The decision to become a parent is not one to be taken lightly. Sometimes it occurs by carefully considered choice and in other circumstances, it comes as a surprise. Ideally, a child is welcomed into a family; cherished and nurtured with both food and love. Sadly, that is not always the case.
The offices of psychotherapists are filled with clients who were subjects of relationships gone awry, of neglect and abuse. Words that sting as harshly as objects used to deliver punishing blows are spewed in anger, causing sometimes irreparable damage. The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is inaccurate. Words hurt. Those spoken and those left unsaid. Many reflect multi-generational patterns that are passed on as certainly as DNA. Cringeworthy statements that clearly let a child know that he or she was an accident, a burden, unwanted and unworthy are the insidious seeds planted that lead the person to treatment if they are proactive and to downward spirals, addiction and perhaps death, if not.
A few years ago, I met a young woman who had a ‘surprise’ pregnancy with a man who was no longer her partner. Subsequently, she had a miscarriage and although she felt sad about the loss, the experience came with a bit of wisdom that she shared with me. “When you have a baby, know that you are not just raising a child, but an adult.” Not something that many parents think about, as evidenced by some of the conversations that occur behind the closed door of my office.
I am astounded when I hear that many families simply exist in the same house. They rarely talk about things of consequence. Independent living skills are not taught. Stories are not read at bedtime. Hugs and kisses are not part of daily interaction. Words are offered at high-decibel volume, since the speaker may feel unheard. Holes in walls and in hearts are sometimes the fallout.
Even in two-parent, mixed gender homes in which love is demonstrated verbally and physically, a divide may still exist that keeps mom and dad in prescribed roles, with him as the stoic or explosive breadwinner and her as the nurturer. Both the parents and children miss out. Many clients have shared that they wished their fathers had modeled ways of being genuine and revealing of feelings in functional ways and that their mothers had been more assertive, not always needing to be the peacekeeper and mediator between them.
When exploring the idea of birthing or adopting a child, many couples list reasons both pro and con, healthy and dysfunctional:
- Someone to nurture
- Someone to validate them
- Someone to take care of them in old age
- Proof that they can do a better job than their parents
- Carrying on a family name
- Because they love children and are good at caring for them
- Because they have the resources to do so
- Because their friends and family are raising children
- Because their parents want to be grandparents and are pressuring them
- Because it is a cultural or religious norm
- Because they can’t envision a life without them
- Because one partner already has a child with a previous partner
- Because they erroneously believe it will save a faltering relationship
Although there are those who are uncomfortable with the word “parenting” used as a verb, I see it as empowering. As an adoptive mother of a soon to be 30-year-old son, for whom I became a single mom when he was 11 and I was 40, there were many days when I put my consciously best and unconsciously worst parenting skills to work in raising him. Regardless of the age of either party, “parenting” and “childing” doesn’t end; it merely changes form. Sometimes he seems like the wise elder offering guidance to his 28 years older mother.
Recently, I read an article written by the divorced father of two sons. In it, he explains the reasons why he celebrates the birthday of his former wife in loving and grand style. Many who find themselves in conflict, stay together “for the sake of the children” and would be better off divorcing. How about if former partners treated each other with care and respect instead? I have a few friends whose marriages have ended, but their loving relationships have not. They remain friends and co-parents to their children, modeling what cooperation and co-existence can look like.
Billy Flynn, the author of the previously mentioned article, shares his reasons for his interactions with their mom. “I’m raising two little men. The example I set for how I treat their mom is going to significantly shape how they see and treat women and affect their perception of relationships. I think even more so in my case because we are divorced. So, if you aren’t modeling good relationship behavior for your kids, get your shit together. Rise above it and be an example. This is bigger than you.
Raise good men. Raise strong women. Please. The world needs them, now more than ever. Doubtful that too many wiser words were ever spoken.