Last week’s post was inspired by the work of R.D. Laing in his book, Knots. The first page of this book gave me so much to think about I worked with it for several days before reading all the way to page 3:
“It is our duty to bring up our children to love, honour and obey us.
If they don’t, they must be punished, otherwise we would not be doing our duty.
If they grow up to love, honour and obey us we have been blessed for bringing them up properly.
If they grow up not to love, honour and obey us either we have brought them up properly or we have not: if we have there must be something the matter with them; if we have not there is something the matter with us.”
In my experience and observation, family ties are the most inescapable and powerful connections in our lives, regardless of our feelings about them, either positive or negative. However we view our parents, they’re the only ones we have and nothing can change that. Those of us who have biological children must come to terms with the intimacy of conception, gestation and birth leading inevitably to loss as our children grow up and fly away into places we cannot and should not follow. Each of us must deal with these blood-and-bone connections as best we can; there is no escaping the shadow of one’s parents or the ghosts of one’s children, alive or dead. They are our greatest and most powerful teachers.
When I was a young woman, it was all so simple. I would find a good man to love and be loved by. I would get married and have children. I would love my children and they would love me.
Now that we’ve all finished laughing (or crying), let’s think about duty, just one of the thousands of hidden landmines in parent-child relationships. It’s hidden because we all talk about it without ever agreeing on what it means or questioning its role. Laing was writing in the 70s, so his language is a little outdated. Even so, is it true that it’s our duty to bring up our children to love us? Can we coerce love, even from a child? Is it more important to teach them to love us as their parent or to love themselves?
Do we deservetheir love? Have we earned it? Are we entitled to it? Does our love for them obligate them to reciprocate? For that matter, does a child’s love for his or her parent oblige the parent to return that love in kind?
The point I’m trying to make here is that these knots we get ourselves tied up in, these eternal loops of bad logic, are so often based on a questionable statement that we don’t think to question. Breaking down the statement loosens the knot.
What does it look like, to love, honour and obey? Does it mean keeping secrets? Never asking questions? Being unfailingly compliant? Is a child to have no viewpoint, opinion, need or desire independent of his or her parent? What happens when love is lost in translation? What if what my child or parent calls love is something I call enabling, and refuse to give — out of love?
Punishment. What a great incentive for love! No wonder it works so well. On the other hand, are healthy boundaries punishment? Is refusing to lie for someone punishment? Is telling the hidden or unpalatable truth punishment?
Who gets to define all these terms? Who has the power in any given parent-child dynamic? Is there a desire to share power, or is someone determined to come out on top?
None of this is what really caught my eye on page 3 of Knots, however. What stopped me in my tracks was the endpoint, the either/or conclusion. If our children don’t love, honor and obey us in the manner in which we expect or feel entitled to, either something is wrong with us and the way we raised them, or something is wrong with them.
I freely admit this is the same either/or conclusion in my own mind regarding both my parents and my children. Either I’m a total failure and fuck-up, or they’re unhinged. I’m like a dog with a smelly old bone. I dig it up, chew on it for a while, cry, rage, hurt, feel confused and regretful, hate myself, rehash old scenes and stories, feel sorry for myself and generally carry on until my mouth is bleeding from bone chips and I’m sick to my stomach, and then I bury the bone until something brings it all up again and I dig it up to gnaw some more.
It’s not just me, either. Every single woman I know does this, either trying to come to terms with her parents or her children. Or both.
I’ve always had a talent for untangling knots. I’m not sure why it is, but I really enjoy picking them apart. Mental knots are even more fun. I think for some this endless bone-chewing provides a kind of payoff, but it doesn’t for me. I hate chasing my tail. There’s no way I’m ever going to come to any kind of conclusion about my parents, my children or myself in relation to them. What I do believe is that each one of us has in every moment done the best we could do with the information and resources we had in that moment. As far as I’m concerned, we all get a pass.
The first time I read the above page, I recognized that twisted knot of pseudo logic can be undone with good questions.
What if there’s nothing wrong with our kids and there’s nothing wrong with us or our parenting? What if love, honor and obedience are beside the point and not important? What if punishment doesn’t enter into it because it’s not useful or effective and nobody’s done anything wrong?
