With my youngest child only a year away from heading off to university, I find myself, impossibly, on the so-called last lap of parenting. I’ve discovered, though, that what my mom told me years ago is true: You never stop being a parent. The subliminal connection is always there. As I write this, for example, it’s trying to telepathically buoy up my 21-year-old through his end-of-term crunch, and wrap a little safety bubble around my eldest as he drives down the highway through slippery spring snow.
I guess I’ve learned a lot about raising kids over these 25 years, but mostly I’ve been humbled — because one big thing I’ve learned is that there are no guarantees or one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to something as complex and deeply personal as parent-child relationships. Part of my journey as a parent has been to accept that we can only influence, not control, what happens to our kids. Genes, temperament, opportunity and pure dumb luck all play their part.
So, yeah, we’ve been lucky. The way hasn’t been entirely smooth for any of my three sons. They have faced challenges from school difficulties to chronic illness, but they all seem to be entering young adulthood with happy, healthy and productive lives, and they got there without the heart-stopping tailspins that some teens struggle through. And for that I am deeply grateful.
I’m also grateful time has given me a sharper recall of the good memories of raising a family than the bad. I remember, of course, that it wasn’t always fun. There were nights when my first baby cried for so long that I ended up crying too, and months on end when I lived in a haze of fatigue. Later, I feared school might pummel the curiosity and self-confidence right out of my bright, distractible eight-year-old, and I despaired at my inability to stop whoever was 12 at the time from constantly teasing his little brother into a hysterical rage. But I remember these things the way I remember the worst day of our New Brunswick vacation — when my eldest clambered up a famous flowerpot rock and (inevitably) fell, cutting open his hand, while our two-year-old aimed a rock at the ocean and accidentally hurled it into his older brother’s temple instead — with a fond humour. I know that was a bad day, but it doesn’t feel bad anymore because the trip itself was awesome. It’s the same with my kids: I haven’t forgotten the hard parts, but what I remember deeply and viscerally are the great parts, from the smell and trusting weight of a damp out-of-the-bath baby’s head nestled against my shoulder to the genial, crowded chaos of a small kitchen full of grown boys and their partners. These are the moments that feed the soul, and I hope they are with me for the rest of my life.
The teasing and hysterical rage doesn’t happen anymore, by the way. In fact, quite a few of the problems we failed to solve took care of themselves.
Take sleep. We had three crappy sleepers. And after a horrible traumatic night trying to “train” my first-born toddler to put himself back to sleep (one of the parenting missteps I still feel bad about!), we kind of rebounded too far in the other direction and never made the slightest effort to sleep-train our other kids. Some people might say we mollycoddled them at bedtime for years, lying down with them pretty much every night until they fell asleep. Yes, I might have written the Great Canadian Novel (or at least kept the house cleaner) with all those evening hours. But, contrary to some experts’ cautions, we don’t seem to have permanently impaired our kids’ independence or sleep skills. In fact, I wish my teenager would wake up more easily!
Picky eating? Mea culpa — we didn’t make entirely separate meals, but there were many nights when the substitutions (chicken breast for salmon fillet, raw carrot for cauliflower, peanut butter sandwich for something too mixed up and gross to even contemplate) were thick on the ground. What can I say? We catered. And they still grew out of it. I’m the picky eater of the family now.
Then there’s the tidiness issue. For years I fought with my second son about his junk strewn all over the house and dirty dishes in his room. I never won — he had a way of pleasantly agreeing with, then completely ignoring my directives. But he has his own apartment now, and it’s perfectly presentable. And if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter. It’s not my problem anymore.
I’m not suggesting that these daily issues with kids, which seemed so big and even overwhelming at the time, are not important, or that how we handle them doesn’t matter. It does matter, I’m sure of it. But I think maybe the details of how we handle things with our kids are less important than the way we go about it — the tone we set in the family; the interest, support, affection and understanding we show our kids; whether we try (even if we sometimes fail) to be fair as well as firm; the kind of relationship skills we model and the values we communicate. It’s the big picture that matters — but with kids the big picture is built from the minutiae of family life.
We had a little parenting rite of passage last year: We went for dinner for the first time to one of our kids’ houses, as guests. It was really fun and just a little weird. (How could he — we — be old enough for this? And where did he learn to cook so well?) Our family is spreading out beyond the walls of our house. But I still need a bigger kitchen — for when they all come back home.