like the rest of us.

“Why?” he asked.

Why, indeed? “Well, it’s just something we’ve all decided that people do. You can’t go to kindergarten wearing Pull-Ups,” I added. “They won’t let you.” Acknowledging the necessity of kindergarten, he agreed that he could not wear Pull-Ups forever, and that he might as well begin his life in regular underwear fairly immediately.

I asked him if we could choose a day that we could give up the Pull-Ups, and we reached a mutually agreeable one–the day we were to return from a family vacation in June. On that day he put on big boy undies and never looked back (and never had an accident).

This week those toddlers–my babies–turn 21. 21!

What strikes me most when I look back over the course of their lives is how constant their core selves have been. Although the particulars of their personalities and ways of being in the world are wildly different, both of my children act from places of reason, strong conviction, and a desire to meet goals that matter to them. I understood from their earliest days that I was never going to be able to bluff, bluster, bribe, or BS my children into anything they couldn’t see an authentic reason for doing.

What also strikes me, when I look back at the potty story and so many others, is my faith in both themselves and me. I took the conventional approach to toilet training, but when their behavior told me I’d likely misjudged something, I quickly abandoned it without doubting myself or worrying about anyone’s judgement. Maybe I was simply too tired from the physical crush of early parenting to put up much of a fight, but I like to think I had enough confidence in myself and my children that I didn’t worry about doing things differently from other parents. Once they entered kindergarten, I easily shifted my mantra to the next milestone: “They won’t be _____ in middle school,” I’d mutter when something wasn’t going for us the way it seemed to for others.

Later, when my daughter was in early middle school, she shared her opinion that a friend’s parent was “too easy,” and let her do things she shouldn’t.

I thought of all the things I allowed that many other parents typically didn’t and wondered if she was trying to tell me something about myself.

“Do you think I’m too easy?” I asked, half-wary of her answer. (“She doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” my mother has often said of her, and her judgments can be sharp.)

She thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said. “You’re strict about the right things.”

“What are those?” I asked.

“Mostly safety, I guess. I know there’s some things you’ll never cave on, so I don’t even try to get you to.”

Considering that this child had told me, when she was eight, that she’d realized that I couldn’t actually make her do anything, her perception of my parenting felt like solid-enough ground upon which we could make our journey through their adolescence together.

A time came, though, when that ground opened up beneath me, leaving my son on one side of a chasm and me on the other. Floundering in shock and fear, I lost faith and confidence in both of us.

Maybe I had been all wrong, I thought. Maybe I had been strict and loose about the wrong things. Maybe I should have been more like other parents. Maybe I’d been arrogant to think I knew best. Maybe I had failed him. Maybe I was failing her. Maybe I didn’t really know my son at all, this man-child who suddenly felt like a stranger much of the time. And did I really know her, or was another invisible-to-me fissure going to split wide open, leave me scrambling and clinging to the edges of what felt like an abyss?

“He’s still in there,” my mother assured me, more than once. “He’s still him. Just hold steady. You’ll both get through this.”

I wasn’t sure. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed reflexively for the standard parenting handbook, even though much of it had never really seemed to work for my kids. Because maybe I had been wrong about that, too. Maybe I had just been too weak to do the difficult things parents need to do. I judged myself harshly and for the first time worried about the judgment of others.

My grip on him tightened, hard, as I tried to push him back into the shape of the person I’d thought him to be, the person I thought he was supposed to be. The tighter I grasped, the more he pulled away, and the harder I clutched in return. I’m guessing you can imagine how well that worked, for both of us.

It wasn’t until he was graduating from high school, when I was lamenting to a friend, a teacher at an alternative school, about how he’d completed his last class, that she gave me the first plank in a bridge to span our divide.

“It must have taken him a lot of strength to stand up to all the adults in his life,” she said, gently. “It sounds to me like he met the goals he set for himself, on his own terms, against a lot of pressure to do what others wanted of him.”

“That’s something really positive,” she added, looking straight at me. “That’s a quality that might serve him very well.”

And, suddenly, just like that, I could see him again.

