So, my exhausted attempts at teaching my daughters responsibility and gratitude this summer have officially failed (for now, at least). They have broken ‘the contract.’ Despite their (written) promise to “be more patient and positive, and less arrogant,” our five days by the spectacular Adriatic coast were dominated by petty fights over who gets the towel and who sleeps where. When I accompanied them to the Zagreb airport from where they were catching their first flight alone back to Montréal, I was fighting back tears. I’ll admit that I was somewhat relieved to see them go, but I was also heart-broken. I had worked so hard to make this trip happen. My mind went back to the day I had put in nine hours of painting without a break, when the only thing that kept me going was the thought of the trip we were going to take together and the memories we were going to make. I felt unappreciated, and worse – a total failure as a parent. How could I have raised such spoiled brats? Spoiled brats I loved more than anything in this world.
True, I could be too sensitive. I grew up with so little and my disappointment in my daughters stems from the lack (and envy) of all the advantages that they are enjoying, and seem to be taking for granted. Raised by Baby Boomers with post World War II trauma that was exacerbated by a Communist repression, my parents were not big on showing emotions and ‘nurturing’ – a word, I suspect, that was completely foreign to them. In their eyes, I was lucky to be alive and it was perfectly fair to expect that I should be able to raise myself without much help from them. They were busy people and had already given me more than what their parents had ever given them. My brother and I were often left alone at home, we cooked our own meals, cleaned, and did our homework (and on one memorable night, we bonded over fighting cockroaches). Then at the age of twelve we were sent to a kibbutz and that was that. My childhood scars are too numerous to list here, but they are far from unique. Friends of the same generation, Generation X, tell similar stories of neglect that sound almost identical, withstanding their geographic location. It appears that we were the generation that was expected to raise itself, but also (or, therefore) the generation that was adamant to become better parents. Hell, if I was going to abandon my children, neglect their emotional needs and tax them with my financial struggles. I wanted to be an exemplary parent who would be forever present, available and selfless – the parent I wished I had when I was a young child and needed it the most.
This over-nurturing, sometimes to the point of self-sacrificing martyrdom (popularly known as ‘helicopter parenting’), however, presents a different kind of danger. Father of analytical psychology Carl Jung warned us that nothing has a stronger influence on children than the unlived life of a parent. The pain of this unlived life can potentially present resentment in the parent, and not a small amount of guilt in the child who has replaced this ‘unlived life’ by no fault (and choice!) of their own. On this other extreme spectrum, both the parent and the child stand much to lose, with different consequences (and traumas) to what a child turned parent who had suffered neglect. In my four years at university as a mature student I witnessed the alarming trend amongst some (not all!) young students who arrived regularly late to class and took no interest in the subject (unless it was going to be on the exam), but expected top grades without any input. Once, a nineteen-year-old student told me without any qualm that she was going to have her mother call in and reprimand her professor. I was so horrified by this attitude of entitlement that I vowed to nip in the bud anything that resembled it in the slightest with my own daughters.
You might be starting to get the picture. Yo-yoing between my dedication to love, nurture and support my daughters’ individualism on the one hand, and setting healthy boundaries on the other – I struggle to strike the right balance between compassion and understanding to guiding and educating, without falling into the trap of performing either to the detrimental extreme. To educate, or to nurture? That is the (impossible) question.
I am a loyal disciple of Gábor Maté’s ‘compassionate inquiry’ and Dr. Shefali’s ‘conscious parenting,’ but I also believe that there is something incredibly disrespectful (not to mention, humiliating!) about chasing your own teens with sunscreen, prepared lunches, begging them to come to the table where a nice meal is waiting for them, and reminding them to keep their room reasonably tidy, or worse – doing everything for them. How else can they learn about responsibility if we take away the most basic expectations from them, like making their own beds, cleaning their own thermoses / lunchboxes, washing their own dishes and maybe putting their laundry away? What lessons are our kids to learn about co-habitation and co-operation? Is it any wonder then that they go out into the world expecting that it would continue to hand them favours with no effort on their part? Are we doing them any favours? Are we preparing them optimally to be able to navigate life’s various challenges and thrive in a world that can sometimes be cruel and unforgiving?
