Back when I was in college, I was watching an episode of Oprah. It was in the late 90s when Oprah was still interesting. Before the politics. Before the magazine. Way before the network. This episode was about the relationships between mothers and daughters. It was about breaking cycles. It made an impact on me and has stuck with me all this time since.
We all have ways that our parents have failed us, one could argue. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Parents are human. Parents can’t and shouldn’t be absolutely everything to their kids. That in itself would be a fail. If you are absolutely everything to your child, then they can’t be anything for themselves.
I am failing my children in various ways, I’m sure, and I guess to my point, you could say that in some ways, I hope that I am. This parent thing only offers on-the-job training. And the cause-effect delay is such that, usually, it isn’t really apparent where exactly you go wrong or right. I know that this argument can be turned around as a half-glass exercise. But for my purpose today, we are going to go with half empty.
Half empty isn’t somewhere I like to dwell. But sometimes it is ok to exist for a while, looking up at that rim of the glass of life and feeling like it’s out of reach. So that’s where we will start today. We will visit the realm of finger pointing.
Think about what we wish our parents had done differently. Don’t act like there isn’t something. Go ahead and point that emotional finger. There is always something. After that, we can also look for a moment at how our kids might blame us when they feel like the rim of their glass is beyond grasp. Are they both close to the same thing? If you really dig into the source of those feelings, both yours and your children’s, do they spring from the same source? That is what Oprah was trying to uncover.
From what I remember, she focused on more obvious cycles of addiction and abuse. But the cycles don’t have to be that extreme. Cycles of control, guilt (both self and projected), self-doubt, emotional coldness or smothering, lack of fulfillment, misplaced expectations are all more prevalent. I would bet that we all have experienced some or all of those in varying degrees.
That is why, ever since I saw that episode of Oprah, I made a promise to myself. It wasn’t a promise not to screw up my kids. We all screw up as parents. There will be many ways that I will wonder about the outcome if I had done things differently. Once I get hind-sight, there will be the inevitable I-wish-I-would-haves.
No, I do not promise not to screw up my kids. My promise to myself, and to my kids, is to screw them up in completely new ways. I want to make all new mistakes. Because if I do that, then at least they are in a different place than where I am or was. Then, if they are in a new place of disfunction, their life will be all their own. They will not have to battle any demons of mine or the generations before me. They will have their own unique battles. Because struggles and personal demons are a certainty. And if I pass mine on to my children, then my battles have been lost. If that happens, then I keep my family on a treadmill, and we get nowhere.
I want my precious children to find their own wars. And I will fight my own. Hopefully they will learn from me by watching how I fight and not what I fight.
While my children live their lives and navigate their struggles, my biggest hope for them is that they find their fire. That they find the light that burns inside them, unique to each. If they know that, then everything else will fall into place. If each of my children knows that fiery part of themselves, then all of life’s necessities will line up with what they know to be true about themselves. All the rest will fall away. Failures will come and go without discourse. Love, religion, career, hobbies, kindness, hope, family…..all will nourish that light within. If we don’t already know that fire in ourselves, we can use those things to try and ignite it. And that might work for a while.
But those who have confidence in their own spirit will charge forward. No matter what. No matter how a parent falls short or hopes for the wrong thing or pushes in the wrong direction. If you know that fire in yourself, then love, religion, career, hobbies, kindness, hope, and family become your army and not your blanket. And with that army, great things happen.
I strive for my shortcomings as a parent to eventually lead my children toward their own strength. And so now we are back to the glass as half full. I will fail in many ways. But I am ok with that. And I will teach my kids to be ok with that as well. I will lead by example and nourish my own personal, unique fire. This isn’t a matter of happiness. It’s not about what makes me happy or what makes my kids happy. It’s not even about joy. It’s about really knowing yourself in the moment. Each moment. Every moment. And like a fire, the flames change constantly. I want my children to remain changing but unquenchable in who they know they are.
With that knowledge of themselves, it seems that if I can teach them to see and know that truth, then all the new ways I will find to screw them up will ultimately be inconsequential. They will know themselves. They will not need my approval, though they will enjoy when they have it. They will not need the love of another, though I know they will have it and celebrate when they do. They will know that they already and will always have all they need. They were created with their own perfect spirit. Everything else is just a celebration of that perfection. Everything, victories and failures, will be a dance around that fire.
So, with that as my goal, I will make mistakes and screw up my kids. You’re welcome. But I am trying my best to make new mistakes and not recycle old ones. I am hopping off the treadmill. I am going off script. I am making mistakes.
And I am not sorry about it.