I didn’t have kids until I was 35. I didn’t even think about having kids until I was about 33; I guess I was too busy thinking about how to save the world. Or something.
When I was pregnant with our first child, I was a little concerned that I didn’t feel any “maternal instinct.” I told my mother about this. Turns out she didn’t feel any maternal instinct either – until she had my older sister. And then it somehow “kicked in” – as it did with me too.
Not that it was smooth sailing all the time, even with the winds of all that maternal instinct. Or paternal instinct, if there is such a thing, for my husband Barry. He was so in-the-clouds at the birth of our first child that he was halfway home from the hospital before he realized he’d forgotten our newborn daughter and me. Happily, he turned the car around and went back to get us.
It is sort of head-spinning to realize that you have another human life in your hands – and, at first, a very helpless life indeed. I’ve watched videos of other animals being born – a foal dropping out of a mother horse, for example, wobbling around for a bit, and then walking off on spindly legs. I’m always amazed at how relatively independent those newborns are. Not only couldn’t our newborn daughter “walk off,” she couldn’t turn her head from one side to the other, while sleeping on her stomach, without our help.
The whole enterprise of parenting might be thought of as a decades-long “helping.” We create these new little people, and then we help them grow into adults who can (hopefully) function in society and (hopefully) enjoy their lives in the process.
As with life in general, some of this is within our control, but much of it is not. There are, of course, all sorts of physical and mental conditions that a child can be born with or develop that present enormous challenges—from the freak accident that leaves a toddler severely brain-damaged to the baby born with a rare chromosomal abnormality that severely limits function, in addition to the many more common medical and psychological conditions that can befall people. I am endlessly in awe of the parents I know who have heroically risen to truly serious challenges.
I am also aware that successfully rising to such challenges requires not only the inner resources to cope but also the financial resources to get the medical and other help that can make all the difference – and that many people don’t have those resources. This quickly gets into a philosophical/ideological discussion of what kind of society we are (in the United States) and what kind of society I wish we were – which I’ve discussed elsewhere (see here) and will bypass in this essay.
Barry and I were very lucky; our children, both of whom are now grown, were born without any serious medical or other issues and have so far not acquired any. And except for the first 10 months or so of their lives (during which they each wanted to be held non-stop), they were easy children. I like to think that we were good parents, but we weren’t really challenged; basically, we didn’t spoil a good thing.
But even raising easy children is quite a challenge – particularly because you care so much about them. You want them to turn out well – to be happy, caring, empathetic people with good values and the skills and wherewithal to navigate life on their own as adults. Always in the back of your mind you’re wondering, “Am I doing this right?” Volumes have been written on what “right” is in this context – and, of course, these volumes don’t always agree with each other. In the end, we’re left to our own judgment and instincts.
And role models – those can be really helpful, if you have good ones handy. Even bad ones can be useful as a reminder of how not to be with one’s children. But not everyone will agree about what a good (or bad) role model is. Some people prize teaching their children to be “well behaved” – obedient and respectful of their elders – and that’s what their own parents valued. Other people prize teaching their children to feel empowered, to feel that their voices also matter. Studies have shown that parenting style – and this difference in particular – is associated with socioeconomic class.
My instincts told me to engage my children, to talk to them even before they could say anything in response (to say nothing of the fact that this approach was more engaging for me too). When my daughter was a baby, I often had her on my hip as I cooked, “narrating” what I was doing as I went along. (“Now mommy is sautéing the onions. See how I stir them around?”) Julia was spellbound – and what do you know! She now loves to cook! And she’s very verbal.
But all that “conversation” can be exhausting. By the time our son Jesse came along, I was starting to feel a little “talked out.” And “played out” – if I played one more game of Candy Land, I thought I was going to lose it. Luckily, Jesse wasn’t really so interested in playing the game as he was in having the pieces “talk” to each other and “make friends.” (And they say girls are more interested in relationships than boys. Ha!)
Which brings up one of my favorite things about having small children – they are little bundles of whimsy. They love to play, and they love to pretend. My own kids drew out of me a whimsical streak I didn’t even know I had. So many ways to have fun!
There was “finger person,” who consisted of the pointer finger and middle finger on my right hand, and who walked along the side of the bathtub while toddler Jesse took his bath. Sometimes finger person would “accidentally” slip and fall into the bathtub. But luckily Jesse was there in the knick of time with his little hand as a raft that finger person could climb up on so he wouldn’t drown – a rescue for which finger person always thanked Jesse profusely in his very high-pitched voice.
And there was the mother duck and baby ducklings game, wherein the baby ducklings would follow wherever the mother duck would go. We sometimes played this game out in department stores. Wherever I walked, ducklings Julia and Jesse would follow – even if I walked around in a circle (which I often did).
And then there were the many “conversations” that Julia and, later, Jesse had with various inanimate objects they encountered in their daily lives – like one particular tree that stood along the entranceway to the Washington Beltway that we took after I picked Jesse up from pre-school in Bethesda. It always asked Jesse how his day was (in a very high-pitched voice), and Jesse always happily told it. Or the food on Jesse’s plate at dinner, which often said, “Eat me!” in a very high-pitched voice. (Do you detect a vocal pattern?)
