I want to talk for a few minutes about parenting. Not because I’m an expert; I’ve only been doing it for 23 years and I don’t know much at all. There are, however, lots of people out there, in this brave new world of Everyone has a fucking platform for their thoughts and repurposed ideas, who believe themselves to be telling the world all the right things about raising kids.
(I love that word and I’m really glad I found a use for it this morning.)
I may or may not know a tiny bit more than the average citizen because I have walked with my kids through two divorces and a whole lot of other changes and reconfigurations over the years. Walked is probably not the correct choice of verb, but I’m not here this morning to write a tell-all on what an asshole I was during the demises of my marriages. We’ll save that for another day. Suffice it to say the kids and I been through a lot together and we seem to have come out relatively unscathed.
I have three kids. Sam is 23 and living in Incline Village, Nevada. That’s a lovely town on the the California border, on the rim of Lake Tahoe. Sam goes to Sierra Nevada College there and is in a program for ski area management. He chose that one specific school with that one specific program after working for two years, post-high school, washing windows and parking cars. In our house we didn’t call those gap years. Sam worked; period. He worked long enough to figure out he was ready to stop working and go back to being a student. He lives, in Incline Village, with a bunch of friends in a great house. He works on the weekends, the overnight shift at the Incline Hilton, as a valet. He is also one of the coaches of his freestyle ski team. Sam is not busy in that overachieving way many young people are these days, trying with all their might to impress the adults and imagining all of their activities neatly filling the pages of the résumé that is going to get them their dream job that will allow them to buy all their dream stuff and to ultimately Live the Dream, baby!
Nope, Sam works because he likes having money to spend on things like his car and food. Sam does well in his classes. I know this because I’ve come to know one of his professors, who lets me know, from time to time, that Sam is “the type of student we all want to work with, engaged and passionate.”
And then there’s Nate. Nate is 21, living in Bozeman, Montana. He is studying mechanical engineering at Montana State. The other night I got a glimpse of the list of classes he’s been taking this semester and I was astonished and impressed. I thought immediately of showing it to my dad, who spent his life working as a mechanical engineer, so that he could interpret it for me; I have no idea what any of it means.
Nate is a guy who never wants anything, ever. He doesn’t care if he has no money; two shirts and one pair of shoes are enough. For his birthday this year I gave him a Patagonia jacket. It was on sale and I thought it might be a layer he could use because he’s always camping and hiking and skiing, fully and wholeheartedly enjoying the world in which he lives, but it turned out to be too big for him. I told Nate to do this: find a homeless person and give them the jacket. Make sure you introduce yourself, find out their name, ask them for their story. Nate loved this idea. “Then I will get you something you really want and can use,” I told him. “I don’t need anything,” he replied, “I’m all set.” Nate’s lack of desire to get or to own things makes my head spin in a world gone mad with consumerism.
Both boys are tall and very funny and kind. They have good, interesting friends. Neither one of them is much into drinking or drugs. They check in with me, sometimes just to say hi, sometimes just to say … I wanted to make sure you’re OK.
Sam and Nate’s dad and I divorced when they were four and two years old, respectively. Sam and Nate are good people doing good things in this tricky, scary, expensive and confusing world. Clearly, though a whole lot of things went wrong in our lives, something went right, too.
Then we have Coco. Helen Cooper Hood Eyre. Oh Lord, do we ever. Thirteen and all of it. Right up in your face with the teenage situation. So lovely, so funny, tired, too, sometimes weary of the scene. She has been on a competitive cooking show on TV, she has a column in the local paper, she sells her clothes online. She’s not padding any imagined résumé either; she tells me she has no plans to go to college. Good for her. Whatever plan she has for herself, I’m sure it’s a good one and I have no intention of getting in the way.
I think that’s really my point: there is somewhere in there a parenting sweet spot, in which you don’t overdo it with the rules and regulations, the hand signals and traffic lights and you also don’t underdo it with a lack of foundation, grounding, support and encouragement. Get outta their way, but not so far out that they look in all the wrong places for the parent you were supposed to have been.