I could see that the son I feared I’d lost had been there all along, and that he was not fundamentally different, really, from the pre-schooler who couldn’t see any good reason to wear big boy undies when Pull-Ups allowed him to meet a more meaningful goal than the one I’d set for him–when all he’d really needed from me was some validation of his priorities and some measure of control over his choices.

What if I’d been able to see and give that later, when the stakes were higher and the challenges more complex? What if I’d looked harder for options amenable to both of us, and allowed him some true choice in which ones to take? What if I’d stopped thrashing around in my pond of fear long enough to have seen that it was, after all, only a pond, and not an ocean, and that he wouldn’t be _____ when he was 21? How might things have been different for him, for us?

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the rear view is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. It was hard to know, at 17, where we’d be at 21. It was hard not knowing if he would be OK, if he would make it to 21. Some kids don’t. Had his story gone a different way than it has, I would probably have a different interpretation of….well, everything.

But it didn’t, and here we are.

When we birth a child, we are creating a new life not just for them, but for ourselves, too. All I really know, as I approach the 21st birthday of life as my children’s parent, is that I have been some combination of wise, foolish, and lucky. I know that the question of how we should best carry our children is a hard one to answer in the particulars, but that in general the answer is to hold on loosely–somehow both tight enough to keep them, but not so tightly that we kill the very thing we are desperate to protect.

As my children and I approach the end of our transition to adult parent-child relationships, my only true regret is that I didn’t understand sooner that my job wasn’t to make them fit into the world as I see it, but was instead to teach them how to navigate their world as the people they were born to be. I believe now that if we think we can make our kids into some image we have of who they should be, we are only fooling ourselves about our power. We are not those kinds of gods. And if we try to be, we risk missing the chance to truly know and love the complex and often confounding and profoundly gorgeous beings our children are, have been, and will always be.

Happy birthday to us, loves of my life. What a gift and privilege it’s been to mother you.

18 thoughts on “Hold on loosely

  1. Kate says:

    Oh. Just so much…oh. I’m sitting in the parking lot of A’s school at pick up and crying. I needed this today. It’s so easy for me to doubt. To feel like I’m mucking this all up. To see every mistake. I needed the reminder that they won’t still be ______ and that honestly, a good chunk of this is all out of my control anyway. Thank you. And happy birthday to all three of you.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Kate. I know all about the ohs. I think it’s so important that we try. That we do all the good things we know are good things. I see the kids in our schools who aren’t getting them, and it does make a difference. A huge one. So, I do think there’s a big part that is in our control. Maybe the problem is that we’re mixed up sometimes about what is and isn’t. Or at least, I was. I just wish we (society, or at least the small societies of the people we know) talked more about what’s hard and why and what to do about it. So there can be less crying in parking lots. Or more, but a different kind.

      Sending you and all of yours love. Hard as some years were for me/us, I miss them terribly now. When I look back, it’s all the good parts that rise to the surface. The parts that were bad have assumed their proper size in the big picture. Sure wish that could have happened without the whole dang picture changing.

      • Kate says:

        “It’s the good parts that rise to the surface”. I was recently cleaning out pictures from what seems like forever/only a blink ago. They were 3 and 1 and I was all kinds of exhausted. Sleep deprived, touched out, in desperate need of QUIET, but looking back at that picture all I could see was how GOOD those days were. Like you said, I wish the bad could have assumed its proper size without the whole picture having to change! I appreciate all the love.
        Kate recently posted…‘Tis the SeasonMy Profile

        • Rita says:

          I even feel that way about the middle school years now, which sorely tested me. That early stages of parenting didn’t phase me. I loved parenting for the first 12 or so years. It was intense, but I felt good at it and so much of it was fun and felt good. When they hit adolescence, I didn’t feel as confident and it just felt so much harder, in every way. But I even miss those days now! A lot. I look at pictures from those years and it’s like I can see more clearly now than I could then who they truly were.

