Motherhood is daunting. No matter how many coats of denial and idealism one whitewashes it with, it is a formidable journey and it is not always easy to stay convinced of the delightfulness of the upbringing and management of the fruits of our genetic entanglements. Life is up and down, and take-it-as-it-comes, and full of all sorts of sadness and grief mixed in with sheer joy and beauty, and parenting is just like that too. No matter how many times I’ve turned away in denial, I’ve been forced back to face reality by the wailing of a baby or the splintered casing on my teenager’s bedroom door. For those of us who give birth to a child who for whatever reason takes us to places we’d never dreamed we’d go, who pushes the limits of our innate decency, takes us into the deepest recesses of our being and forces every last bit of darkness right out into the light of day, well, if you’ve been there, you know. It’s not the same kind of parenting experience one has with kids who come into the world smiling and sleeping and riding out the highs and lows with some measure of grace and good nature – kids who are comforted easily, and whose paths seem relatively clear of obstacles to contentment and “normalcy”.
None of the trite expressions of the “If you love something set it free…” variety apply easily when it comes to motherhood. Go ahead, set your lover free and see if he or she comes back to you, but your toddler? Your teenager? What does it mean to set a teenager free? Certainly it’s a much different project than setting a lover free. One has to detach, but how?
When my children were in their “dormant years”, past the insanity of toddlerhood, but not yet into the blitzkrieg of adolescence, I, for a brief shining, proud, delusional moment, thought I had it made. There they were for that hot minute, going to birthday parties, playing on soccer teams, not yet climbing onto the roof of the high school to smoke pot or setting off fireworks out of the neighbor’s bedroom windows. I pretended it was because of me that they were falling into line and behaving, even though I knew I was full of shit. And silly me, I felt I deserved it after all I’d been through with them as babies and toddlers.
I was then, in some small way, arrogant enough to think I could control what was to come, but as is his way, my first child blew all that apart. But this time it was with all the full-bore power of testosterone releasing into his blood-stream, his crazy teenage brain and its superfluous synapses, and the freedom granted him by my divorce with his father. And I was left standing there, with my parenting ideals, my misty water-color memories of breastfeeding and cloth diapers, my pockets still full of his super balls and rocks, and little toy trains, and the memories of his boyhood fading behind me. Oh, and my love. My unconditional “I will always love you even if you’re in prison because I’m your mother” love.
I was just standing there at the crossroads, because ultimately, I could feel that there was nothing I could really do about his wild rebellion and strong-willed self. Nothing but to keep standing there loving him, no matter how many suspicious baggies I found in his pants pockets, no matter how many holes in the plaster, no matter how many “fuck you’s” he dared to spit in my face, and no matter how many times his father and I fantasized about having him kidnapped in the night and taken to some other place where some other person who wasn’t so in love with him could straighten out his willful, angst-ridden, fire-breathing, fierce, wild, teenaged self.
When he was about 15, he was living primarily with his father who had rented a house which happened to be in walking distance of a local bar that I passed every day on my way to work and had frequented myself from time to time. One night, very late, he left the safety of his father’s house with a friend, and they went to that bar and they stood out in front of it and they smoked cigarettes until his friend’s father located them and dragged them home. The next day his friend’s father called me. He was a doctor, and I know what he wanted for his boy, and it sure as hell wasn’t for him to be a juvenile delinquent hanging out with my boy in front of the Tin Hat Bar and Grill. He told me with fear in his voice that he was going to ground his son, and that he would be watching his every move. He told me that his boy would be sleeping on the floor of his bedroom from then on while he and his wife stood guard. It was at that point that I knew I would not be doing any such thing, my kid wasn’t living with me then, and even if he was, there would be no 24-hour police state happening anyway.
Now mind you this was complicated, it was always complicated. Because I have two other children, I know that it isn’t always this complicated, and I don’t know every reason why it was to begin with. The main “reason” I have settled upon in my head, is that this kid is here to teach me how to be a better person in every way. He is here as my teacher, my bar-raiser, every bit as much as I am his. He is twenty now, and we’ve made it through that terrible time, we are virtually out the other side of it. He is on his own (to the degree that any twenty year old can be), works full-time and tells me he loves me every time we talk. Meanwhile I’m watching his 13-year-old brother like a hawk, while giving him the freedom he needs to face the consequences of his behavior, and trying my best to step in in when he needs correction. A delicate dance for sure.
I picked up the book “Zen Mind: Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki recently. Under the chapter on “Right Practice” there is a section on “Control”. I came across this and thought how perfectly well-suited this advice is to parenting teenagers.
To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them…
At the end of this section, Mr. Suzuki goes on to say:
But perfect freedom is not found without some rules. People, especially young people, think that freedom is to do just what they want, that in Zen there is no need for rules. But it is absolutely necessary for us to have some rules. But this does not mean always to be under control. As long as you have rules, you have a chance for freedom. To try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing. It is to acquire this perfect freedom that we practice zazen.
I don’t know if I’m practicing “zazen”, but every day with my two teenagers who are still at home, I am striving to find the balance between freedom and “the rules”. And my first child, he is doing that dance in his own life now, working it out with the world, and I’m still standing here loving him unconditionally.