The Thinker

In trying to build a more perfect child, some mistakes were made

This parenting business is turning out a lot differently than I expected.

I thought I had an enlightened approach. I recognized what I thought were critical mistakes my parents made raising me, and tried to mitigate those mistakes in raising my own daughter. I also acknowledged the things my parents did right with me, and tried to emulate those. The result, I thought, would be a better human being: kinder, gentler, more grounded, lacking most of the fears and foibles I experiences growing up.

I was naive. I think I set my expectations a bit too high.

This is not to say that my 14 year old daughter Rosie doesn’t knock the socks off of me. She continues to wow me, impress me, and at times infuriate me. But what scares me is just how much she is like her mother and I.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I took, I thought, very reasonable steps to make sure this outcome didn’t happen. In my parents’ universe the perfect child would have been very devoutly Catholic, devoted, loving, intelligent, made their way successfully in the world, and confidently overcame obstacles. (Of course their answer may be different; I am projecting here.) Mainly we succeeded, except in the Catholic part. My goal was to let my daughter Rosie come to her own judgments and decisions and to be her own unique person, and certainly not a clone of either my wife Terri or I. To some extent I would measure my success by how much she wasn’t like me.

Maybe I should have raised her Catholic. Instead I raised her as a Unitarian Universalist. I felt around 1997 that she needed to be in touch with a religious community. UUs were about as far away from Catholicism as I could get and it was a religion that spoke to me. Rosie fussed about the Sunday school but over time she grew to really like that particular church experience, made friends inside the church, sang in the choir, and even participated in some plays put on by the church. By exposing her at a tender age to somewhat controversial things, like our minister who happened to be a lesbian, I hoped to broaden her perspective a bit.

One of my complaints about the way I was raised was the near complete lack of sexual education that I received. The little we got was, of course, filtered through the bizarre thinking of the Catholic Church. I grew up somewhat relationship impaired. I hadn’t a clue about human sexuality and was too scared and shy to do much to change the situation. What sex education I got was from the public library (goodness, I would have never had the audacity to bring those books home!) But that was hardly a substitute for understanding the intricacies of close, intimate human relationships. Reading a driver’s manual is no substitute for driving experience. So I enrolled my daughter in the UU’s “Our Whole Lives” sexual education course, which filled in all the gaps missing in my sex education and, for that matter, the highly sanitized version served up by our politically correct public school system. Yes, she got to explore feelings about sexuality, discuss relationship issues, look at condoms, learn about homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people. I wanted her to be sexually enlightened.

I was of course projecting my adolescent experiences upon her. As a result some things happened that I did not expect. One is that I may have thrown too much complexity about the world at her too soon. As a consequence I suspect she wanted to dawdle in childhood and disclaim a lot of the responsibilities that come with age. But mostly I didn’t want her to have the same fears and phobias my wife and I had growing up. I wanted her to be different.

But in so many ways she strikes me as the perfect union between my wife and me, carrying forward both the best parts of us and (gulp) the worst parts too. It’s like her emotional radar subconsciously picked up a lot of our worst stuff and brought it forward into her life as things to work on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that my daughter is very much of an internalizer. If she were a poker player she’d be one of these types who keeps their cards very close to their chest, and waits until the optimal moment to reveal her hand. Unquestionably I am that way and I’ve been working hard to change that aspect of myself. But I sure didn’t want her to be that way. But I guess I must have been projecting that aspect of myself all along, and she picked it up. I guess we can’t really hide our fundamental selves, and the subconscious sifts through the facade and gloms onto it.

Both my wife and I are intelligent and creative types, so it is not surprising that she is also very intelligent and creative. She sings, she writes incredible prose for her age, she acts (she has a part in the local production of “Scrooge” next month), she even has a lot of talent as an illustrator.

I have from time to time discussed my feelings about life, about our country, about politics and she seems to have picked it all up, wrapped her core values around them, and now is convinced that anything foreign is good and anything American is bad. She wants to study and live overseas. She thinks Virginia is a backward state full of bigots and people who can’t see beyond their noses. Okay she may be right there, but the reason is because she picked it up from me, not because she independently arrived there by her own reasoning process. At least that’s what I suspect. So she was listening to me and taking me serious all along. What a surprise!

Neither my wife nor I are the most organized people in the world. I tend to be the more organized of us and get the bills paid on time and remember to put money away for her college education. But I still have problems confronting many of the things that need to be confronted. Hedges go untrimmed too long. I tend to let small problems become big problems before I tackle them. My wife strikes me a lot more disorganized than I am. But to be fair, she’s not nearly as bad as some people I’ve met. Our house is reasonably clean and there is not usually a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. But she is very much the one day at a time sort of person. She rarely looks or worries too much beyond next week. Rosie seems to have picked up that side of my wife. Homework done at the last minute, even if it is of poor quality, is perfectly acceptable in Rosie’s universe. I have tried to get her to see that in four years, if she can pull good grades, she has the privilege of going to college. It is only now that she understands this reality. But trying to engage her gears to actually make it happen is a difficult process that she is still working on.

I project my desire to see her in a career that she loves, and hopefully not living from pay check to pay check or homeless on the street. This comes from having lived the Bohemian life for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. It wasn’t any fun. The national unemployment rate hovered above 8 percent and there were few jobs for recent college graduates, particularly for us liberal arts majors. It was a stressful way to greet adulthood. I’d like her to avoid all that.

But I also know that the most meaningful lessons often come from adversity and failure. So I have to steel myself and let her fail from time to time, so she can learn those lessons too. And I also know that if I make things too comfortable for her then she is likely to be dysfunctional as an adult; and won’t be able to cope with real life when real adversity does strike.

I’m certainly not declaring failure. Overall Rosie is doing quite well and I am pleased with her, and love her more than works can express. Rosie will I am sure in time make her own unique way in the world, and her mother and I will have a few moments, or perhaps a few years, of nervousness and heartache in the process. I certainly had good intentions to try to keep her from enduring unnecessarily misery. I often wonder if because her life is so well provided for by us, if that is in itself some sort of handicap.

She is an adult in the making, but at this instant she seems more like a weird conglomeration of my wife and me, both the good and the bad aspects, than some sort of 21st century model citizen I was hoping for. Perhaps I need to give her another 14 years. In some ways she is an improvement. She doesn’t seem to have that innate shyness that her mother and I have, although she has picked up quite a bit of our introversion.

But I feel somewhat chagrined that my master plan for her seems in such tatters. I can take pride in knowing that she has successfully avoided many of the major pitfalls in life that trip up kids her age, such as smoking, drugs and (I hope) sex. I just hope I haven’t made life too confusing a morass for her. It’s a complicated business and getting more complex every day. I’ll try not to judge my value by how well my daughter does, but some part of me wishes I could turn back the clock and try a few different strategies. But I have to deal with who she is now, and much of her personality and character was formed long ago. I now need to hold my breath, project confidence in her ability to navigate through life, and wait to see what pops out of the oven.

 

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