Monday, February 7, 2011

It's Only Fair

It's 10:30pm, and it has been one heck of a day. You did not get nearly enough sleep last night, and work was just draining. The entire day was taken up with helping other people fulfill their needs -a customer who needed a gentle hand, an employee who needed help with a problem, a boss who needed his ego massaged, and so on. But after that is done, you get to come home to your refuge, a place where you can escape the alternating stress and drudgery of the working world and sit back for a while and have your own needs met. And what do you come home to? A spouse who needs a break, a house that needs to be cleaned, meals that need to be prepared, and kids who either need you to engage 100% from the second you walk in the door or want nothing at all to do with you until you've made them some food. So you grumble . . . and you get the things done that need to get done. But there is no sense of gratitude, no evidence of any appreciation for the day you had or the sacrifices you made, no "please" or "thank you" - just a sense that your family feels that they are entitled to sit back and let you serve them with no thought for you or your needs.

Sound familiar? That is not my life . . . well, at least not exactly. But I can remember a time when I was stuck in a sense of what I got out of parenting, focused on what was "in it for me." I needed to cook and clean . . . I needed to play "on demand" . . . I needed to get them a glass of hot cocoa or a waffle at 2:00am, and then I needed to clean it up. But when was it my turn? When do I get to have something for me? When do we get to the point where my kids are grateful for what I do for them each day, where they thank me for it and begin to take some responsibility for their own well-being? Isn't that only fair? I sacrifice so much, give so much of my time and heart, and I deserve to be listened to, obeyed, and thanked for those sacrifices. It is only fair.

Or is it?


I believe that the degree to which we enjoy life depends less on what we experience than how we choose to experience it. Bad things happen, of course, and some of those things present obstacles in our paths to enjoyment that can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. But in the main, we choose how to frame our experiences, how to view the events that happen to us in ways that can bring us joy or or bring us pain. Parenting is no different.

When I became a parent, I had a vision of how it would all turn out. I just knew that if we could stick to a well-designed plan in terms of how we parented and how we lived our lives, that each day would just get better and better and our kids would be raised to be, well, perfect adults. Of course, the only way that would work is if my children listened to me, if they allowed me to set the course and ensure that they stuck to it. If they refused, well, that's where things got a bit hazy. But they wouldn't refuse, I thought, because that's not how parenting works - they would follow my deeds and words because that's simply what kids did.

As time went on - and once I actually became a parent as opposed to just talking about it - things changed quite a bit. Parenting is not about a consistent, upward trajectory in terms of anything - their development, your development, or anything else. It is not about obeying or controlling. But it is about trusting, loving, comforting, supporting, communicating, and being available always and in all ways, unconditionally and without expectations of reciprocity. But oh, how hard that can be - especially if we lack perspective.

As a parent - as an adult - as a human being- we have a tremendous amount of choice about whether we chose to frame things as good or bad. I'm not talking about minute to minute, Law of Attraction stuff, where we stay in the moment and treat every circumstance with a ray of sunshine and a bandoleer full of puppy dog tails. No, in those moments we are often powerless to have the perfect frame of mind and the perfect response, and even though we strive for better we still have bad moments, and sometimes bad days. But we do have choice over the long haul about how we approach interacting with our children. We can view our children as children, trying to navigate through the world and through their own emotions, rather than as mini-adults who should be hitting milestones on time and in form. We can view difficult challenges as necessary steps toward growth, rather than as good or bad. And we can view our own roles as supporters and facilitators, rather than focus on whether or not our children are behaving in ways that meet our own needs and that account for our desires to be treated fairly, the way we deserve.

I have a tremendous amount of latitude to determine how I define what is and is not fair for me as a parent. If I think of fairness in traditional terms - my expectations of how I should be treated with a quid pro quo level of respect, based on my sacrifices - then I have set my children up with the impossible challenge of having to meet my own expectations of what I feel like I deserve. This is such a huge trap, that so many parents fall into. But the truth is that when you feel like your sacrifices are sacrifices, as opposed to blessings of your time and energy that you have been able to gift to your children, you tend to feel entitled to some measure of respect. I have said this before and I will say it again: As a parent, you are entitled to nothing but a tax deduction and your name on a birth certificate. The rest you have to earn, even though it may never take the form you feel that you feel you deserve.

