Friday, July 16, 2010

Missing the point

Yesterday, as I was cruising by, I caught this segment of Meredith Viera interviewing Jennifer Senior, the author of last week's New York Magazine cover story, "I Love My Children; I Hate My Life".

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For five seconds, I got rather indignant--until I slowed down, put the breaks on being judgmental (always my default), and asked myself why I felt that way.

What I came to is this: not surprisingly, indignation usually is my mask for feeling defensive. Upon closer examination, I found the "I hate my life" part a little too painfully close to how I felt until fairly recently. As was pointed out in the interview, many parents--myself included--are reluctant to admit the experience of child-rearing doesn't live up to their expectations. I would never have gotten pregnant if I had a sneak peek at what was waiting for me in the first three miserable months of sleep deprivation and breastfeeding agony after Jimmy was born--and that's before I even had to deal with him as a toddler. So to say it didn't live up to my expectations is a mild understatement.

Still, it's completely worth it. My experience has been that when I make my best effort to be a loving, compassionate parent, I always learn more from my children than I know I'm teaching them.

In many ways, waiting until I was in my 30s to have kids has made motherhood much easier for me: I was more emotionally mature and patient than I was in my 20s, and I had a chance to accomplish some educational and personal goals before raising a family. On the other hand, I also got more stubborn, more controlling, more entrenched in a self-centered way of life that was difficult for me to give up when the kids came along.

I reached a point where I knew the next logical step for my personal and spiritual growth was to have children--and that intellectual justification was coupled with a strong emotional and physiological desire for children, as well. I was committed to working through the challenges I knew would come, knowing I would be better for doing so, and also that I (hopefully) would be raising happy, healthy, kind, and productive children.

Even so, nothing prepared me for the reality of what motherhood is really like, how draining it is. As much as I thought I was mature and patient, having to devote so much energy, physically and emotionally, pushed all my buttons. Every last one of them. Only within the last two years have I acknowledged to myself and my husband the rather startling fear of having my kids suck the life out of me, and the tremendous guilt that comes with resenting them for it. Identifying this was a big breakthrough for me, and allowed me to finally move past both the fear and the resentment.

What I've learned as I've attempted to reconcile my fears of "losing myself" to my children's demands is this: control is an illusion. I can teach my children good manners, discipline them, and in so doing modify their behavior to a certain extent. What it all comes down to, though, is how I respond when my children exert their own wills in conflict with mine. Do I explode? Do I lecture? Do I yell? Do I lose my patience? Do I beat myself up for not doing a better job? Do I regret ever giving birth to them? Yes, at some point, any and all of those things.

Eventually, after I made all the mistakes I could think of, I started to learn what does and doesn't work for my kids and for me. I learned the only thing I can control is my own reaction, and I'm more happy when I choose to let go of being angry and resentful. I'm learning (still learning!) to choose my battles, to be patient, and to be calm. I'm also learning how to communicate with my partner, get support, and carve out time for myself to do those things that feed my soul and nurture my creativity.

More than anything, I'm learning the difference between "happy" and "rewarding". Life with kids can be happy, even euphoric, but much more often it is painful, tedious, smelly, embarrassing, frustrating, challenging, expensive and even sometimes tragic. Those experiences, though, are a necessary part of life, of being human, of the cosmic balance of opposition in all things. Life with both bitter and sweet is sometimes happy, but always, always, rewarding.

Looking back at the interview, I don't feel indignant anymore. I just think Ms. Senior and Ms. Viera missed the point. Yes, parenting is a challenge, but it's possible to transcend resentment and frustration by focusing on the intrinsic value of sacrifice and growth possible during the parenting experience.

What makes the struggle worthwhile for me is the opportunity to rise above myself and my hangups by being open to change and open to all the things parenting can teach me if I'm willing to learn.

That, and sloppy tucking-in-at-bedtime kisses.


John and Chantalle said...

Thank you Katie, I needed that. :)

Dyann said...

As always, your words are full of thought and wisdom. I love that about you. You're doin' great. And I know that because you're willing to see, accept, and improve upon your imperfections.

Josh and Jolie said...

I think you're right on. I still struggle with numerous personality traits which children test on an hourly basis.
In God's infinite wisdom, He knew we'd need the experience of raising children of our own. We teach them our wisdom; they, in turn, teach us so much more.
Thanks for your honesty. That's one of the most refreshing things about you!!