Jesse’s food often had to request to be eaten because Jesse was a very picky eater when he was a child – a trait I believe he inherited from me. I was actually scared of many foods when I was young – foods I’d never tasted, that I would not let pass into the sanctity of my mouth, I was so sure they would offend my taste buds. And Jesse was the same way. It was frustrating to me as his mom, since I was sure he would like the food I was offering if only he would just taste it. But he wouldn’t. I could see the fear in his little face; and I recognized it from my own childhood fear. Actually, that recognition helped me deal with the problem and not force the issue.
And food is just one of many potential “issues.” Attitudes about food take their proud place in the pantheon of “issues” that parents can find themselves wrestling with as their children wrestle with them – along with attitudes, for example, about school, about work, about achievement, about other children, about their own bodies, about “fitting in,” about mattering.
It’s tempting to think of parenting as “fashioning” a person the way a sculptor fashions a great sculpture, but it’s probably a mistake to do that – partly because we simply don’t have the degree of control that a sculptor has. But perhaps more importantly, because we really can’t “get it just right” – because there isn’t any one “just right” way to be.
But while there may not be any “getting it just right,” there is one way to get it spectacularly wrong. Parents who don’t love their kids, and whose kids grow up knowing it, get it spectacularly wrong. I’ve sometimes wondered whether some of society’s sociopaths had been children who were truly unloved.
I suspect that, whatever their failings, however, most parents do love their children – that parental love is “hardwired” in us, and so it’s naturally there unless something has gone terribly wrong to “damage the wiring.” It’s certainly there in me, even though I didn’t know it until I actually had my first child. And it’s deep. I think most parents would give their lives for their children if it came to that. I certainly would. Even during their teen years.
Which can be trying. Barry has an evolutionary theory about the teen years. (I should note that all of Barry’s theories start out the same: “Once there were two tribes …”) It’s a little long, but absolutely worth it – so take it away, Barry …
“Once there were two tribes. In one tribe, the maturing young loved their parents dearly and completely, and never stopped loving them. ‘Mom,’ they’d say, “when I am a full-grown Homo Habilus, I want to settle my family right next to your cave!’
‘Oh, my dear, I can think of nothing more wonderful!’
‘Yes, and I’ll forage in the same woodlands, and gather from the same berry-bushes as you!’
‘Be still my heart! And will you hunt in the same glades as your dear father? And spear fish from the same brooks?’
‘Yes! And I will raise my loving offspring to do the same!’
‘Bless the Great Spirit!’
But in the other tribe, a random mutation had caused a subtle change in the mindset of the adolescents. An unexpected reaction to their hormonal development caused a different scenario to play out.
‘Oh, for the love of Pete, Mom! I’ve had it with you!’ the previously loving child would be all like. ‘I’m sick to death of you!’
‘Well, you’re no picnic to have around yourself. You can just take a hike until you cool your jets!’
‘Arrggh!! I cannot wait ‘til I find a mate and establish my own clade – as far away from you as I can!’
‘Well, that’d sure suit me and Dad, kiddo!’
So the first tribe stuck cozily together, and hunted out the woods, and fished out the brooks, and exhausted the berry bushes and the firewood groves. And slowly and lovingly they dwindled away. You see where this is going, right? Because the second tribe, at first merely a rare and fractious anomaly, spread ridge by vale by ridge into newer and vaster horizons, crawling with food to be hunted and gathered. Steadily – if cantankerously – they throve and burgeoned. Carrying with them that critical, centrifugal gene for mutual intergenerational antagonism, they spread across the continents. And they, my friends, turned out to be us.”
Our kids did indeed move away, but not because they hated us, but for jobs in other locations. I miss them terribly. The high points of my year are when we get together for the holidays and when Barry and I go visit them where they live. I think this isn’t just my maternal instinct on overdrive; I think it’s because I just like who my kids are turning out to be as adults. I enjoy their company.
My kids are now 31 and 28 years old, and, as far as I know, neither of them is even thinking about having kids; I guess they’re too busy thinking about how to save the world – or, more accurately, (unlike their mom at their ages) they are actually engaged in jobs whose mission is to help save the world. Lord knows the world needs saving – and I have more confidence in my kids than in most people I know to move us in the right direction.
This is the ultimate reward of parenting – if you’re lucky and you haven’t screwed up too badly, your kids turn out to be fabulous adults in whom you take enormous pride, and whose company you really enjoy! That’s certainly how I feel about my adult kids. Although they will no longer play the mother duck and baby ducklings game with me – drat!
 There have been various studies that have focused on this. Putting the keywords “parenting styles” and “socioeconomic” into Google will bring up a bunch.
 The causes of sociopathy are actually not all that well understood. See, for example, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-is-2020/201304/understanding-the-sociopath-cause-motivation-relationship