These toddler days are long. They stretch from one bedtime to the next and are abbreviated with snot-nosed tantrums that engulf the days despite their relative brevity. But it’s important for me to constantly remind myself that these days are fleeting, a drop in the ocean of raising a person. That’s part of the reason I’m so drawn to Dawn’s writing. She’s in a completely different stage in her life as a parent than I am, and I am thrilled to have her on the blog today – the very first post of the year – talking about that distinct vantage point. Dawn writes with candor and finesse, and if you don’t already follow her (which you should!), be sure to check out her blog Tales From the Motherland and click “follow.”
“I wasn’t born your mother.”
I said this in a recent post, An Open Letter to My (almost) Grown Kids. Seems like a no-brainer, but somehow, between the time they exit our stretched out, forever-changed-bodies, until the time they begin to actually look and act like adults themselves, this message is entirely lost in translation. The fact is: our kids think we are their parents, always were their parents and there was nothing before. It’s not hard to see why. We live our lives in a complex dance in which we always lead, and they follow. Until they don’t, follow. We are not their friends, but their mentors and guardians, their caregivers, their cheerleaders, their parents. By the time they’re adults and starting to see things a little differently, that role is seared on their brains, and in their hearts; we hope, and it is nearly impossible for them to truly comprehend that there was really a B.C. – Before Child, or more importantly, P.B.C. - Person Before Child.
That’s just it though, we were people before we had children. We were children ourselves. We were in their shoes. We grew up and had our own challenges and experiences. We fell in love; had our hearts broken; we went to school and eventually had jobs; we learned to pay bills and navigate life. We loved our parents, or didn’t, but had our challenges there. We all went out there and had relationships– most importantly, a single relationship that eventually led to our role as parent.
Clarifier: I can’t speak to being a father; so I’ll stick to what I know best: I am a mother, a good mother. But I was not born one. I had an entire life before this. As my three kids: Principess (23), Middle Man (21) and Little Man (17), throw away their floaties and venture into the grown up pool, they are starting to ask me questions about how I managed those passages, or, challenging me to think back. I was not born a mother; that fact is coming back to the forefront, as I’m challenged to rely on what I learned then.
The reality is: that there comes a time when our kids venture out into that big world, and it helps for them to see that we too ventured. Sure, the world has changed a lot since then, but, the differences, while huge, don’t change the fact that we too had to navigate many of the same things. Hearts break the same way; pain is pain; the “real world” can be overwhelming and scary, certainly challenging at the least; money must be made; bills must be paid; and their lives unfold and take form, just as ours did: bit by bit, trial by fire. Who is more uniquely qualified to advise and bear witness to their journey, than us, in our role as mothers? We have known these people since conception. What mother can’t still recall the amazing intimacy they felt with their babies, even before birth? That relationship was then nurtured and molded over a lifetime – theirs. We, as parents, if we are clear about boundaries and open to truths, care in a way that takes in who they were, who they are, and who they aspire to be… balanced against the razor sharp edge of who we hope they might be.
As I’ve entered into this amazing new phase with my two oldest children, have discovered a powerful truth that has only begun to be exposed over the past year or two with my daughter, in particular, but more and more with my older son as well. We all have our own journey, and while we may have traveled the same road for most of that journey, we did not take away the same meaning, lessons or messages from the journey. As I hear my kids label and describe their experiences, as siblings, as our children, and as their unique selves traveling with us, they took in the same experiences, but often translated those events and relationships very differently.
An example: I was raised in the Christian faith. I was raised weakly in that faith, at best, but Christian nonetheless. My father was killed in an accident, when I was 10. I blamed God, and I stopped believing in faith. I still went to church from time to time, but I didn’t believe; I stopped praying. It was clear to me, that prayers were for fools. I grew up, dated, fell in love, married a sexy man who was Jewish, and got married and had babies– three. When their sexy father asked that we raise our children as Jews, I gave it little thought; I said yes. I took a conversion course, didn’t convert, but threw myself into being the best Jewish mother I could be. We went to temple; we had friends in our synagogue; we celebrated the Jewish holidays; we watched Woody Allen movies (I lived in one), and we raised our kids to identify as Jews. I taught them the Sh’ma (Shema), the holiest prayer in our faith. To do that: I learned it first, and embraced it– believing that I could not truly teach something that important to my children, if I didn’t feel it. I can tell you, that two years ago as I sat beside my dying mother, in that moment when she was taking her last breaths, I instinctively sang the Sh’ma. My mother was not Jewish, but that prayer felt like the only thing to say in that moment. All of this to say: I kind of found faith again; I believed I was raising my children as Jews, and that I was doing a really good job of it. For the record, I believed in and felt everything I was doing as Jewish mother, authentically. It wasn’t forced.
