Promises from our Childhood

As parents, we often want to improve on the job our own parents did. But sometimes the corrections we feel so strongly about are not a good fit with the reality of our children's lives, or of our own.

Long ago I made a sacred promise to myself that, when I had children, I would never subject them to what was hardest about my own childhood. I think many parents do this. It is part of the upward trend in the universe--each generation trying to make life better for our children than what we experienced ourselves. Every parent who makes such a promise deserves our complete appreciation, congratulations and support.

It's helpful to keep in mind at the same time, however, that we can keep getting smarter. We don't want to stick with the rigidity of an old promise if there's something even better to hold on to.

The big promise that I made to myself was to never hold my children responsible for meeting my emotional needs. I wouldn't bring children into this world to meet my personal needs for companionship, or a sense of future, or a way to feel useful. I would have them because it was a wonderful opportunity to nurture new life. I wouldn't require behavior of my children because it made me feel better. I would try to think through what behavior made sense, made their lives go well--and take my own emotional needs and difficulties to other adults.

It was a good promise. I think it's very easy to burden our children with responsibility for our emotional well-being--quite unconsciously for the most part--and I think they try hard to carry that responsibility, at considerable cost to their own well-being. I've tried very hard not to do this with my children, and I'm proud of the job I've done.

I'm just beginning to realize, however, that this too has been done at cost. In promising myself so faithfully to not require them to tend to my needs, there's a way that I've written myself out of the picture of family life. I encourage them to say what they want, and neglect to notice what I want. I ask them about their day and don't think to tell about mine. I invite them to share what's hard for them, but resolutely keep what's hard for me to myself. I do well by them in many ways, but much of the person that I am stays hidden behind the role.

It may be partly that I haven't kept pace with their growing up. What may have been appropriate for infants and toddlers is no longer necessary for ten and thirteen year olds. Not only do I think it would be better for me to show more of myself--I think it would be better for them. They deserve to be living with a real live human being, not just someone inhabiting a mom suit.

That promise from my childhood was still a good one. I'm glad I made it. But I don't think it can carry me or my family any further. It was a correction of an imbalance from my childhood, but now the balance has swung too far the other way. It's time to lay it down and make a new promise to myself. I don't know exactly what it will be, but I know it's there waiting to be found.

I think many of us made promises about how we would be as parents, and I think they were always good. But I wonder how many of those promises--like mine--have filled their functions and become unwieldy and even problematic as time goes by. I'd like to offer museum space to old promises--where they can be treasured and respected and valued for the role they played--so we can lay them down and be free to make new promises for the present and the future.