I’m now six years into this parenthood thing. Like most other parents I know, I’m pretty much making it all up as I go. A lot of my parenting choices, however, are based on my experiences as a child, and the philosophies and methods my own parents had. Many of those methods are solid, useful ones — after all, I turned out reasonably okay, all things considered. But there are also of things I’ve chosen specifically to do differently from my own parents.
I am the product of my childhood; of my parents’ beliefs and actions, and of my own experiences as an extremely sensitive child. There are a few specific incidents and situations in my life that shaped me into the kind of parent that I am today.
My mom and stepdad had a difficult relationship. They married when I was a toddler, so he was always a part of my life, and was always my dad, but as I got older their issues became more apparent to me. Between various mental health problems that went largely untreated and the problems they had communicating with each other, I learned a lot about how not to manage a relationship (although early on I made a few of the exact same mistakes, of course).
There were times, when I was a teenager, that they would fight. I can’t remember anymore what the fights were about. I don’t imagine it really matters. What I do remember was the effect that those fights had on me, and the atmosphere of the place I called home.
Sometimes… often, even… my parents’ tactic for resolving fights was to stop talking to each other. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not even for a week. Sometimes they would refuse to be in the same room as each other for a month or longer. The house would be tense and uncomfortable, full of subtle and unsubtle jabs and attempts to win kids over. Because I was my mother’s daughter by blood, and because my stepdad had suffered through issues with my older sister when she was a teenager, he would include me in his refusal to talk to my mom. So basically, if he was mad at her he was also mad at me. If he wasn’t talking to her, he wouldn’t talk to me.
It was devastating. He was my dad. He had been my dad for as long as I could remember. And I was punished for not being his real daughter. It hurt. So I promised myself that if I ever fought with my partner, the children would not become a target for my anger and frustrations.
Once there happened a month-long, epic, no-one-is-talking-to-each-other battle during my early teen years. I got frustrated, tired, and saddened by the situation, so I took a piece of paper and some pencil crayons and I drew a stop sign. I coloured it in, and I wrote the word ‘please’ underneath the sign, because I was hurting and I just wanted my parents to stop fighting and maybe talk to each other and try to work things out. I left it on the kitchen counter for my dad to find.
The next morning I was the first one up. I found the paper sitting on the counter where I’d left it, flipped upside-down. Written on the back in my dad’s handwriting was this: “Mind your own god-damned business.”
I picked up the paper, tossed it out, went back to the basement to my bedroom, and I cried for a while. I was not emotionally equipped to fix the problems my parents had with each other, and I hadn’t claimed that I could. I just wanted them to stop not fixing them. But I also felt that, after a month or more of people in the house refusing to even be in the same room, it had become my business. They weren’t even trying, and it was affecting my life directly. I felt like that made it my business.
At any rate, it didn’t help. They kept fighting a lot. Eventually, a few years after I moved away from home, they divorced, to no one’s surprise and much to my relief.
None of your business
But I thought often and deeply about my hamfisted attempt to break through and communicate with my dad, and about his response to it. I knew what was going on, and I knew that it was an unhealthy situation that was affecting everyone. But he believed that the fights he and my mom had were not my business — the dancing around subjects, not talking, pretending that none of it had an effect on me or my life since I was just a kid — so I couldn’t possibly understand it. I understood plenty. My teenage years were riddled with depression, although I didn’t have the right language to know that that’s what I was going through.
I thought about his belief for a long time. And I decided that he was wrong.
I still think he was wrong. And that decision became a core belief that I have as a parent myself.
Children are people. They understand what’s happening more than they get credit for. They are affected by the things that go on around them. And they deserve a level of communication about the things that go on around them, and the things that affect their lives. Not talking about serious or important issues does not go unnoticed. Hiding things or pretending everything is normal when it isn’t only creates distrust and frustration.
We explained my cancer to Lyra — we told her what cancer is and that it can kill people. We described what chemotherapy was going to do to me. She came to the hospital when I was getting my chemo treatment and got to see them administer the drugs. She was aware of why I had to go into the hospital for three days when I got sick before Christmas, and came to visit every day.
Her Great Grandmother passed away a few weeks ago, and we talked about it. She doesn’t remember meeting her — the last time she saw her Great Grandmother was when she was three. But we talked about dying, and about family, aging, and Alzheimers, and that her Dad was going to fly to Ontario to help his own Dad and support him in his grief. These things affect her family — they are as much her business as the decisions about whether she is going to take swimming or gymnastics classes.
So if her parents were to have a huge fight that lasted a month or more, yes, I think it would be her god-damned business.
My mother had a different approach. She talked to us about things. She treated me like a person, and was willing to discuss things with me as though I understood. Which, generally, I did, and the times that I didn’t our discussions helped me to. I wasn’t stupid, and youth does not equal disconnect from reality. I appreciate her honesty and willingness to treat me like another human being, and not like a baby that had to be protected and coddled.
In the years since they split up when I was 20, I’ve spoken to my stepdad three or four times, and seen him twice. Maybe I was too much like her. Maybe he never saw me as anything but a child who shouldn’t be involved in the decisions of her elders. I don’t think he forgave her for leaving, and I know he was angry about it for a very long time. The times that I did see him, he made it a point to tell me how much he hated her. I refused to deal with that kind of toxicity in my life, so I stopped trying to see him, and he never made any efforts to reach out to me.
For me, it’s about respect. I respect my children as people. I will protect them from the things that they should be protected from, but I will not shield them from the dirt and the badness that happens in our own lives. We have open discussions about the challenges we face, on a level that we consider appropriate. They deserve to know what’s happening in the family because they are part of the family and are affected by everything. Even if they’re children, I don’t talk to them like they’re stupid or need to be protected. They can, and should, hear truth from us their parents — because if we are willing to tell them the truth about our lives, then they will learn to feel comfortable telling us the truth about theirs.
And because they are human beings who deserve my respect.
Someday they will be adults, and I hope to have conversations with them about our separate lives. I hope that they will talk to me about their problems, and that they’ll want to hear about the things that happen in my life, good and bad.
At 38 years old, I am not a kid. My mom doesn’t treat me like one, either. If she did, I’d probably get frustrated with the situation and avoid talking to her, because no one, of any age, likes to be talked to as if they’re a dumb kid. We have respect for each other, and our relationship is stronger because of that. When I see people talking to Lyra in simple terms, skirting around issues, I can already see her mentally discounting them, as though she’s categorizing this particular adult as someone who sees her as a little kid, and not someone who respects her as a person. She hates being talked down to.
I don’t blame her. Doesn’t everyone?