Raising children: an awesome mess

In the same week, two different, well-meaning friends gave me advice about my 14-year-old daughter. This wasn’t advice that I asked for. But in their defense, this child often stumps me; they probably thought I could use the help. She and I have very different personalities, and even though she’s my third, I often feel unsure parenting her.

What struck me most about these two pieces of advice, actually, was not so much whether they would help, but more that they were opposite. One friend adamantly insisted I should lay down the law and tell my daughter what to do. The other friend made a passionate case for letting her be who she is and not forcing her to conform. Who was right? I still don’t know.

I remember bringing home my firstborn son from the hospital many years ago. I was 26 and overwhelmed from giving birth, the hormones of early motherhood and the abrupt adjustment to the responsibilities of parenting. “He’s perfect,” I remember wailing to my husband, “and we are going to mess him up.” Twenty-three years later, I can honestly say we did just that. We had some brilliant parenting moments, but we were far from perfect. We messed him up, and then we went on to mess up his younger brother and sister, each in unique ways. And yet all three of them seem to be turning out to be really interesting, caring and generally awesome people. My 26-year-old brain probably couldn’t have even imagined, much less comprehended, that those two things could both be true — the messing up and the awesome, how they both would tumble around together in the raising of our children.

Parenting is more paradoxical than I would have believed (or wanted to know). Guessing, not knowing, trying, course correcting, finding something works with one child and is a disaster with the next. Remember the book, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” that was so popular back in the day? It took us step by step through what to expect with each month of pregnancy. Then they wrote one about the first year. I think maybe even one about toddlers. Then they stopped. I don’t blame them. Once my kids each got their own personalities, all bets were off; there would have to be as many books as there are kids to tell each parent what to expect as these babies grow into unique people.

Which leads me back to why I don’t know which friend was right. Each was speaking the truth of what she had learned from mothering her own children. I can tell you that they are both good moms and want the best for me, and I’m sure they were trying to generalize what they had learned to help me. But it just doesn’t seem to work that way. Any parent of more than one child inevitably learns this beautiful and bitter truth: Each child comes with a different way to be in the world and therefore a different need to shape his/her parent.

And this last child has shaped and sharpened me the most. This child, who has frustrated and defied, challenged and resisted me has ultimately made me better, wiser, deeper. It’s like she’s followed the military motto, tearing me down to build me up better, stronger, part of a team. I love her with the kind of hard-won love that is fierce, stubborn and often raw. She has pushed me to find that kind of love, beyond the easy platitudes and Hallmark cards. Our love is not perfect or pretty, but it is so real. It is a mature, awesome, messy love.

I don’t actually remember my husband’s response that day so long ago, as I cried next to him in the car on that cold February day. I imagine he tried to reassure me or laughed at my drama. But here’s what I wish had happened. I wish 50-year-old me, the me I am now, could have responded. I wish she could have shown up, put her arms around young me, drawn my tired head toward her and whispered in my ear, “Perfect is over-rated, sister. Enjoy the mess.”

Kim Flyr (tulawisdom.com) is a counselor in private practice and yoga teacher.

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