Saturday, May 24, 2014

10 Things I Wish I Knew 16 Years Ago

A former co-worker and someone whom I admire just became a father for the first time. The father of a son.

As I read his posts and viewed the amazing first-life photos of his tiny bundle of joy via this oh so impersonal window into our personal lives called Facebook, I felt a sense of protection. Not for this tiny human being - no, I knew he'd be well taken care of. The protectiveness I felt was for his father and mother.

So I use this outlet to share with them not pearls of wisdom, not nuggets of my two cents worth per se, but perhaps just some maternal musings of  a stubborn, close-minded woman who has stumbled and staggered through the last 16 years attempting to raise one of two of the greatest gifts God has ever bestowed upon me: a son.

As with any "unsolicited advice," take what you need and leave the rest. But here are a few things I wish I had been more acutely aware of over the past decade and a half, and what I am trying to better incorporate as I "try to do better" with Boy #2.

So for what it's worth, here goes.

1. You may know this, but it will still hit you at times. Your life will never be the same. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, at times you'll find yourself waxing nostalgic for those moments when you weren't thinking about an extension of yourself for whom you are 100% responsible. It can be overwhelming when you're thinking you'll "go out for the night just like old times." It won't be. Don't expect it to be. Just enjoy the moment for what it is now and trust that he is in good hands and this is your time to reconnect with your spouse, your friends, or family.

2. Along those same lines, don't forget about yourself. Don't worry, my next line isn't going to be "sleep when the baby sleeps." That's bullshit. However, doing things for you that don't involve your little anklebiter is critical to your emotional and physical well being. It's not easy. You'll feel selfish. But you'll be a better parent, trust me. There is no medal at the end of the day for being that martyr parent who thinks that they have to spend every waking (and sleeping) moment with their innocent and completely vulnerable child. There's only complete and utter exhaustion and maybe, just maybe, a tiny bit of resentment.

3. Don't forget about the other half of your dynamic duo. I say this because I did forget, even though on the eve of my wedding day, two years before my son was born, my mother wrote me a letter and told me point blank to put my husband before my children. "Sure, OK," I thought. After my son was born, I scoffed, "Was she serious? He can take care of himself!" He sure can - and he is, because now we're divorced. I became a mom and ceased to become a wife. Treat each other kindly and thoughtfully, and when you're standing there with your poopy progeny screaming at your wife to grab another box of wipes, take a moment and look at yourselves. And laugh. Because you're not only parents, you're partners. And you're in this together, for better or for worse.

4. I know I don't have to tell the new dad to whom I'm writing, because he's light years ahead of me on this one. And for those of you who are "spiritual, not religious" or don't hold the same beliefs, don't think this is me pushing my stuff on you. Again, this is me spouting what I personally wish I would have done better. That said, Proverbs 22:6. "Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old he will not depart from it." Now, you can trust that, but there's no guarantee. The best you can do is integrate your Christian ways into his life from an early age and make it as important and vital part of him as breathing and eating. I didn't have the capacity to do this, and I wish I could have. I tried, but I often felt like a first-time runner at a marathon: struggling along at the back of the pack and very spiritually out of shape. What I will share with you is what I shared with both my boys, and that is, "I want you to know how to talk to God, because one day you will feel very, very alone. It is at that time and all the other times I want you to know in your heart that you are NOT alone, and that you always have Him, even in your darkest hours."

5. Remember at the beginning of this where I said, "take what you need and leave the rest"? The same goes for your parenting handbook, aka "how my parents did it." Regardless of whether you consider them the most awesome parents in the world you want to emulate or the most horrible and you'll do anything not to be like them, don't expect to raise your son like you were raised. First of all, these are different times. Initially I thought that was a lame excuse, but it's not. Even my mother said she recognizes that parenting is tougher than it used to be. And it was tough back then. Second, your child is not you. You can't parent a child the way you were parented, because he is not you. That may not make much sense now, but you'll see it later. I promise. Again, take pieces/parts that are already ingrained in you - the whole morals/values thing. But the rest? You may have to do that on the fly.

