Leaning on Our Children

A mother had just done a very loving job of handling her furious six year old. When he was done raging and flailing, I was witness to an amazing exchange of affection. He thanked her for helping him and said that he loved her. She said that he was the world to her. He said that she was the best mother that ever could be.

It was a scene of touching harmony--with a beautiful melody line of tender love. The only discordant note was her protest that she didn't deserve all his appreciation, that he deserved someone better than her.

Now my guess is that we all feel that way sometimes. We want our children to have the very best--and what they get instead is us. The more we care about doing a good job as parents, the more aware we are of our shortcomings, of all the ways we have failed them, of how much less they are getting than what they deserve.

But I think it is important what we not lay this on our children. After all, these feelings of inadequacy belong to us, not them. They may have quite a different perspective. And anyhow, it is not their job to reassure us about how well we are doing.

I watched this little boy try. As his mother protested that she did not deserve that much love, he tried harder. I kept waiting for a response from her that would allow him to relax ("Hey, we're both pretty great, aren't we? I guess it must run in the family." or "I'm so glad we have each other.") That response never came, and they were fine, but I was acutely aware of the burden that this little boy was carrying. Clearly he had taken responsibility for how his mother felt about herself.

Some of the variations on this theme are pretty subtle. I think of the times we tell our children that we love them--in hopes of hearing that sweet little voice say that they love us too. Sometimes, when they're feeling it, they'll come through in a big way and everybody wins. Sometimes they'll tell us what we want to hear, but at some cost to themselves. And sometimes they simply won't come through. They may not be feeling loving at that moment, or their attention might just be on something else. I think of a time when, in a moment of tender feeling for my youngest, I told him how much I loved him. His mind was on getting a piggy-back ride, and he responded that what he loved was my back! Luckily I had not been looking for reassurance at that moment, or I would have been sorely disappointed.

We need places to talk about our feelings of inadequacy. We need ways of being reassured and hearing that our children love us. We need places to talk and cry about how deeply we love our children. But, for these things, we need other adults.

We don't have to hide all our insecurities and difficult feelings from our children. We don't have to pretend that we're something we're not. We can tell them more often what a wonderful difference they make in the quality of our lives, just by being there. But we can also make clear that they are not responsible for our emotional well-being.