To say I was a reluctant mother is an understatement, and I love kids. It was fear. Fear of screwing up. Fear of creating dysfunction, fear of dooming my offspring to a lifetime of therapy.
My husband was the cheerleader. He wanted to be a father more than anything, and he had no fear. Most important, he was committed to hands-on fathering. Watching him with others’ children, I had no doubts.
Well, OK, then. We traveled, lived it up as a couple for a few years and then, we got pregnant.
Also, I wanted a boy. To say that was non-negotiable sounds ridiculous, but it felt that way. Yes, I have control issues. I timed my ovulation and intercourse—no one said this was a romance—to stack the gender deck. And, we had a boy. Three years later, with control and timing, combined with whatever else happens to make these miracles, we had another boy.
And then, they became people. They laughed, they walked, and they spoke. And as they grew, they developed empathy, love, and compassion. I watched them and I felt it myself. Others commented on how sweet they were. I was amazed, pleased. Motherhood, I can do this.
One afternoon, my younger son was five, and getting over a virus. I was catching it. He sat coloring while my eight year old was in his room playing with Legos. I felt awful.
I called my husband just to hear “I’m sorry sweetie.” I’d cry a little, and then get through the rest of the day. When I heard his voice, I burst into tears. I was so tired.
My kids had seen me cry, and always reacted with concern and compassion, but what happened next was amazing.
My five year old jumped up from the table. “Theo, come quick! We have to cheer up Mom!” he yelled.
“Here I come, Lucas! What’s wrong? Mom, c’mere, it’s OK.”
Still on the phone, I started crying even harder. I couldn’t speak. They raced to their rooms. One came back with his blankie; the other a pillow.
“Here Mom, it’s OK.” They hugged me.
“I know, Mom, it’s hard to be sick.”
“Sounds like you’re in good hands dear,” my husband said. “I love you. Feel better.”
My older son guided me to his room.
“Mom,” my wise boy said, “I’m going to play ‘It’s All Right To Cry’ and let’s just listen. It will help.” And he put in the CD of Free To Be You And Me, music I had listened to and loved at his age.
I was overwhelmed by their kindness. I could never ask for more. I could never need more than this love.
And I sat on my son’s little twin bed, crying as he held me and Rosey Grier sang:
It’s alright to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It’s alright to cry
It might make you feel better.
I felt blessed and loved and, yes, I felt better. My boys healed me that day.
Then, and now when I share that story, people marvel. It was a special moment and there have been more, some small, some more story-worthy, but all pointing to two compassionate, caring boys.
At the time, I thought, my children are amazing. What I didn’t think about was that they learned this. They learned how to care for people. Especially boys, everyone said, “oh, especially boys.” And that struck me for a number of reasons.
First, why not boys? Why shouldn’t boys be compassionate and able to talk about feelings; be able to comfort others and to see crying as a way toward healing?
And second, how had my parenting, our parenting, contributed to this? My husband and I must be doing something right, right?
Keep in mind, my kids can be a huge pain in the ass. They’re not robots; they have tantrums and do normal kid stuff. At three, for my oldest, when the blue sippy cup was dirty, it was an international incident. And today, at nine, for my youngest, when it’s time to do homework there is Oscar-worthy whining and sometimes worse.
But, they know empathy.
What had we done as parents to foster this? We have always been instinct-driven. And, we were older when we had kids. We had no specific plan. Sure a few parenting books sat dog-eared by the bedside table, but we just did it. And it was really hard.
We fought, my husband and I. We loved them and we missed our old life. We disagreed on discipline and other choices, co-sleeping and getting them, finally, into the crib; we had typical parenting conflicts and we made compromises. To give my husband props, when it came to certain mom-esque decisions, such as when to co-sleep and stop nursing, he deferred to me. But, he definitely weighed in. His guidance and objectivity helped me then as it does now.
“Dear, you’re exhausted. You don’t have to be super-mom. You need to sleep. I’ll give him a bottle and put him in his crib. You’ll see, it’ll be great.”
And he was right, it was fantastic.
We made mistakes, we had victories, we were imperfect and human, but we just did it.
Reflecting on my kids, and who they are today, I’d point to a few consistencies throughout our parenting, to ways I try to be as a mom, a friend, and a spouse. I think these have helped us raise compassionate boys. It’s complicated and simple. Our boys are the loving people they are today, because their emotional needs are met. Being a parent is more than this list, but it’s a start.
Validate Their Feelings
This is a big one, and it’s not just for kids. Just because your feelings get validated, that doesn’t make them go away. But, guess what? That doesn’t matter. You may still be sad, angry, frustrated, or bored. But, knowing that someone gets you; it’s like magic, it really is. Sometimes you just need to cry it out, even if you still have to take that bath, miss a birthday party, or deal with your homework.