          I had to smile at “touched out.” Even though I loved the baby/toddler stage, I did have moments of feeling so much like that. I remember wanting my body to be just my body again. 🙂

        • Bethany Reid says:

          I was thinking about that too — “the good parts that rise to the surface” — I’ve found that writing about the journey (as Rita does so beautifully) is one of the ways I can let the process unfold with less anxiety. I think it has to do with subjective/objective. When I write it out (especially to share) I sort of hold it at arm’s length and can SEE it for what it is instead of all clouded by my anxiety.
          Bethany Reid recently posted…Surviving and Thriving…My Profile

  2. Marian says:

    Love all the photos you’ve shared here 🙂 . And happy birthday to all!
    Not that I’m an expert on perspective, and not that I haven’t had all of these same thoughts and doubts and long stretches of anxiety, but: I think, perhaps, that having twins (or an only child) is extremely difficult because you, as a parent, don’t have the perspective to say (with your OWN first-hand knowledge as opposed to knowing it in theory) that whatever it currently is that your child is going through, it will not last forever. (For some universal things, obviously; other things are unique to one child and you can’t extrapolate based on an experience with an older child, and in some cases, all bets are off even for the supposedly universal things.) In other words, I think the general doubts get quieter, or at least don’t last quite as long, with each successive child. (I realize this is completely unhelpful, and is offered as an “I’m not sure how you got through raising twins, Rita, and I take my hat off to you.”)

    “. . . my job wasn’t to make them fit into the world as I see it, but was instead to teach them how to navigate their world as the people they were born to be” — I love this. It is the opposite of the way I was raised, and my one hope for my kids is that I was/am able to do this for them.
    Marian recently posted…#TenYears of Reusable Produce BagsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Ah, thanks for the birthday wishes! I will admit that half the pleasure of writing this post was looking for the photos to go with it. Spent a lot of time reliving good memories. Wish I had more of them digitized; a great uncle nicknamed my kids The Kodak Twins–they were born before digital cameras. I have a folder with tons of old print photos that I need to do something with.

      As for your theory…I had raised/partially raised two step-children, so I did know something of how kids go through phases and things past. Maybe that is partly why I wasn’t very anxious in their earlier years. I think I lost my footing because what happened was a surprise to me, and it caused me to question what I really did and didn’t know. Who knows? There was a lot swirling around us in those years.

      I so wish I had that ending philosophy before I had these two. I wish I’d had it for myself! I think some things would have been very different for me if I could have seen some parts of me as simply difference rather than deficiency. At the very least, it would have made some questions of career more clear. It really wasn’t until they were half grown that I started to truly question the standard narratives about what constitutes success and a good life. Sometimes I’m amazed at all that I didn’t see earlier in my life. Oh well…better late than never. 🙂

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    Oh, friend, I love this so much. So many what ifs in parenting. It is the hardest job I have ever had and the best job I have ever had. Happy birthday to your beautiful children and happy anniversary to you. 🙂

  4. Bethany Reid says:

    Oh, how I love this post. It threw me back to my own twins and their potty training, it got my own shoulda, coulda, woulda’s out in the open where I can take a long look at them (and let them go?)

    When my daughter Annie was about 2 3/4 I was changing her messy pants (her twin sister was already potty trained) and I was GRIPING MIGHTILY about it. Annie looked me right in the eye, and said, “When I’m big, I’ll poop my pants whenever I want.”

    I said, “When you’re big, you can.”

    That was the last accident.

    Happy birthday to the three of you. Thank you for sharing this essay and the pictures. And the advice (!) — I’m dazzled.
    Bethany Reid recently posted…Surviving and Thriving…My Profile

    • Rita says:

      And I love this comment. Your Annie sounds a lot like both of mine. Lots of strong will and need to control their own selves. But we wouldn’t really want them any other way, would we?

      I hope you are letting go of your coulda/woulda/shoulda’s. Some days I do that better than others. But that getting them out in the open is crucial, I think.

  5. Barbara says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m in the middle years of raising a son with gifts and challenges. We’re currently coping with a learning disability diagnosis. I feel pushed and pulled between advocating for my strong willed child and feeling pressured to help him “fit in” better. I like the concept of helping him “navigate the world as the person he is”. It is a much more hopeful way of looking at the hard time we’re experiencing right now.

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