Thursday, September 2, 2010

Word to the Wise

Not sure if anyone would want to take parenting advice from me: someone who has not had a child and who will likely never bear a child of her own. However, I feel that I can still offer some valid advice to parents who may be struggling with how they will pass on life lessons to their children, simply by virtue of the fact that I am child to a parent who was unable to connect with me, his eldest daughter and in many respects his most complicated offspring.

Lest you think this is going to be a soliloquy of “Oh-Woe-Is Me-I-Had-A-Crappy-Childhood”, I wish to be clear from the outset that I do not now, nor did I ever, think I had a crappy childhood. My upbringing was challenging at times, but I always felt loved and nurtured, supported throughout and pushed forward into the world armed with the necessary tools to be a successful adult, many of which were bestowed upon me by my mother. What was truly lacking in my life was a father who was present: emotionally, and oftentimes physically. He was too wrapped up in his work and his own problems. And when he was, I never got a sense for who he truly is as a person. He was/is very much a “say as I do” kinda guy, who covers up his flaws under a thick armor of fear and rarely lets his guard down. Although compassionate and extremely intelligent, he has always been too absorbed in his own world to really know how to deal with me on an emotional level. I never fully bonded with him. According to my mother he just simply did not know what to do with me. He was 24 when I was born; an age I look back upon and wonder if I could have even managed to deal with a child had I had one at 24.

I was a very shy and introverted little girl who clung to the apron strings of my maternal grandmother, having spent many days under her watchful eye while my mother went back to work almost as soon as I was born. I was an avid reader and preferred solo play to time spent with my peers. When my brother and sister came along, it didn’t really get much better as I always felt they had each other and I was the third wheel. A myriad of health problems plagued me from an early age, forcing me into surgery at least seven times before the age of 12. I had hearing and speech issues that erroneously led some teachers to believe that I was just incapable of learning. To his credit, he did rally against those teachers and told them in no uncertain terms that as a fellow educator, they couldnt be further off the mark.

That being said, things came to a boiling point when I was a teenager. We were always arguing with each other, largely because I never fully understood his need to put himself forward as someone he was not, nor his need to put up walls barracading himself against his own children. When my father did share of himself with us, it was always about how infallible and perfect he was and how his detractors and those who did not agree with him were flawed individuals. He was convinced that he was going to be President and live to be 100 years old. If he was to be believed, my father was Superman, The Green Lantern and the Lone Ranger all wrapped into one.

Even now, I am the age I am and I still expect him to give me some clue that he has come to terms with his imperfections…that he is a person who has learned from his mistakes and embraces those lessons to make himself a better person. He struggles with this to the point where I suspect he is fighting against acceptance as he believes it will make him weak and vulnerable. He recently said to me that he thought he was a perfect person and doesnt know how to deal with having a black mark on his record as that means he is imperfect. Hated to tell him, but absolutely no one is perfect. It's about time he accepted that fact.

Here is where I get to that sage advice I promised earlier: let your children know that you are less than perfect. Don’t be afraid to tell them that some of the toughest lessons life teaches us are the hardest to adhere to. It’s ok to make mistakes, even when you know better, as long as you aren’t causing physical or emotional pain to yourself or to others. And it’s really ok to just be human and accept those imperfections that make each and every one of us unique. Your children will not judge you negatively if you admit your flaws and acknowledge your mistakes. If anything, you will teach little Johnny or Betty Sue that it’s ok to be who they are. Life’s greatest challenge is overcoming obstacles and hardships on the way to becoming the best person you can. From my perspective, if I had more of that reassurance when I was growing up I think both my father and I would be in a better place today.