Here is recent exchange with my twelve year old:
“Mom, can you make me a sandwich?”
“No, sweetie, I’m doing three other things, you can make your own sandwich.”
And, I’m thinking, “Seriously? You can make your own sandwich. You’re a Boy Scout; you can make fire.”
Stomp, stomp, tantrum alert—and he’s 5’11, 120 pounds of tantrum.
“But, Mom… .”
“Look, bud. You’re twelve. I’m busy.”
“It’s just, I mean … you never … I can’t,” and then, the high pitched voice; it’s not about the sandwich.
“You and Daddy expect me to be grownup when I want to be a kid and a kid when I want to be grownup. How am I supposed to do that?”
Crying, hugs, kisses, Mom comfort.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s hard to be in-between, isn’t it? You’re doing a great job at being mature and it’s OK to feel like a little kid sometimes.
“Yea, in-between,” snuffle, deep breaths.
“It’s OK. It’ll be a little confusing for awhile but talk about it like you did now.”
“OK, I’m gonna make a sandwich.”
You see, magic.
Show Them How to Give
While we aren’t able to tithe on a large scale, we give in small, tangible ways, and when we do, we talk about it with our kids. In fact, we try to let it be their idea.
When they were little and our house was overrun with toys, we’d cull the loot, especially before birthdays and Christmas. We’d talk about children who might be homeless, or have less money or no grandparents.
“We can help them,” I’d say. “You can share your old toys.”
They would pick toys they no longer played with and donate them. And, that made them happy.
One day, when my oldest was just six, a St. Jude Children’s Hospital brochure came in the mail.
“Mom, what’s cancer?”
I gave him the six year old version.
“That’s sad, they don’t get to play. I want to send them my allowance to pay for their medicine,” and he handed me some cash.
Now, he does it every year.
When we were waiting at a stoplight and saw someone begging for food and money, I’d ask, “Are you going to eat your granola bar? Do you think that man looks hungry?”
“Good idea, Mom. I can wait till we get home, he needs it more.”
And soon, all the giving became their idea. Today, we drive around with extra granola bars; they suggest toys they want to donate; and they grab cans from the cabinet for food drives.
By showing them that they are fortunate, with loving parents, a secure home, a Christmas tree with gifts under it, and food on the table, they have learned to pay it forward. It’s not a lot, but it does help. It’s looking outside yourself to the needs of others, and doing what you can. It’s a case of granola bars, $5 worth of allowance, and a few boxes of hand-me-down toys and clothes.
And, they come with me to Goodwill. They do Boy Scout Service Projects. They gather food for the food drive. They engage in the process.
Make Mistakes and Teach Repair
Anyone who tells you they never fight with their spouse, I call BS. Maybe they “discuss,” and that’s great. My husband and I have strong personalities. For us, getting to real communication or co-parenting is sometimes paved with disagreement. Being married is hard work. Being a parent is hard work. Combine the two and you have a whole lot of complicated.
Of course, I’m not advocating knock-down-drag-outs in front of your kids (or behind closed doors for that matter, something’s up if you’re fighting like that), but it’s OK for your kids to see you and your spouse disagree. The key is for them to see you do the repair.
The same goes for parenting. I doubt there’s a parent who has never lost it, even a little bit, with their kid. I’ve made more mistakes than I can count with my kids, but when I come to them after and say “You know what, I yelled at you earlier and I’m sorry, and I don’t want to yell.”
Now, when someone spills, or makes a mistake, I immediately shift into, “It’s OK, people make mistakes,” even internally. I was doing it to myself; of course I’d do it to my kids. People spill, things break, we snap at each other sometimes. It’s OK.
Your kids need to know that it’s OK to make a mistake and that you’ll be there to help clean up the mess. An apology and awareness goes a lot farther than unattainable perfection. No self-flagellation, one apology, I made a mistake, and move on.
Now, if I spill or break something, my kids will immediately say “It’s OK, Mom. It was an accident. Can I help you clean it up?” Unless, they are playing XBOX and then it’s all on me, because they’re kids, not robots.
Today, at twelve and nine, they are such caring people part of me wants shield them from the world, and yet, they are precisely the kind of people this world needs. I am proud to watch my boys grow into young men. Are they perfect? Of course not, but they are compassionate people who care about their family, friends, and the world. They care about children, racism, sexism, poverty, and equality. They care, and they speak up, they comfort, they rally, they ask questions. I don’t see how a mother could ask for more. Maybe socks in the hamper and a little less whining? But, they’re kids, remember? Not robots.
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