What I wish for my daughters is to be strong, independent and capable adults who are treating others with respect and compassion. In other words, I want the best of both worlds: responsibility with the freedom to be who they are meant to be.
Reflecting with some distance on our Croatian holiday it is easier to put things in perspective. With raging teenage hormones, PMS, period cramps, being out of their natural environment in scorching 35’c – 37’c, is it any wonder that my teenage daughters were having a hard time appreciating the beauty of the Adriatic coast?
At this developmental stage in their lives our teenage offspring are designed by nature to be selfish and think only of themselves. In Hebrew these challenging years are called ‘the years of stupidity.’ It is not a derogatory term, but quite the opposite; it is meant to illicit compassion in us adults who have already gone through our own stupid years, conveniently forgetting how stupid we once were (and sometimes/often continue to be).
Does it mean that we have to sit back and accept our teenagers acting rude, entitled and sometimes ridiculous? I believe not. It is an admirable attempt to try and draw their attention to the limpid waters of the Adriatic Sea – even if this attempt fails. And to insist on basic manners and respecting others is a must. And then… we shall take a deep breath and have compassion. ‘The years of stupidity,’ we have to remind ourselves. We’ve all been there. This too shall pass.
As I watch my daughters disappear behind the departure gates and grab a cup of over-priced cappuccino at the airport, I allow myself to sob. This is how I release my tension. It’s been so, so hard, but at the same time, there is much to be grateful for. I reach for my writing book in my bag and begin to make a list.
Moments of gratitude:
- Dunja coming to fetch us from the bus stop with keys to Danira’s apartment and a box of cookies.
- Marina running after the bus driver, handing him the mobile phone that Eliane had forgotten at the beach house.
- My friendship with Danira! Twenty-five years after ‘Courage Workshop for Big Emotions’ and here we are, post cancer, post divorce – still there for each other.
- The breathtaking Adriatic Coast and the clearest sea.
- The sun.
My heart softens, and I continue.
- Celeste talking to me about her boyfriend.
- Celeste leaning on me at the Holocoust museum in Budapest, telling me that the most touching part for her was to watch my discomfort and teary eyes in reaction to the horrors.
- Eliane coming to my bed for a spontaneous chat.
- Eliane and I swimming to the ‘border’ and her wild stories about vengeful sirens.
- Celeste telling me “Mum, I love you. You are the best mother in the world” first thing in the morning.
- Celeste’s spontaneous hugs and kisses.
- Eliane educating me on the best skin care routine.
- Celeste telling me that I am ‘so beautiful’ when my hair is unbrushed and I feel like a lump.
I write for another hour and quickly realize: We have made some good memories together. But we didn’t need an expensive vacation to do that. These are the same moments of wonder we live every day, back in Montreal. My daughters are definitely flawed and sometimes act a little stupid, but they do all right. They are also happen to be my greatest teachers. Parenthood is hard (to put it mildly), but it is also the most gratifying thing I have ever done. The most important lessons on life (patience, gratitude, responsibility, truth, adversity…) I have learned not from yogic scriptures, but from my challenging interactions with my daughters. I keep on learning. I keep on getting it wrong, keep on trying to do better, and sometimes, I even succeed.
I have read somewhere that by the age of twelve, children have spent about 75% of their time with us parents, and by the age of eighteen it goes up to 95%. I am acutely aware of the time passing and try to hold on to these precious moments with gratitude. I can only hope that years from now when my daughters look back on this vacation, they will not remember the fight over the towels and beds, but us swimming in the sea together, laughing about something stupid or other, the fresh coffee and kakaós csiga waiting for them in the morning, and their annoying mother begging them for a photo to capture the moment. Oh, these years of stupidity… they too shall pass.