In short, what if we’re all just fine, not broken, not failures, not fucked up, not unhinged? What if we were good enough children, good enough parents, and our kids are good enough people, each one of us whole, loved and loving?
What if we just stopped all these contorted and painful mental gymnastics and loved ourselves, our parents and our kids as best we can, or our memories of us and them?
Then I picked up the next book in my current stack, and read this, and smiled.
“Why would I be embittered? It is far too late. A month ago, after a passage of many years, I stood above her grave in a place called Wyuka. We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like the skeletons of last year’s leaves in a fence corner. And it was all nothing. Nothing, do you understand? All the pain, all the anguish. Nothing. We were, both of us, merely the debris life always leaves in its passing …” Loren Eiseley— All the Strange Hours
We have the great privilege of living close to ravens. These intelligent and entertaining birds make the area off our deck part of their daily rounds, because that’s where we fling the mice caught in mousetraps in the kitchen cupboards, as well as the occasional food rubbish. They’re wary birds. Any flicker of movement in a window sends them aloft, no matter how tempting the morsel on the ground. They make a variety of sounds, but can also be as quiet as a shadow as they wheel over the house, circling and examining the grassy slope below the deck.
This year a pair nested nearby and raised at least one fledgling successfully. Both parents feed the nestlings. A few weeks ago, some instinctive wisdom told the raven parents it was time to stop feeding the fledglings and all hell broke loose in the neighborhood.
The first we knew of it was a plaintive croaking cry, vaguely like a canine yap. We heard it over and over again, clearly coming from something on the wing. It began down over the river and moved up the hill to the house and then I could see the birds. The fledgling was pudgy and puffy, the way all young birds are at the adolescent stage. It looked a little bigger than the adult birds, but not nearly as sleek and not as skilled a flier. The adults flew around it in what looked like a mixture of distress and encouragement, and the youngster complained. And complained. And complained. For hours. Then for days. From first light until sunset it went on.
We watched the parent birds, looking more harried by the day, try to go about their usual rounds up and down the road for roadkill, over our place, over the river and pond, followed everywhere by their noisy, clumsy, demanding offspring, who certainly had the ability and strength to feed himself, if not the desire. At rest, the youngster would gape pathetically, begging each parent in turn for a regurgitated mouthful. Repeatedly, the parents turned away, flew away, dogged and determined.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
Ravens are great generalists in terms of their diet. I’m sure the fledgling watched his parents eat carrion, fish, frogs, small reptiles and mammals, insects and plant matter. What we were witnessing was not starvation due to lack of available food, or lack of parenting. What played out before us was nothing more or less than adolescent outrage and parenting far superior to anything I ever achieved.
Both my partner and I are parents and worked for years with parents and children. We watched the ravens with a mixture of amusement, empathy and irritation. “Go find your own dead thing,” my partner muttered, imagining the parent birds’ conversation with the importuning fledgling and making me laugh.
When my two sons chose to leave the little mountain town where we lived and finish out their high school years with their dad in the city, I knew it was the right thing for them to do. It was sooner than I had anticipated, true, but we all recognized they had outgrown the school, the town and me. We were no longer living in harmony.
When I found myself alone, I grieved for a long time. I also sold the house and started shaping a life for myself with the good feeling of a difficult job done to the very best of my ability. I’d given all I could and it was time for them to fly and find their own lives. In the space where they had been for fifteen years I could build new freedom and possibility.
Except they were nearly always in my thoughts. We had long phone conversations. I fretted because I couldn’t interact with them face-to-face and I knew many things were happening in their lives they weren’t telling me about. They did tell me of jobs, roommates, broken-down cars, financial difficulties, bars, music, both new and old friends, and romantic entanglements. They called when they were broken-hearted, scared, confused or just pissed off. Frequently, by the time I got off the phone, I was in tears and spent the rest of the day upset, or lay sleepless wondering what I could do. What I should do. What I should have done as a parent that I didn’t do that might have avoided the current crisis.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
I discovered parenting adults is extraordinarily stressful and difficult, with none of the sweet pay-offs I had when we were a family living together. I didn’t see them playing and laughing anymore. I couldn’t touch them or hold them. We couldn’t hang out quietly together. I couldn’t cook for them or watch their faces and bodies mature, marveling at these two people their father and I created.