Flash forward eighteen years, and our oldest child, my daughter (then 22), decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism, and move to Israel. That, in itself, is several blog posts, but suffice it to say: it was a hard thing for her father and I, and the rest of our extended family. Because I never converted, and Jewish identity is determined by matriarchal bloodlines, Principessa was not considered a Jew in the eyes of Israel or more conservative branches of Judaism. In our Reform Judaism, she is and always was a Jew, but suddenly she had to prove this to others; conversion was the only way. Like her mother, she doesn’t just do things to make a point, she embraced the entire process and opted to be Orthodox. Hard does not begin to cover that decision and its impact on the rest of her family, or on her.
However, as she went deeper into her journey, I was stunned to hear her tell me more than once, “You and dad didn’t really raise us as Jews.”I heard: You, didn’t raise me as a Jew. By Orthodox standards, this is true. However, as she immersed herself in her religious journey, these comments and her perspective took on a darker and more serious tone, for me. This indictment struck at the heart of all I had done, all I had given up of my own family history and identity, all that I believed I had done to raise her as Jew. How could she say this, let alone believe it? And so, after we’d had a few difficult arguments, and after I’d stopped feeling defensive and hurt, and finished licking my wounds… I began to listen to what she had to say. That was when I realized that the lessons we hand to our children, the messages we believe we are giving, and sometimes the very experiences that we all shared together, are not always seen and experienced the way we intended or believed they were delivered. As she shared her thoughts, it became very clear that my girl had digested some things very differently than I believe I served them.
As we began to share more life stories, and lessons, woman to woman, this theme came up over and over again. The stories she’d told herself, or the ways she’d interpreted the journeys we’d shared: whether they be about faith, her relationship with her siblings, her role in our family, gender issues, how she thought we saw her– countless things– were very different than the messages I thought we were sharing. How did my endless efforts to infuse our family with Jewish values and tradition, become a life without God or religion? When did difficult, but normal, sibling issues become painful lessons about men and women? When did their father’s efforts to get home and read bedtime stories whenever he could (translation: occasionally. While I did every “Mommy and me” class, drove to soccer/dance/religious school/class parent/PTSA/chaperone/ad finitum), become “Dad was always doing things with us; you didn’t really like that kind of thing?” (Said to me by one of my adult children). When did my constant belief in each of my children and their infinite potential, translate to a lack of encouragement? It boggles this aging mother’s mind!
And so, it had to happen. I had to look at this trend with my aging children: the trend for their interpretations to not match mine, and begin to forge a new adult relationship with them. Recently, I have listened more carefully to their stories, their versions of our shared journeys, and I’ve sat with it for a while. I’m trying to accept that somehow some things were in fact lost in translation. If I didn’t say it right, or if I said it right and they still heard it a different right, I need to accept that this is where we landed– right here, in this new reality. I try not to take it personally, though it’s really hard sometimes. I did tell my girl not to ever tell me I didn’t raise her or her brothers as Jews again. It’s not true. It is true within the constraints of the new life she has chosen, but it’s not the fact she has interpreted. I have set her and her brother straight on a few key details that needed setting straight, and I’ve shared the truth, that while they may have taken certain lessons differently than we intended or hoped, the way things truly happened can not be re-written.
The truth is: her brothers were boys, and they acted like boys. They were sometimes mean, and they were sometimes insensitive. But, they also loved her hugely and were there for her. She was sometime mean and sometimes insensitive, and her brothers will need to sort that out in their minds. No matter how much my Middle Man has interpreted his role as middle child, middle son, as less fair, less, less, less than his siblings, it’s never been true. No matter how much Little Man believes that we don’t have as much faith in his abilities or see him as compatently as his older siblings, it’s not true. Nothing in the journey was intended that way, or said that way… but the fact that they translated those things differently, the fact the our very best of intentions and our deepest hopes of imbuing our children with certain truths was not always received as intended, leaves us all in a uniquely new world.
As a mother, the journey has been on a fairly predictable path for the past twenty years (no matter how unpredictable young children and teens seemed in the moment), and now, all bets are off. I was not born their mother, and more than ever before, I am drawing on that fact– that history, to tap into their worlds where they live now. I’m trying to listen with new ears, a new heart. I’m drawing on who I was when I wasn’t their mothers, to understand how they feel now, and how they will go forward in the world. We’re all working on a new translation. I’m waiting for them to grow up, they’re waiting for me to get it. Turns out, The Waiting was indeed the hardest part.
Thank you Emily for inviting me to post on The Waiting. It is an honor and a privilege! You rock.
Read more at Tales From the Motherland, http://talesfromthemotherland.me/