Unmaking Mistakes

by cbcabeen on June 18, 2011

My mom used to ask what mistakes she’d made as a parent.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I thought her biggest mistake was not insisting that I drive a car regularly in highschool. I’d taken drivers ed at 17 and got my license based on a written test, but I didn’t really learn how to drive until I moved to California for grad school. It was stressful! I was embarrassed! And I wished I’d already gotten it over with. My mom looked back at the ridiculous amounts of time she’d spent chauffeuring teenaged me and agreed: it was a mistake.

I was overlooking the fact that driving had been even more stressful for me in highschool than it was in grad school, and that the alternative had been more pleasant. I liked talking with my mom in the car, and we developed similar tastes in music. Now at 32, I can drive most places comfortably, and the other ones I can navigate uncomfortably if I have to. I don’t care anymore when I learned to drive, but I’m very glad that I spent those hours in the car with my mom. Hopefully she’d feel the same.

You can repeat this same story for pretty much everything I’ve struggled with. I trace serious problems back into my past and see mistakes. Then I struggle forward anyway. Things change in the present, and suddenly the past looks different, too.

If my mom asked me today, I’d tell her that the biggest thing she got wrong was teaching me to get positive attention by being good and quiet and hoping someone notices. Great way to manage a family or an elementary school class, horrible way to manage a life.

Most recently this pattern has been coming up in my relationship with Ted, because there are a lot of times when one or both of us are too busy to connect as well as we’d like. I get disappointed when I don’t get Ted time, and my gut reaction is to disengage quietly and try to be good by, like, sweeping the floors or reading Rebecca a story. And then maybe later griping about why he’s left the sheets on the floor or why I’m the one getting Rebecca dressed in the morning. I’m implying that I’m working very hard and that he’s making my life more difficult, so he needs to make it up to me. The griping isn’t really about the parenting or housework, though. I’m trying to establish how good and heroic I am. To feel less invisible.

Now, quietly aiming for excellence can be a functional way to deal with being blown off, but it’s not helpful in my relationship with Ted. It does no good to suggest that he’s not working hard enough when what I actually want is for him to be less stressed and spend more time relaxing with me. The other problem is, when I react to being blown off by plunging into my own work, Ted may not see that I’m withdrawing from our relationship–which is information he needs–or he may feel like he can’t interrupt me when he does want to reconnect. So I’m trying to change my reaction away from the good-and-quiet pattern and to check in with him instead.

Am I heroically fighting the legacy of my mom’s parenting mistakes?

Maybe.  But I realized recently that I had a more positive elementary school experience than a lot of my friends, and I’m not sure I’d trade it for an easier time now. Instead of being bored in class, I was proud of myself for sitting quietly and not making trouble, and I enjoyed daydreaming. See, my siblings and I are the contemplative type. My sister meditates. My brother enjoys staring at the seat in front of him during airplane flights. I like that about us.

I suspect that my family’s contemplative nature is the flipside of the “be good and quiet” strategy, and that the same parenting practices helped to cultivate both.  First, consider the languid pace of our attention.  Based on my own parenting instincts–echoes of how I was raised–I suspect that my mom let us take the lead in most of our activities and tried not to interrupt our interest or push us excitedly toward the next thing. This is good parenting, as far as I’m concerned; it nurtures curiosity and helps a kid learn to immerse in whatever she’s doing. It takes parental patience, but fortunately my mom was patient–and I am, too, maybe because of her.  It seems to have had functional results:  When I was little, my mom was proud that I could entertain myself while she mowed the lawn.

This self-pacing at home was balanced by running a lot of errands with my mom. The errands were companionable times that were basically at her pace, and included a lot of waiting at banks, shopping for things I wasn’t interested in, picking up and dropping off my siblings from preschool or friends’ houses, and so on. My mom noticed and talked about how good I was there. Maybe my thoughtful temperament was innate, but her pleasure turned it into a strategy for interacting with others.

One reason not to blame my mom here is that it would have been difficult in practice for her to raise us any other way, given social expectations about children’s public behavior and given that my mom was doing all of the childrearing by herself.  Cultivating well-behaved children was important for her sanity.

However, being good and quiet wasn’t the only strategy for getting my mom’s attention, and it’s only partly her fault that it’s causing me problems now. If I ultimately relied on the good-and-quiet strategy more heavily than I should’ve, it’s because my innate shyness (or is it poor socialization?) made that approach particular appealing. It’s also because my elementary school teachers relied heavily on it–maybe especially for girls?–and because I had the skills to pull it off. Given the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that I used my nascent contemplative talents to become a virtuoso at sitting quietly and thinking.

So I learned some values as a kid that proved maladaptive as an adult–things like self-effacement and excessive self-control–but that doesn’t mean that they were horrible ideas at the time. It means that my circumstances have changed, and that the best way to live has changed with them.  I can be proud of who I was in the past, without having to be that person in the present.

In the end, I don’t worry much about making mistakes with Rebecca. What will count as mistaken rests on Rebecca’s future desires and circumstances more than her current ones. I can’t predict those, not accurately enough to sacrifice today to them.   But I can try to live in ways that seem good and right, right now.  If in another twenty years, my daughter’s digesting that in therapy or consciousness-raising groups, where’s the horror there? We all raise our children with the hope that they’ll grow into fruitful work, and working on oneself is a species of that.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

blue milk June 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Fascinating post. I don’t know where to start, you’ve raised so many interesting points here.

cbcabeen June 27, 2011 at 8:02 am

Thanks. I do have a habit of putting too much in one post–still figuring out this blog thing.

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