Every once in a while, I get a letter from a friend of this blog that touches a tender place in my heart. Usually a place that’s been well worn or is still a little sore or takes me back to the desolation that was there before the consolation. This is one.
I am an avid reader of your blog and really enjoy your writing.
I have a weird question. I feel a sense of community on your blog because you talk about the insanity of parenting and about crazy kids who do crazy things.
My kids are a very lively bunch. One has special needs but all of them are loud, crazy, messy and don’t really know the meaning of the word quiet or neat. They throw, scream, tussle, hit and seem to run on endless energy.
Sometimes we hang out with our siblings and their kids are just so darn calm and quiet. They actually sit at the table and eat, they don’t randomly whack other kids or jump on couches or spill out a million toys.
It often makes me feel badly, like I am doing something wrong, or I am the only one who has crazy kids, while they all have perfect angels.
I may be exaggerating a bit but any idea about what to do with these feelings of inferiority or jealousy? My husband says lively and energetic kids are more interesting and will go further in life, but that doesn’t really do it for me….
Thanks in advance for your thoughts,
Of course, our friend didn’t sign the letter Not Rebecca. That’s just what I’ve named her. Not Rebecca. Like we named Not Evan back in the day. It’s practically a tradition around here.
So here’s what I thought we’d do. I’ll answer Not Rebecca’s letter with my thoughts, which will be a piece of the answer but only a piece because it seems that’s all any of us ever has — just one, tiny piece — and then you’ll share your pieces and together we’ll see more of the puzzle than we can on our own.
Here we go.
Dear Not Rebecca,
My mom-in-law tells a story for which she has my undying gratitude. It’s similar to my own mom’s story, which goes like this: “I always wanted to have 4 kids. Then we had you, and I thought maybe I could handle 3. Then we had your brother and we decided 2 was the perfect number.” In other words, my brother and I were punks. So much so that our parents’ friends used to threaten their children with us. “You’re acting like Beth and Jeff,” they’d say, and their children would settle right down, thoroughly ashamed of themselves. It was like our public service to the neighborhood kids. We were givers, even then.
My mom-in-law tells this story: “When we had Greg, we were very confused about why people found parenting so difficult. ‘If only they were as good at parenting as us,’ we thought as we told Greggy it was time for bed and he jumped up to put on his pajamas, arrange his stuffed animals, brush his teeth and settle in for another quiet night.” Here she pauses and smiles conspiratorially. “And then we had Jeff,” she says and laughs and laughs. Because, of course, Jeff wasn’t wired like Greg, for calm or quiet or obedience. And suddenly my mom-in-law understood that kids are who they are. We may channel them and champion them and provide bumpers and boundaries and rules and reassurance, but kids are who they are who they are.
Greg and Jeff are both brilliant. Both accomplished. Both flawed and perfect, like all of us. But they were different than each other and required different parenting and different encouragement and differently crafted explanations to teachers.
Having the kids they did gave my mom and my mom-in-law two gifts: a) kids they love to infinity, and b) compassion for moms like me.
I know you love your kids to infinity, Not Rebecca. I don’t doubt that for one second. Just like I love my 2 kids who are easy peasy like Greg and my 3 kids who are, um, not so easy like Beth and Jeff and Jeff.
Here’s what I think: When our kids are calm rule-followers, we want to take credit for our exceptional parenting. Of course we do! This is normal. We all desperately seek confirmation that we’re doing right by our kids, so kids who follow social conventions are easy validation. And when our kids are wild or loud or rule-challengers, we on some level want to take the blame because then there’s a problem that can be identified and fixed, and, at our core, we still want to fit in, just like we did when we were kids ourselves.
Somewhere along the way, we get the message that it’s better to be people who don’t rock the boat. And to be people who are always polite. And to be people who are calm and quiet and the same and blend in with the herd. This is a good message for those of us who are boat stabilizers. Great message. Very reassuring! For the rest of us, though? This message bites.
At the beginning of July, I sat on a hard wooden bench under a canopy of evergreens watching a campfire while my friend Heidi delivered this message to 100 elementary school girls:
If I could plant one message in your hearts and heads this week, it would be that you are not too much of anything.
