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If I Could Do It All Over Again
BY JOYCE MAYNARD

Raising kids is an on-the-job education. Too bad we don't start out with half the expertise we pick up along the way.

 

I started writing about parenting 19 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, Audrey. Last June, she graduated from high school. Charlie, my middle child, recently entered high school. Willy, the baby, will be joining his brother next year.

None of this means my days of parenting are over. I remember when my kids were six, two, and two weeks old, and how I'd sometimes took with envy at mothers and fathers whose children were the same Age as mine are now. But I've since learned that my presence is just as necessary to my teenagers these days as it was when I was changing their diapers and getting up in the middle of the night.

I wasn't mistaken that life with older kids is physically less taxing and filled with more freedom and independence for the parent-not to mention the child. What I hadn’'t realized was that it would still be emotionally and intellectually demanding to have these three people, whose expanded world had become so interesting and complex, in my life. I hadn't anticipated what it would feet like to have my three beloved children reach the age where their heartbreaks could no longer be repaired with a hug and five minutes on my lap or their desires satisfied by a $2.99 plaything from Toys "R" Us.

For most of you who read these pages, the stage of parenthood I've reached is still a long way off. But be advised: You'll get here sooner than you think. As endless as the days seem now when you're rereading for the millionth time the page where Curious George gets a new bicycle-you'll wake up one morning wishing you could relive them.

Because I can't revisit those days, this will be my last reflection on parenting for this column. And because my kids have either left or are leaving childhood, it seems appropriate to look back and assess the long term implications of all the little short-term choices I've made as a parent.

One thing that stands out about raising young children is how little opportunity there is to step back to examine the big picture. A parent rarely has the luxury of taking the time to make sense of what worked and what didn't. In many cases, those things that we once considered so incredibly important now seem, with the benefit of hindsight, equally insignificant.

And although I'm certainly proud of the job my children's father and I have done raising them, you can't help but recognize what you might have done better. So how would I have done things differently if I were just now beginning to raise my first child instead of seeing her off to college?

Maybe it was because my husband and I had so little money the year Audrey was born, but back then I cared an inordinate amount about the trappings that go along with having a baby. I used to walk through fancy stores stocked with baby layettes and tiny smocked dresses, wishing I could buy them. When my mother sent me a birthday check, I raced right out and bought an expensive mobile to hang over our not-yet born infant's crib.

These days, I'd have less difficulty coming up with the money for baby clothes and toys. Oddly enough, though, I'd be far less interested in buying them. And I'm not just talking about the baby stuff. Most of us buy much more for our children than they need. More, even, than is good for them. I know I did. My newborn daughter would have been just as delighted with a bunch of measuring spoons and interesting scarves over her crib. I could have played her my favorite Irish folk records instead of buying a half dozen lullaby tapes.

Not that any of these purchases caused my children emotional distress down the line. Toys made them happy, and that made me happy, too. But, in effect, I was establishing a pattern, modeling a way of life. And that model was based on consumption and acquisition.

Another consequence of giving our kids too much is that-it raises their expectations. The more a child has, the more she wants. Carried to an extreme, a parent's overzealous buying habits can actually inhibit a child's ability to entertain herself or make her feel as though life just isn't worth living without that coveted item of the minute.

If I had the past 19 years to do over, I'd focus on a very different lesson: You can get by with very little. The most important thing is what's inside yourself.

Some of the times that I feel best about as a parent have been those my children spent with me, and with their father, exploring the natural world-camping, hiking, riding bikes. Likewise, I realize that some of our very best adventures centered around making our own toys building forts, sewing doll clothes, constructing doll house furniture. All these things taught our kids valuable lessons about finding joy in simple ways.

In retrospect, I'd also spend less time with my vacuum cleaner and more time with my children. It's so easy to continuously pick up after kids-and feel frazzled as a result. When Charlie was in second grade, his teacher had the class put together a little book for Mother's Day, titled My Mom, in which each child was asked to write a description of his mother. When I opened the book to Charlie's page, I read: "My mom cleans our house a lot."

