After I was diagnosed with depression last February, my younger daughter started having night terrors and my older daughter’s math grade dropped to a B. Of course I thought it was all connected. I had never been depressed before. Jenna had never had night terrors before. Julia had never made a B in her life. It took a therapist putting her face close to mine and saying in a clear, louder-than-normal voice: “Sometimes 4-year-olds have night terrors. Sometimes 10-year-olds make Bs. There’s a good chance these things have nothing to do with what’s going on with you” before I could start to believe that my depression had not somehow seeped out of me and wound itself around my children’s inner psyches and had contaminated their sleeping patterns and school performance.
Jenna’s night terrors eventually went away and Julia’s B went back up to an A before the next report card came out. I had fallen into a trap most parents find themselves in: I had given myself too much power over my children.
What parent hasn’t done this? My heavens, when you bring a child in the world and you have 18 years to shape them from helpless, cooing blobs into fully functional adults, you’re going to feel a crushing weight of responsibility. The question is this: What do we as parents do with this crushing weight? Do we let it flatten us? Or do we forge control over it so we can parent on our own terms?
The Christianity Today article mentions Judith Warner’s book A Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. I read this book when it came out several years ago. I didn’t agree with everything she said, but she did a thorough job of pointing out how obsessed American mothers are with their children. Warner became a mother herself while living in France before moving back to the U.S. Upon arriving in the U.S. as a mom, she could not believe how stressed out American mothers are – especially compared to the European mothers she had been around in France. American mothers homeschool. We put our children on special diets. We put them on waiting lists for prestigious preschools while they are still in the womb. We sign them up for loads of activities. We slather them with sunscreen and refuse to let them out of our sight. And there's a chance all of it is making us crazy.
While protecting our children is a good thing to do, and what we're supposed to do, isn’t it possible to go overboard? Will obsessing over our children’s welfare actually mold them into what we want them to be, or will they become whatever they want to be, regardless of our hand-wringing?
The answer to this question has been difficult for me to navigate because, believe me, I have been known to be a neurotic parent. When Julia was a baby, Chad had to drag me away from her crib on a number of occasions because I wanted to sit there and make sure she breathed all night. She’s 11 now and her sister is five, and I’ve formed a parenting philosophy that I’m still working on. But here’s the heart of it: I want my children to be who they are, and not necessarily who I want them to be. I don’t want them to vote the way I do if they grow up, examine the issues and come up with different convictions than the ones I have. Of course I want them to have deep spiritual connections with God and to accept Christ as their savior, but I believe they don’t have to stick to my own exact set of spiritual beliefs to do that. I want them to be happy and healthy and to make wise choices, but I know I can’t hand them those things. And to be honest, doesn’t growing up mean finding your own way, learning from mistakes and discovering who you are on your own terms? That’s what I want for my children.
It’s also personally important for me to have an identity apart from being a mother. And this one is tough. It’s something I sometimes have to fight for with every ounce of energy I have. But I see moms who completely lose themselves in their children and I just don’t think it’s healthy for anyone. I believe maintaining this identity gets easier once kids are out of the baby/preschool stages.
The reason I like the Christianity Today article and the Judith Warner book is because of their common message: Parents need to chill out. And as pointed out in the CT article, especially Christian parents. Of course, instill values your children. But know how and when to step away and let them grow. Read that last paragraph in the article. Its words hold more truth than I even want to admit.
Not that it’s easy. You know when I’ve had a vacation during which I got to spend five days with friends in an island condo? Never. But when the chance came up and it was time to leave this past Tuesday, I cried outside the airport because I had to leave my children. But I still got on the plane. I had to accept that they would be fine in a single-parent home for a week. I had to stop worrying that they might miss me. We should all step away from our kids once in a while. It’s good practice for later.
I still wander into worry over last year’s depression affecting my children. I still cringe when Jenna says, “Remember when you used to cry a lot?” But the truth is that I’m glad they saw me depressed. I’m glad I am unable to project an image of a perfect parent to my children. I hope it showed them that I am real. Because truthfully, that’s all I want my girls to be when they grow up. I just want them to be real.