6. Speaking of doing things on the fly, remember every time before children when you had to make a difficult decision? It was tough, sure. But deep down in your gut or your heart or the pit of your stomach you kind of knew that answer, didn't you? Guess what. For the first time, situations will arise where all your organs will fail you. There will be no "right answer." For the first time, you will absolutely, positively not know what the "right thing to do" is. That, I suspect, is where faith comes in. Did I mention you'll need a lot of it? And down the line, you'll look back and think, "Why did I make that decision?" The only answer is, "I did what I thought was the right thing at that time." And leave it at that.

7. Validate, validate, validate. I say this as a parent of a strong-willed child, but I also say it because I neglected to do it. Again, this goes back to "I'm doing this like my parents did it because it seemed to work just fine because I'm OK, right?" When your child is sad, don't have the first thing come out of your mouth be to tell him not to be sad. When he's angry, don't tell him to stop being angry. When he's frustrated, again, don't try to take that away from him right away. Respect him. Yes, respect your child. Respect him enough to validate how he's feeling instead of telling him NOT to feel. That may seem too touchy-feely for some. Our sons are supposed to suck it up, right? I can tell you with confidence that this tactic will backfire for you and for them later in life, somewhere down the line. Validating emotions first lets your child know, "Hey, I hear you. I empathize." And there's nothing wrong with that. Now, how does this translate to a full-blown tantrum in the grocery store? Well, telling him to "knock it off" probably isn't going to work. But I'm not talking about how you get that behavior to stop. I'm talking big picture - the practice of validating his feelings will be remembered long after the conniption in the checkout line is over.

8. This is perhaps the hardest to stomach and the most difficult to implement. Let him struggle. Let him be disappointed. Let him fail. I can't stress this enough, but let me tell you this, and it will make sense. Scientists studied caterpillars as they emerged from their cocoons. One group left the caterpillars their own instinctive devices; the other group they assisted in shedding their chrysalis. What they found was that those they helped were unable to fly. Let that sit for a minute, and realize that every time you "fix" something for your son, you are impeding his ability to fly. And trust me - he is going to need to know how to fly.

9. Recently, someone whom I greatly respect gave me some advice. I took it very much to heart, and now I'm passing it along. And I'm putting it in quotes because I can't take credit for it. "Ask yourself what you can do to make God love you more (or less, for that matter.) If you don't know, the answer is NOTHING. Then ask yourself what your child can do to make you love him more (or less). Make sure you tell your son that there is NOTHING he can do to make you love him any more or less. Let him know that you understand that this concept may not make sense to him until he loves someone (spouse, child) more than himself, but that the time will come when your words will become crystal clear to him. TELL HIM that whether his life is good, bad, productive, unproductive ... there is NOTHING he can or cannot do, say, think to make God or you love him any more or less. Period." And that's all I have to say about that.

10. This last nugget is something I'm still working on, and that is: give yourself a break.  There will come a time when your son will do something or make a choice that will make you think, "What the hell did I do wrong?" This may keep you up at night, and you could obsess over it to the point where it overshadows all the good parenting you've done. At some point, you'll have to separate what he does as a reflection of your parenting and what he does as a reflection of himself. Because he is and will always be - NOT YOU. He will be HIM, making his own decisions and choices, sometimes using all those morals and values and blood, sweat and tears you put into him, and sometimes not. And if the latter happens, you may realize that you don't necessarily have to forgive HIM for that. You have to forgive YOURSELF. Because (reference above,) you'll always love him. Unconditionally. But you may not always feel that way about yourself. 

Maybe you don't get all these now. Maybe they won't apply to you. Maybe it's too early to talk to a new parent about forgiveness and validation of feelings and letting your child struggle. But someday, maybe, you'll be in one of these situations and you'll hear me in your ear, whispering, "Number Three. Number Seven. Number Ten." And if that happens and you can shift your thinking a bit to the benefit of your relationship with your precious child, then it was worth it for me to write it. 

Blessings to you and your new son. You have entered a journey in which there is no end, and I can assure you that you'll never want it any other way. I can say with definitiveness that my two sons are unequivocally my greatest accomplishment in life, and an ongoing lesson in what unconditional love means. Welcome to the Club.  

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