Mothering Without a Map

"What I Wish Every Parent Knew:
A Space of Their Own"

May 2004

My son lolled in the bath repeating, “O-ha-na,” enjoying the feeling of the word in his mouth.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means family in Hawaiian.”

“I love ohana.”

“I love our ohana,” he said, reaching out to hug me.

Every parent savors such sweet moments with her kids. But each time I see happiness, security, and contentment well up in my children, it strikes me with new joy. For me, as a girl, the notion of ohana held mostly confusion and pain. I know from own experience that a family laughing at the kitchen table and a child’s carefree giggles are no less precious for being ordinary.

When I was 4, my mother was stricken with polio and disappeared into an iron lung, doomed to live out her last two years paralyzed from the neck down. After her death, my father left me to my grieving maternal grandparents.

Two groups of people become healthy, whole adults, said the late psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. One is those who weren’t “let down” as babies and are candidates for the full enjoyment of life. The other is those who suffered in childhood and are headed toward storm, stress, and illness but who manage to turn out well. These resilient ones are “healthy by hook or by crook.”

Given the calamitous events of my youth, my only chance for a secure adulthood became “by hook or by crook.” I’m one of the lucky one who made it to a life rich in close relationships and daily satisfactions. But I don’t romanticize suffering. The strength and resilience that can be gained are valuable, but the price is high, as it was for me. I spent my childhood and early adulthood rigid, shielding myself from pain. The messages gleaned from childhood affliction - I lose what I love; the misery of my family is my fault - weigh heavily on a life, impossible to wholly unlearn.

No parent would wish “by hook or by crook” on her child, but my powerful desire that my children grow up happier and more secure than I did puts me at risk for making life too easy, like the earnest mother in a New Yorker cartoon who sees her scrawny boy trying to lift weights and gushes, “Let me help you, dear.”

I want my children to have, as I did not, a childhood swaddled in love, support, and security, but that doesn’t mean I can - or should - shield them from suffering. My children, like all children, struggle with disappointments, setbacks, and challenges. And we see plenty of tears.

There was the Sunday afternoon four years ago, for instance, when my then 6-year-old sat down at the piano in a recital hall. Midway through his piece, he got stuck on a musical phrase he could only repeat until, finally, he put his hands in his lap, his head down, and wept. I sat in the audience watching, nearly crying myself. His teacher got up and gave his thin shoulders a hug as she helped him up from the piano bench. He came tremulously to sit in my lap, burying his face in my neck. The “rescuing mom” inside me - the one who hasn’t the emotional stamina to bear her child’s distress - wanted desperately to console him with promises that he’d never to have to play the piano again.

The rescuer in me hovers, eager to lift the dumbbells and rob my children of opportunities to tone their coping muscles. My older son broke his foot the first weekend of summer, sentencing him to hobble through camp on crutches. When we learned a cast was forthcoming, I wanted to distract us both from the pain by saying, “Forget camp. Let’s go to Disneyland, Paris!” But I didn’t, any more than I canceled the piano lessons. I know these trials are theirs to endure.

My older son watched the other children canoe, ride horses, and frolic in a wild food fight with counselors. My young one walked to the piano, terrified, at his next recital, played his piece imperfectly, and bowed. And, like his brother, he came away stronger.

Each of these episodes helps me quiet that rescuing mom. I can see this is how children are meant to earn their emotional fitness - with parents standing nearby, not taking over but loving and encouraging. Remembering my childhood misery makes me want to protect my children, but it also helps me to recognize appropriate childhood woe. I’ve come to relish the attacks of ordinary life, with its ordinary trials, and to be grateful for each moment my children spend in the embrace of our ohana, growing stronger every day.

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