Last Sunday, Keara saw a personalized license plate and said with a smirk on her face, “You know mom, Mother’s Day is coming up. What if we got you a plate that said COOLMOM. Would you use it?”
Now, lest you think my daughter actually believes I’m cool, she doesn’t. It’s our little inside joke. We recently saw a play together where a “cool mom” showed up. In the first act, a tour group leader was taking attendance. When he called out, “Mom,” a dorky, fanny pack-wearing woman stepped out of line, threw her thumbs up like Arthur Fonzarelli, gave a couple serious hip-thrusts and said, “I’m not a mom; I’m a cool mom.” I almost died laughing, as my kids rolled their eyes and looked at me. Like the woman on stage, I’ve been known to rock a fanny pack on occasion. It’s cutting edge fashion.
But in all seriousness, I think I’m a middle-of-the-road cool mom. It’s not like my kids particularly want to hang out with me, or introduce me to all their friends, but they don’t avoid me either. I am good for all the typical mom things, plus I surf and keep a stash of candy in my car. Those are bonuses to be sure, but I also dance and sing in front of their friends too often.
This week however, I got a new label at a book club meeting. Many of the parents were sharing stories about how stressed out their teens were and how hard they have to work to keep their grades up. I share their pain, or I did until one dad complained that he didn’t know how his daughter got anything done between Twitter on her IPhone and The Kardashians on TV. On impulse, I shared our strategies and then, I wished I hadn’t. For Keara, there is no TV during the week; all tech gets checked in at 10pm, phones and computers included and if a grade falls below the agreed-on standard, there’s no Itouch, or laptop until it comes back up. Keara might not like the rules, but she gets them. She knows tech is the distraction. It keeps her from sleeping, studying, and socializing with real human beings. We don’t look at it as a punishment. We look at it as a way of helping her manage her responsibilities. When she is managing fine, she has all the freedom in the world. When she isn’t, we help her out. For my contribution to the conversation, I got labeled, “The Mean Mom” by the host, and I’m not sure she meant it in a good way.
How funny is that? I am the “Cool Mom” to my kids and the “Mean Mom” to my peers.
Just last night, at a school open house, a dad made a comment about his 16-year-old son who is really giving him a hard time and rolled his eyes towards K, assuming we were in the same boat. I told him we were doing pretty well actually.
He looked almost disappointed. “Do you want to trade with me?” he asked.
“Naw,” I shrugged. “We’re good.” And I woke up this morning thinking about why that is.
I think it’s about balance. My friend at book club might be a little too lenient. She didn’t have the stomach for a fight with her precious little girl, so she had let her run her own program. But other parents are too tough, too fixated on their own point view. On book club night, a dad and I were talking about our girls. When he heard that Keara was interested in music, art and fashion design, he said, “My daughter wants to go into fashion too.” I thought we were about to bond on the best schools and internships we’d found, but he followed it up with, “but she’s going to engineering school.”
Oh. Well, that’s another way to go with your child’s dreams.
We’ve all heard that perfect love drives out all fear, so I am guessing that most of us love our children very imperfectly. It seems to me that we parent out of fear most of the time. We fear they won’t love us if we disappoint, or discipline them, so we let them spin out of control and run roughshod over us. But forcing our own agenda and point of view on our maturing kids is simply another fear-based method. We fear for their future and what other people will think of us if our kids don’t meet a certain standard of success, so we ram our plans down their throats. I’ve parented out of fear most of my life, in both extremes.
When the kids were small, I was the softy, which was tough on my relationship with Tim, but when Keara hit the teenage years, I became hard as nails, which was destroying my relationship with her. Thankfully, I got some good advice last spring that saved us all.
While on retreat in Santa Barbara, the director asked us to bring to mind a painful relationship in our lives and I thought of Keara and all the ways she was driving me crazy. I could find fault with virtually everything she did and didn’t do and I felt totally justified in my hardness, because I was just trying to make her better. As her mom, it was my job to help her grow up “right.”
I don’t know what I expected the director to say next, but it wasn’t what I heard. She asked us to close our eyes and consider a simple series of questions: “How does this person see me? Who do this person think I am? Who am I in this person’s eyes?” She asked us to drop our defenses and see those answers as truthfully as we could. In that moment, I broke down and cried, because I was horrified at what I saw. Through Keara’s eyes, I saw judgment and criticism. I saw pursed lips and raised eyebrows. I saw a mama on a warpath, who said “I love you” with her mouth, but almost never with her eyes. And I saw our future relationship and it hardly existed at all. When given a choice, do we ever willingly spend time with someone who treats our hopes and dreams, talents and beliefs with so little respect, or appreciation? I came home from that weekend and apologized for parenting her out of fear, instead of love.
As her mother today, I want most of the same things for her I wanted a year ago. I want her to be healthy and well. I want her to be good. I want her to have self-discipline and drive. I want her to succeed in whatever she is passionate about. But more than anything, I want her to be loved. I want her to know she is beloved of me, of her father, of God. If she doesn’t know that, then she doesn’t stand a chance in this world. That is the one thing I could never fully communicate to her when I was afraid.
Fear made me want to “perfect” her. Love reminds me that she is already perfect.
One of the hardest things about parenting is coming to understand that Loving our kids doesn’t always mean what we think it does. When they are small, Love means protecting them because they are vulnerable, but as they grow, Love means being vulnerable ourselves. It means dropping our defenses and agendas. It means admitting when we are wrong. It means trusting in their budding self-awareness and helping them to become the best they can be, (which might not line up with who we’d like them to be). At the risk of sounding like a cliche, love means letting go, but we can’t do it if we are afraid. We can only do it if we are in Love.
People can think of me as a cool mom, or a mean mom, but the one thing I want to be is a fearless one.