I’ve recognized in the years between their leaving me and now I wasn’t the excellent parent I thought I was. I was, in fact, merely adequate. I made a lot of mistakes. I was in many ways ill-equipped to parent. Single parenting is an almost impossibly hard road.
I talk to other mothers of adults. Some talk at length about their kids — how proud they are of them, how close they are to them, how successful their kids are. Those parents need no questioning or encouragement. Their conversation is full of their kids all the time, without prompting, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the offspring in question is ten or thirty.
Other women, though, acknowledge kids, grandkids and great grandkids, but are not nearly so forthcoming. I’m of that tribe now. Given a sympathetic listener and a relationship of trust, these women tell stories of various addictions, mental illness, toxic relationships, unplanned grandchildren and great-grandchildren, financial struggles, pain, anger, grief and guilt. We find ourselves raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We co-sign for loans we can’t afford to pay off. We wonder what we did, or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say that resulted in our kids’ addictions, struggles and unhappiness.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash
The love that was once the center of our lives and priorities, the strongest, purest feeling we’ve ever had, gradually becomes bewildered and confused. We look everywhere for the children of our memories, but they’re gone. Now, in front of us, are adults. From adults we want responsibility, appropriate boundaries and reciprocity, but our adult children want the unobstructed flow of our nurturing, support and unconditional love to continue, just as it did when they were children.
I didn’t think it would be like this, and neither did my friends.
My thoughts and feelings about my experience as a parent are so tangled I can’t see anything very clearly. Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with the ravens. The animal kingdom has a kind of brutal simplicity with regard to parenting, an instinctive wisdom without concern for what anyone else thinks or cultural and societal norms. The raven parents knew what to do and they did it and endured a few days of discomfort.
Does that mother bird now worry about whether the young adult is happyor not?
Sigh. Probably not.
I notice I never even consider blaming my parents for my happiness or unhappiness. Why, then, do I persist in blaming myself for my adult sons’ choices? Why do I think it’s any of my business at all?
Because I love them.
And so I want them to be well, and happy, and have good lives.
There are deeper truths, though. I want to be able to think of myself as a great parent. The proof? My adult kids have happy, healthy lives. See how great I was? I also want them to be happy so I don’t have the discomfort of knowing they’re unhappy. How’s that for a piece of maternal selfishness?
So, what, exactly, does a happy, healthy life look like? Is it a life we can boast about in company to illustrate the competence of our parenting? Is it the life “everyone” approves of? Is it the life I approve of? Why do I think I know what a happy, healthy life is for anyone except myself? Most important of all, why did I think I had the power to determine the kind of lives my kids would have?
As parents, we have a lot of power, at least in the beginning. But our power is mixed up with other factors which are not in our control, like genetics, culture, geography and politics. If we judge our parenting effectiveness by the perfect happiness of our adult children, we’re all monumental failures. Life is not one unbroken experience of unadulterated happiness for anyone. Unblemished happiness is, in any case, a lazy, childish goal. What does it mean? Something different to everyone, probably.
What about competence? Yes. I want my kids to be competent. I want them to be able to learn. I want them to have the power to make their own choices and the strength to deal with the consequences. I want them to know how to self-care and love others. I want them to be compassionate, respectful and responsible.
I want those things for them, but I also want them for me so I can feel I parented well and gave them the kind of start every child deserves.
Parenting is an odd business. We enter into years of chaos and hard work and watch our children grow up, never realizing we’re growing up, in many ways, alongside them.
As parents, is it about us, or is about our kids?
I suppose the honest answer is it’s about both, although it feels shameful to admit that out loud.
On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Who knows?
Ravens are solitary. We still have a couple in the neighborhood. I wonder if the youngster has left to find new territory. In time, he may find a mate and raise his own fledglings. He may be killed by a car, a gun, or a predator. He’s on his own in the big world to live his life, however that is, and die his death, however that is. Will the parent birds know? If they know, will they care? Would their knowing or caring assist the young bird in any way, or have they given everything needed already, including forcing the adolescent to begin feeding himself?
I don’t have answers. Nobody I’ve spoken to has answers, but we’re all asking these questions.
I wonder what the ravens would say.
I’m off to find my own healthy and happy afternoon and give my concerns about everyone else a rest.