This was not, in fact, the whole story of Charlie's life with me. But for my son to perceive me this way, I couldn't avoid the conclusion that my priorities were off base. "Do you realize," my daughter asked me a while back, "that the majority of our worst fights have been about housework?"

She was right. But some of those arguments were important, because they dealt with respecting a parent's time and energy and learning personal responsibility. Children need to learn to look after themselves, to take care of the house and pets, and make their own meals at times. It's not good for parents-or our children-when we do their work for them.

And I might go so far as to keep television out of the house completely. Or keep one around only for watching movies on video. Not as a baby sitter but as an occasional family event. To me, the politicians are dead wrong when they cite violent or explicit television programming as the main culprit in corrupting today's youth. The fundamental problem with television isn't what kids are viewing but how much. When a child is watching TV, she's disengaged from the world instead of involved in it.

In the spiritual realm, I didn't raise my children within a particular religion, and not having grown up with a clear set of religious convictions of my own, I don't know how it could have been otherwise. What I tried to do, and wish that Id done more of, was to make room in our lives for spiritual exploration.

In recent years, we started observing the Jewish holidays whenever we could. (My mother was a nonpracticing Jew.) Likewise, the small act of pausing to say grace before eating our dinner every night became important to my kids. I should have taken this one step further and established a pattern of prayer (whatever form it might take), which offers comfort to a child. Id also set up a routine of contributing, regularly and consistently, to our community and the world beyond, and not just, during the holiday season.

Our family was fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling together over the years-sometimes to distant and exotic places, more often a simple road trip a few miles from home. And although the places we visited were important, even more significant were the lessons we learned about each other. Leaving home-getting away from familiar territory and the distractions of work, friends, television, and ringing phones-focuses our lives. In just two weeks on the road, I'd see my children grow more than I might in a full two months at home. And because of that, I wish we'd gone even more places together.

Like most parents, I think I've done a decent job of meeting my kids' needs. On the other hand, recognizing the importance of balancing my needs with theirs was much harder. For years I was so preoccupied with taking care of them that I neglected myself. From the age of 23 to nearly 35, 1 drove my children to their sporting events, then sat on a bench waiting for them, without ever playing tennis or taking a dance lesson or going to a gym myself. And because of those small deficits, accumulated over long periods of time, I constantly carried around a sense of martyrdom and frustration.

If I were to name my single greatest regret about my approach to parenthood, it would be that I tried to be perfect. Needless to say, I didn't succeed. But the sheer effort of trying was enough to take away a lot of the fun. And fun is something it's easy for parents to lose sight of. Which is a shame, because raising young children should be tons of fun.

Having grown up in a family where way too much anxiety existed, I brought to my own mothering the desire to spare my children that feeling. I didn't want them to have to experience even the small disappointments of birthday party invitations that didn't arrive, not winning the baseball game, not getting to wear the prettiest dress.

I tried to protect them and was often successful, but no parent can ever succeed in shielding her children from the real sorrows life delivers. And recently, I've realized that as much as I love my children, I wouldn't want them to experience life without disappointment or hardship or grief. I've come to realize that adversity actually makes a person compassionate and strong. I now understand that there's no avoiding disappointment, no way to control your child's universe. And it's just as well.

These days, when I watch my son get defeated at a tennis tournament or tell my daughter that we can't afford a college that doesn't provide scholarships, what seems most important is not to make my children's lives perfect or spare them pain but to raise them to be strong in the face of life's inevitable roadblocks.

I believe my three children are happy people today, because they carry an internal sense of well-being that's dependent on no person or thing but only on their own strong identity. I plan to be around to mother my kids for many years to come. But it's reassuring to know that they could get along without me. And that, of course, is what all parents are trying to accomplish.

Joyce MAYNARD is a contributing editor of PARENTING and the publisher of the quarterly newsletter Domestic Affairs (P.O. Box 1135, Keene, NH 03431;