When Steve and I got engaged, I knew I would have to learn quickly “how to be a parent.” Not that it’s something one can even learn efficiently, let alone swiftly, but since I would be getting two “bonus children” with my vows, I thought it best to have an idea of what to do. And, gosh, what NOT to. I bought a book on what it’s like to be a boy, how to raise them and how to love them (because all the answers will be neatly presented and organized in a book). And when we married, I felt slightly less unprepared than I had months prior, but still quite daunted and nervous about the prospect of making it all worse. But the book, and those first few years of living in Phoenix, taught me the first lesson of good parenting: get in their mess. Get in it and stay in it.
We want our kids to KNOW we’re on their team. No matter what. They need to be beyond assured that we’re not against them, we’re not trying to trip them up or prove their ignorance or teach them all we know since they’re clearly imperfect and broken and dependent on us. And how do we teach our kids that we’re on their team? By SHOWING them that we’re a good team member. We all remember those who were good team members, those friends and allies and kids who had our back, supported us, helped us when we fell, didn’t laugh or scorn or ridicule. That’s the kind of parent we want to be.
Now, since I hadn’t been a parent before, I hadn’t given this much thought. But the more I read about it, the more I found this idea refreshing and lovely and very authentic. What if I could raise kids with a confidence and assurance that would give them peace? What if I could tell them, and LIVE it with them–that I am on your team. I am your biggest fan. I think you’re amazing, talented, strong and good, and I will be in your corner, forever. What if I could raise my children to know that no matter what – no matter what kinds of mistakes you make, no matter trouble you get in, ways you get lost, painful decisions you make, I will not judge you. I will not belittle you. I will not punish you indefinitely. I will be there with you and help you and love you through it.
If I could raise humans to feel that way about their parents, that would be a huge accomplishment. It would be the ultimate “WWJD,” right? It would be the living example of “do what Jesus would, be Christ for others, love others without condition, with generous abandon.” That’s what I wanted to do. That’s how I wanted to be.
Years later, I was having lunch with a friend of mine. She’s older and wiser than me, with daughters who are about my age. One of those daughters had gotten pregnant in college–unmarried, unplanned and young. She was telling the story to me–how she and her husband were scared for their daughter, didn’t know how she would make it with a new baby, didn’t know how to help, didn’t know the best things to do, or maybe even what to say. . . you know, it was complicated and unexpected.
She said, “You know, Katie. I couldn’t think of the right thing to do, so I just got down in the mess with her and figured it out. At least I knew she’d like the company.”
And I started crying. Her overwhelming love and nonjudgemental companionship was still apparent, palpable, in that moment, years and years later. THAT is being a mother, getting “in the mess of life” with a child. Not just the cute five year old or the emotional fourteen year old. But the woman who needs help, the adult son who’s angry, your child who’s chosen a road not paved by his parents, who needs security, love and, as my friend said, “company.” How would we all feel if we had that kind of friendship, that kind of unconditional person? The kind of person who’s not just willing but wanting to get in the mess of life with us?
That is the kind of mother I’m trying to be. Gosh, that’s the kind of human I want be! I’m trying to live the “no matter what” bit. The “I don’t like what you’re doing, I don’t approve, I don’t think it’s safe/good/right/smart, but I love you, and I’m with you.”
Without judgement or guilt or criticism. Just in love and goodwill, being company for your heart.
“And if someday you’re lonely,
Or someday you’re sad,
Or you strike out at baseball
And think you’ve been bad.
Just lift up your face, feel the wind in your hair.
That’s me, my sweet baby, my love is right there.”