I looked around the office with a twinge of sadness. The three bodies who have occupied our business space with us are no longer on the premises; the official beginning of their school year today. I see the notifications on Facebook as friends post pictures of their kids, grinning with backpacks and the comments from others sending best wishes for the school year. I watched kids stand quietly beside parents chattering with the affected joy and excitement of the first day. My snap-happy self took these same pictures. I cherish this time knowing it is short.
Driving into work I pondered why this first day was different from years past. As a young girl I looked forward to the school year with trepidation; hoping my grades would make muster; that my friends would still sit by me at lunchtime. I felt the anxiety as I sat in my classes listening to teachers’ expectations. Would I be able to do it? Would I let them down? Most years, as a parent, I began the school year with a pep talk to my sons about having a great year, getting good grades and working on behavioral habits. Knowing the assessments started the first week, I reminded my boys of the things we did over the summer for the writing prompt, recounting math facts or grammatical rules.
I did none of these things last evening; nor today.
I grapple with letting my sons go; to allow them the ability to figure out things without my prompting. To truly discover who they are and to not constantly coach/preach what it is that I expect them to be. To let them navigate social land mines and find their way. This is a tough lesson for me.
On our last day of summer we had been busy with household chores, birthday parties and grocery shopping. I braced myself for the yelling of commands to get things done to prepare for the first day. When the eldest’s schedule conflicted with ours; he handled it with the volunteer coordinator. The middle son prepared the clothes he would wear to school on Sunday afternoon without being asked. The youngest hummed to himself as he opened school supplies and organized his binder and backpack. The yelling mom never materialized.
And so, this morning, I expected to rouse grumpy children to awaken for school. And though I did have to wake them, they quickly rose and prepared for the day. I made the effort not to lament the end of summer; nor did I use my falsetto, happy voice to expound the joys of the first day of school. Instead we prepared for the day in relative peace and quiet which followed me into the confines of my car on my commute into work. It had been effortless; even amongst the busy throngs of parents, the traffic and congestion and general chaos of the first day. When the fifth grader happily waved from his line as they left for their classroom, I smiled. This year is going to be a great one. They were ready.
It is I who is never ready. I read self-help parenting books hoping to glean knowledge on how to be a better parent. But with the years I’ve come to realize that I will never be ready and that, being armed with knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into acting upon it. I must immerse myself into life, the experiences allowing me to learn what works and what does not. Upon walking into my youngest’s elementary school office, I genuinely was happy to be there after a year of discontent and disillusion. Time heals. As an only child I am comfortable; left to my own devices in solitary confinement. But, like my father before me, I am always called to serve. The year off gave me the gift of discernment; to discover what was important and why. In order to be a good parent to my children I did not need a lengthy list of titles or accomplishments. To be a good parent to my children I needed to be happy with myself.
Sounds too easy? Too cliche-ish and cheesy? Probably. But muddling through my issues it rings true.
To be a good parent/wife/friend/person, you need to be happy with yourself.
Parenting is many things. You are responsible for those under your tutelage; whether you like it or not. You learn to love unconditionally and selflessly. You live through your children’s accomplishments and acutely feel their disappointments and failures. In my years as a gerontologist, discussing end-of-life issues, the number one thing elderly people wished to leave their children was not money. It was legacy. We all want to leave our mark; our contribution within our family and in our society to feel like our existence made a difference in someone’s life. As a child of two deceased parents, my lasting memories of them are a mixed bag. I had been eighteen when my father passed, thirty-two at my mother’s untimely death. My memories of my father are child-like and naive, the ones of my mother are from adulthood with the perspective of newly minted motherhood. Over the years I questioned what legacy they left with me; the conversation of what they expected that I would become never broached. They had pushed grades and titles and accomplishments; things I used to push, first and foremost, for my own children.
I asked the hubby what legacy he wished for our kids to remember him by and he hopes that they learn improvisation. To know that the answers they seek to their questions are never going to be perfect and that they will persevere; to make things work with what they have and do these things independently. Over the past year I’ve also searched within; seeking what it is that I want for myself and for my children. I have fought the answer that is obvious to anyone who knows me well. I want my children to serve in society for the greater good; in the beliefs that are important to them. I don’t expect them to become doctors or lawyers with large homes and many things. If they ultimately choose these professions I hope it is because they want to serve others; in the belief of the Hippocratic oath to preserve lives with quality, or to uphold the cannon laws for the safety and well-being of our society. I hope they continually find love in the arts and to share them with others. To be hospitable, gracious and humble. But most importantly, to do things because THEY WANT TO.
Why do I think of these things on the first day of school?
As a parent learning to let go, I had to understand where I fit in my children’s current stages. When I used to see the word mother I imagined cuddles, hand-holding, homemade art projects and park playgrounds. For the past few years I saw competitive group sports, tiger mother after-school tutoring and Facebook/Instagram posts of perfect parenthood; excessive parent involvement and comparisons. I was a good parent because I knew all thirty-one names in my son’s class, stayed actively involved in PTA and knew the ins and out of the teachers, coaches, and instructors who would make my children scholarship ready and great. But the more involved I became, the more I realized the artifice in these things; the selfish ideas of being involved so my child would get recognition and preferred treatment. I served others to the detriment of my own sons. As I volunteered for large organized events, my sons would sit alone on the sidelines hungry and tired. Is this what good parenting entailed? Was this the sacrifice needed to be a good mother?
The last school year I took a much needed break. This school year I have renewed purpose and will practice discernment in the things I choose to do in service. If my legacy to my sons is to become involved in their communities, as adults, I don’t want them to remember the stressed-out parent who poured out hospitality and returned with an empty cup. True service and hospitality is in joyfully giving and expecting nothing in return. I inherited the social aptitude of my father, the hospitable over-the-top entertaining, from my mother. If they still were both alive I hope they’d see these traits in their only daughter.
The fall schedule is full and I welcome it. I do not grumble. Because the things I choose to do are things that I love; things that my children love, as well. It has been a long, painful and circuitous route to return to this conclusion; as I continue to navigate the obstacles that will get in the way. I now know my purpose, my own reason for being here in this stage of life. I want to do what I love and love what I do. Why? First, because it makes ME happy.