If you don’t pay attention to your kids because you’re too busy doing whatever it is you do, too ego-centric to be bothered to put aside your own drives and desires to remember you birthed a child, your kid will flail a whole lot as they try to figure out the deal here on planet Earth. Kids need to feel secure and loved, and it turns out you can help them to feel those things even through divorce, even when they have to move, change schools, even when they have the duffle bag life of shared parenting. You can and should — in fact you have a moral obligation to tend to them so that they feel safe and loved. Your job is to construct the foundation from which they launch themselves into the world. If it’s wobbly, they will be, too.
It turns out, however, that it’s quite possible to pay too much attention to your kids. What we seem to have in our midst these days is entire colonies of children who don’t know how to operate unless the eyes of Mom and/or Dad are on them. Kids who have no idea how to make a decision, let alone a mistake. Kids who have no idea where they end and the world begins, because no one has ever let them go out there on their own. These are the people who, when the clock strikes High School Graduation, don’t know how to take care of themselves when they’re sick, don’t know how to shop for underwear, cook a meal, pay their bills, hold a job. It appears this breed ends up stretching the condition of childhood as long and as thin as possible. Spot check: if your mom is telling you it’s time to get a flu shot and you’re over the age of 20, you’re in trouble.
Coco’s dad and I divorced, too. Divorce doesn’t harm people, people harm people. The choices we make as parents harm our kids. Or set them up for success. I know perfectly well this can be a crap shoot; you really don’t know what you’re getting when that thing is cooking in the womb all those months. But once you’ve got ‘em in the grips of your hands, heart and home, they’re yours, your responsibility, your Play-Doh. I didn’t come here today to tell you that my kids are magnificent because I’ve spent the last 23 years being a stellar mom; I haven’t. The story of my kids’ lives has included two divorces, my drinking problem and plenty of instability in terms of my vocational life and living situations. Standard-issue life stuff, for the most part. We all navigate our own version of hell from time to time, but it’s how we handle it that ultimately matters for our kids and their wellbeing.
I stopped drinking so I could be a better parent; believe me when I tell you that being a drunk and good parenting are very much mutually exclusive. You can try to fool yourself all day every day on that one, but if you’re drinking too much and you’ve got kids, you’re ruining your own life and their’s, too. When the divorce papers were signed I set about trying as hard as I could, which wasn’t always hard enough, to be a good parent. And I tried as hard as I could, given my preference to loathe and blame others rather than face my own shit, to get along well with my former husbands.
In other words, I’ve tried to do better at the things I wasn’t doing well. I’ve tried to heal brokenness. I’ve tried to model for my kids how this life works: you screw up and then you work to try to fix it. You screw up and you try to not keep screwing up in the very same ways. I have tried not to get in their way too much. And I have tried to be with them as often as I can, even now when two of them are thousands of miles away.
If there are any secrets to parenting, I think they’re buried in those things somewhere.
Separate your agenda from your kid’s existence and let them be who they came here to be. Stand back enough for them to breathe but not so much that they’re lost in the supermarket. Show up when they need you. Show up when they don’t. Show up. And then leave. Go to most of their games but not all of their games. They should be playing for the love of the sport and the satisfaction and responsibility of being part of a team, not because you’re standing nearby.
It is the heartbreaking reality of parenthood: you will love them with every cell in your being, but in order to do your job well, you must watch as they go off and become someone wholly separate from you. They will need you and need you and need you and then they won’t. That’s how you know you’ve succeeded, in the won’t. What you hope for, of course, is that in that new place, that new and wonderful territory of your kid becoming a person who is thriving in the world, the won’t will become want. Because your kids, as it turns out and was so eloquently articulated by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, eventually become the most interesting people you know. And you just want to be with them, and with any luck and some halfway decent parenting, they will want to be with you, too. Amen.