As a married twenty-something who is thinking about children one day, I find myself thinking a lot about my own parents, and how their lives have affected me. Much as a student realizes their teachers aren’t simply robots that are plugged in in the boiler room at the end of each lesson, I realized my parents were real people a very long time ago. It began with me being used as their sounding board for their marriage when I was still six or seven, and snowballed from there. To give you a brief idea of it, I was told so many times before the age of ten that my parents were considering divorce I actually cheered them on. They’re still married, by the way, but I still have moments of wondering why the hell they bother.
Being an only child, I was raised as an adult. I was privy to adult conversations – not least awkward about my parents’ sex lives pre and post marriage – and was treated as a confidant rather than a dependant. On the one hand, I respect this mode parenting, but on the other, I know I have a good number of hangups from it. The biggest one, and the main topic of this particular blog post, is the regrets my parents have discussed with me surrounding their lives – and effectively, my life.
The biggest regrets they discussed with me are that 1) I was an accident and 2) I was supposed to have a brother. I know in far too much detail how the former happened, but the latter one I’m not so sure about. I do know that both these things make it seem oftentimes that I’m inadequate. The first makes me feel like a burden, and the second? Instead of talking to me about me – the child they do have – I heard about how sorry my mother was that she didn’t provide me with a sibling. I feel a sense of their happiness being up to me, because they have no one else to provide it for them. This feeling is leftover from my childhood, when it was an overwhelming sense of obligation to right all the wrongs in their lives. Happily, I was able to provide my dad with the son he’s always wanted, but I’m loathe to provide my mother with another baby to raise: it’s not my job to play surrogate to my mother’s irrational guilt and unfulfilled dreams, no matter how much she insists that it is.
The other regrets that weigh heavily on me are the unfulfilled dreams which I’ve spent years trying to make up for. Both my parents had some kind of dream when they were my age, but either I got in the way by being a financial burden – certainly an il-timed expense – or by not being quite enough to fulfil those dreams. From businesses dad wanted to open, to the family mom wanted to have, I could never quite make up for all the things they missed out on because they ended up having me.
All these regrets wouldn’t be such a big deal if I didn’t hear about them. Now that I’m older, the precedent is set already that I feel I need to make up for everything because as a kid, you want to make your parents happy. If you can’t, you’re a failure, and I’ve carried that around with me for years. The most startling example of this is my mother’s insistence that I could stop my dad from smoking as a little girl. She’d ask me every day to ask him to stop for me, and when it didn’t work, she insisted I wasn’t trying hard enough. That’s a lot of pressure for a seven-year-old, especially when you’re told that smoking will kill the smoker. I was, in my little girl logic, responsible for the slow death of my father – all because either he didn’t love me enough to quit for me, or I wasn’t trying hard enough to make him quit. Not exactly a positive message to send to a young child that worships her daddy.
It’s important to be open with children about the ways of the world, but don’t assume they understand all the nuances you’re throwing at them. Children aren’t adults, though you’re hopefully raising them to be good ones one day, and their understanding of the world is very limited. Like a one-hour drive is an eternity to a little kid, their scope and understanding of guilt is not as complex as perhaps we wish it would be. As such, be careful what you emphasize around your kids, and what you share with them too early. Don’t molly coddle them, but also don’t frequently remind them they weren’t supposed to exist except for a mis-counted ovulation cycle, and definitely don’t tell them repeatedly how hard it was to afford them because of a recession they had no hand in. Enter into frank discussions with them, sure – but know that they’re limited, and they’re often biased – as their parents you are the all-knowing Mummy or Daddy. If you say something is true, they’ll believe you, and if you imply that something is their fault, that guilt might just follow them for more than you’d expect.