I recently had coffee with my younger brother. Naturally the conversation turned to our parents and the way they raised us. My brother does not believe that one’s childhood affects one for the rest of one’s life. “How is it possible that 11 or 12 years – the years between 4 and 16 – shape our whole lives?” He picked those years because, he believes, we can’t remember what happened before age 4, and by the time we’re 16 or so, our parents are irrelevant.
His point was that our parents are just part of the huge cast of characters that pass through our lives and influence us, and that they can’t be blamed for all of our failings and deficits. He thought our parents did the best they could with what they had, and made his case for the fact that THEY were raised by people who didn’t bring a lot to the table either.
I disagree with this premise. I think people can always try to do better than their parents did, and more than that, they can stretch their own abilities and talents in order to be better people, which includes being better parents. Everything we do involves a conscious choice. When I take a nap, I am choosing NOT to read a book or NOT to put my laundry away. I am indulging myself in the pleasure of the nap with my own free will (well, except when I am so tired I can’t stay awake), ignoring other necessary tasks that might make my life better.
I understand that some people do not make their choices from a place of enlightenment or self-awareness, and cannot necessarily see that they are being are selfish or foolish with their choices. Obviously people who commit crimes or who are abusive are not making a well-thought out planful choice. I have a hard time understanding what it must be like to be that kind of person.
But as parents, most of us are aware that at any given point in the day, we are choosing ourselves or our children. I think it’s what makes being a working parent so challenging. Every minute that we work feels like we are choosing ourselves over the children. While it’s true that we have to work in order to support the children and pay the bills, it still often feels self-indulgent to be in the orderly, predictable, adult-based world of work.
The children, on the other hand, at least when they are young, are insatiable in their need for adult attention. If it were up to the kids, they would never go to sleep, but would spend every minute with us, talking about what interests them and getting us to play the games they love. What is so wrong with that? Yet as adults, we feel a constant pull to do something else, whether it’s check the phone for texts or watch a movie on TV or go to the bathroom alone. I can remember it from when I was a young mother, and I see it in the young parents I know.
I don’t think it’s possible for adults to give all of themselves – every minute – to being directed by a child’s wishes. Sometimes I wish I could do that. I try to do it more consciously with my grandson when he visits on Fridays, but even then I long for the respite of his nap from time to time. But what could be more fun than spending every minute with him? Is it just the wiring of an adult mind that makes us resistant?
This brings me back to my parents, and whether or not they did their best. I think that parents of the 50s, 60s and 70s were different from today’s parents. The world was not as child-centric, for one thing. But I do wonder why, when given the choice of spending time with their children, my parents often opted to do something THEY wanted to do instead. My mother did not work outside the home, so she had plenty of time to do the things she wanted to do for herself while her children were in school, but as I think back, there were many times when I wanted her company or her interest in the things in which I had an interest, and it just didn’t happen. Fathers of that era got a huge pass – because THEY WORKED, they were not expected to be involved with child-related things, and they lived down to that low expectation. But why didn’t they WANT to be with their kids?
The effects are not insignificant. That insatiability for adult attention in the child does not go away. I think it shapes us for the rest of our days. Is there a child in the world who felt s/he had ENOUGH attention and grew up without any longing for more? I imagine there are such people. I had an attentive grandmother and aunt who helped fill the void, but maybe there was nothing that could fill my particular void, because of how I am made, not because of what my parents did or didn’t do.
I think about this all the time. I was no different from any other parent, wanting my own time instead of playing Candyland. My kids claim to remember none of these transgressions, but still I wonder how they would have been different if I had been different, with my own needs fully met.