If you can get to a place with no expectations of how your kids should worship you because of all you do for them, you can get to a place where you actually see how fair your life really is. Maybe they don't help you clean, or maybe they don't seem that grateful when you make their favorite dinner or save money to buy them a special treat. But maybe they are repaying you in other ways by providing you with opportunities that you - and they - probably don't even recognize. Before you think that they are not being fair, think about these gifts that you do receive:

  • Is it not fair that you get to spend time with your children?
  • Is it not fair that you get to comfort them when they are sad or afraid?
  • Is it not fair that you get to watch them learn and grow, sometimes try and fail, before your very eyes?
  • Is it not fair that you get to share activities, moments, glances, and words with them?
  • Is it not fair that they trust you enough to be emotional around you, even when that emotion puts them at their most ugly and vulnerable?
  • Is it not fair that your children trust you to provide a safety net and a supportive atmosphere for their thoughts and dreams?
  • Is it not fair that they let you - want you to - play with them, to show you things that they are interested in?
  • Is it not fair that they are able to show you or tell you when they would rather have some distance?
Parenting is not a contest, and it is not a game. There are few rules, and there is no scorecard. If you define it so narrowly, with a myopic focus on extracting as much (or more) as you put in, you will never be satisfied and your kids will feel like they have failed you. But if you can focus on the gifts that you do receive, you can see how - no matter what you do and how much you give - you will always get far more out of it than you ever dreamed possible. That sounds like a pretty fair deal to me.

5 comments:

  1. This is a lovely piece - as per usual. When I got to your bulleted list of, "Is it not fair..." I started crying.

    Thank you so much for the reminders.

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  2. Lovely. And a nice reminder.

    Thanks, I needed that.

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  3. Wait! I do think I should be treated with respect and have my needs met.

    And I also think others should be treated with respect and have their needs met.

    It doesn't have to be one or the other, at the other person's expense. People have needs (even adults! it's ok!), and they should identify and communicate those needs and then work together to find solutions acceptable to everyone, not just "re-frame" and allow their needs to go unmet. People who don't get their needs met feel resentful, uncooperative and angry.

    I can read between the lines of your post because I've read a lot about unschooling and parenting (gentle, positive, attached, or whatever it's called these days) so I think I know what you're going for here and I read your good intentions. But I wanted to comment because a person without this background very well may read this as "You're feeling bad? Your needs aren't being met? Too bad! You shouldn't expect anything from your family and you should just tell yourself that you're happy even though you don't feel it. You wouldn't rather they vanished off the face of the earth, would you? So, you'd better be grateful for what you have and forget about getting any of your needs met."

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  4. Hi Jen -

    I'm going to violate my own rule and actually reply to a comment :-)

    First of all, thanks for reading and taking the time to write. I can definitely see your point, especially what you wrote in the last paragraph - it is possible that what I wrote could be interpreted exactly as you said.

    In one respect, that was not my intention. The needs of the parent are important, and I do feel like it is possible to get to a place where everyone's needs are met, at least some of the time. And I think it is wise to strive to reach that place.

    That said, what I was trying to convey (perhaps not clearly enough) is simply this: parents would, in the main, be happier if they recognized all of the things they do gain (even from trying situations that seem one-sided) instead of focusing on what they do not. Thoughts like "fair" and "unfair" are absolutes, and I'm not sure that anything is absolute when it comes to parenting, except love. If the parents can be happier, then the kids stand a better chance of that, too.

    Not to be apologetic, but I write from a stream-of-consciousness perspective, and rarely pause to think about the point I am trying to convey or how it will be interpreted; I write what i write because something inside me is questioning or exploring a new idea. I may try to give the audience and their possible interpretations more thought in the future.

    Thanks again -

    J

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  5. I so appreciate this post and the reflection it forces with in me. I know as a parent myself when the resentment begins to bubble to the surface, whether it be toward my children or my husband it is time to go with in and heal/sleep/recharge/refocus/renegotiate etc.

    Cause truly no one wants me to serve them dinner on a plate of resentment, probably they'd rather go hungry!

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