Not too tall, not too big, not too loud, not too quiet, not too fat, not too skinny, not too emotional, not too reserved, not too stuck up, not too grouchy, not too young, not too old, not too poor, not too immature, not too ugly, not too pretty, not too shy, not too dumb, not too embarrassing, not too new, not too anything.
You are not too much of anything to be wonderful and lovable and LOVED.
And when she said ”not too loud,” right at the beginning of her list, I became very still and, ironically, very quiet. My stomach clenched and so did my heart, and I drew a quick, stuttering breath that found its way to my soul while my eyes filled. I was stunned by my instant reaction to you’re not too loud, Beth. Stunned by how deeply at age 39½ I needed Heidi’s words. Stunned by how riveted I was, alongside all these beautiful young women, to a message that was the opposite of the times I’ve felt explicitly or implicitly shushed or silenced or like my words and my personality and my thoughts and my doubts and my convictions and myselfwere too loud, too big, too much, to be wonderful or lovable or loved.
Later the same week, the girls at camp made baked clay pendants for necklaces. Aden’s looked like a glob of squished, overripe banana with some hearts pressed into the goo. She gave it to me as a gift. I adore it.
I thought it was so cool, in fact, I went to craft class and made my own pendant.
It’s red with a butterfly and says LOVE. But then I saw one girl whose pendant said WEIRD, and I was jealous. I wished I’d thought of a cool word like WEIRD to wear around my neck. So I did what any mature, grown-up woman would do in that situation and I asked the 9-year-old to trade necklaces. She said no and indicated with her look of disgust that she was not at all willing to trade her rad WEIRD pendant for my gaggy LOVE one.
That’s when my friend Christy, who was in charge of Crafts and Protecting Kids’ Pendants, suggested I make another one. I grumbled a little about how there’s no word as cool as WEIRD so all the good pendants were already taken, but Christy, remembering my reaction to Heidi’s message, said, “Really? What about loud?”
This is my word. The one I long to claim with pride instead of shame.
Because I am a very quiet, introverted person, shy in new situations until I’m comfortable, and then… WATCH OUT; it’s going to get very loud, very fast, and also probably very honest and inevitably inappropriate.
I write from my loud place. Obviously.
Now, I know you were asking about parenting and somehow this letter became all about me, but I’ve found that a lot of my discomfort with my kids’ behaviour is, instead, discomfort with what others will think. With how they might judge me. With how I’ll be found wanting. By them… and also by myself. It’s when I secretly wonder if I’m somehow failing my kids that I feel inferior or jealous. It’s when I secretly wonder if I’m somehow too flawed or not enough — not disciplined enough, not a good enough teacher, not a good enough rule follower — that I become unsure that I’m fit for this job.
It’s an active process to let that kind of thinking go. To champion our rule-challengers. To cheer for our loud kids. To believe they have something incredibly valuable to teach us about living a free and full life when they run around the dinner table in their underpants. Or without them.
What if this is true: what if our kids — calm or wild, quiet or loud, compliant or nonconforming — are exactly who they’re meant to be? What if they’re already exactly right? What if they’re already enough? What if we are, too?
Does that mean we stop teaching our loud kids to quiet down and listen sometimes? Of course not. We encourage them to stretch themselves and learn new skills, and we likewise teach our quiet ones how to get out of their heads and be silly and spontaneous and stick up for themselves.
But what if we — all of us — are becoming? As in, “Oh my goodness! She’s so becoming!” and also, “Look what a wonderful person she’s becoming.” Bothdefinitions: already lovely and still in process. What if we believed that down to the depths of our bones?
As the years have passed, it’s become easier for me to release my feelings of inferiority and jealousy. Do they resurface from time to time when a friend mentions what great table manners her 3-year-old has? Sure. Do I think uncharitable thoughts about what great table manners my kids would have if they enjoyed a 2:1 parent:child ratio like her baby does? Alright, fine. Am I deluding myself about my kids having good table manners under any circumstances? Almost definitely. But these thoughts are more and more rare as time goes on, which I attribute to 2 main things:
1. I’m very tired, and, unfortunately, feeling inferior and jealous takes energy I can no longer muster.
2. I have actually come to believe that our loud, crazy kids have as much to offer us, themselves and the world as our quiet, calm ones do. After all, we can’t all be unconventional like Galileo or Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Einstein or John Lennon or Ghandi — but thank God someone was.