Parenting lessons

June starts with Children’s Day. A day when we stop from our usual daily marathon to take a look at the children around us, whether our own, our kin or our friends’. This holiday and also a couple of stories that have been shared with me this week about immense loss, have gotten me thinking about some truths about parenting nobody really outlines, or we tend to shove under the carpet because they don’t fit the ideal image created maybe by movies or those relatives who ask the when are kids coming? question, all the while never having parented at all or having forgotten all about it.

Looking back on my experience as a parent, I understood that …

Children are not meant to complete us, children are challenges who might complete us at some point (not a given) but might unravel us completely: the line is very, very fine.

I had been married under one year, still in college, when I heard the question: so, when are kids coming? So I quickly understood that this was an expectation, this was how I would be a good wife, a good daughter. My drug of choice – here is how you get another dose. And so, I figured, the emptiness inside me, that I felt every second and that was getting deeper by the minute, must be caused because I have no kids. And so I started chasing parenthood like a lighthouse, like something that was going to get me out of the dark, into a light I knew was there but felt eons away from.

The Universe has a roundabout way of sending us messages. I soon found out that having children was going to be very difficult for me. Very difficult. Seven years of treatments, planned intimacy, hospitalisations, tears, medicine that messed with my brain and body, hours on the internet looking for a miracle cure to infertility, seven years that were almost meant to get an answer out of me: just how much do you really want to have a child? Looking back it wasn’t about a child at all, it was about a something I could not get, a project I could not succeed in- notice the singular. It is always, always just the woman’s problem.

I was 28 when I became pregnant with twins via artificial insemination – a process as cruel to the body as it is artificial. There is no miracle involved, just chemistry, a tube and a follicle in the right place, at the right time. I knew from second one something was wrong. I felt whatever was in me as foreign, as not of me, I had no morning sickness, I was detached. Sure, I went through the motions, pretended I was excited, told people, sat through my dad’s praise of me that someone else in the family is having twins (as if this were a test I passed) and just figured this is what the start of parenthood was like. Oh well, not very different than the rest of my play pretend life.

It was a warm summer morning when I woke up very early figuring it must be very hot since I felt drenched in sweat. I got out of bed only then to notice that my bed looked like a murder scene. I was losing the babies. I panicked, was rushed to the hospital, confined to bed, allowed only to get up to pee once a day and given loads of injections. In the month that followed, stuck to bed with nothing but my own thoughts, I had nothing to weigh in but the truth: I was not willing to wait out a pregnancy of nine months, losing my job, being stuck looking up at the ceiling, peeing once a day. Hmmm, I guess when it came to the final exam, I had flunked: how much do you really want to have kids? Oh well … only if they don’t really disturb my life. Ok, ok, not that much.

I was ashamed that when the doctor finally said I am sorry, we have to terminate the pregnancy, the babies are too compromised to be healthy and you would be in danger going further that I felt at ease. I had realised something about myself, not that I was able to admit it, but it was there and somehow, a bit more truth liberated me an ounce more. I went back home to emptiness and thought maybe I should grow plants, maybe I should do more community service. Maybe that was the path.

It is completely mind boggling that we have to take classes and pass exams when we drive, when we go to school, when we get a job but not when we have kids.

I became pregnant again half a year after my miscarriage. Still medicated, still pushed by family, a bit more neutral to the outcome (maybe this was the key?). I got pregnant and this time I knew it in my bones that this was it. Matei was a beautiful baby from the inside, calm and giddy, still in danger at some point so I was stuck to bed for three months. It was incredible to me how different this experience was to the previous. I continued to work from home, I made friends online, I ate everything I wanted, slept, watched TV, and only got up to pee once which was in fact what I actually wanted. My bed was a berth in which my baby and I were just taking care of each other.

The bliss stopped the moment I gave birth, when postpartum depression set in with a bang. I was probably excited and happy for about thirty minutes after Matei was born. Demons were probably packing, they were going to be with me for a long time. I remember being released from the hospital after three days, barely able to walk, with a newborn in my arms, wondering what the hell was in my mind, how am I going to keep from killing him accidentally?

Got home to a pile of clothes in the middle of the bed and some books, facing motherhood like a climb that I had neither trained for nor had the partnerships to sustain me through building a plane in the air. I remember propping newly born Matei in his crib and lying down in my bed in a certain position so that if I opened my eyes I could immediately see him. And open my eyes I did. Every freaking five seconds. For the first two months. I was exhausted, depressed, lonely, scared, felt completely out of my depth, stupid at times, I felt trapped, stuck, filthy, I was in pain and felt I was letting everyone down, most of all this tiny human who was desperate to eat and I had nothing to offer him except formula – anathema if you listen to some online groups. I was failing on all fronts.

Children will always show you the truth. Always. Period.

I realized very quickly that in my desperation and in my loss of myself I was to be in charge. Alone. Everyone, my parents, my husband, his parents, our friends were all looking at me to rise up from my own ashes, get a grip and become the mother they saw on TV or imagine I could or should be. Phrases like we expect more from you, come on, other people do this every day, come on, it can’t be that bad, started haunting me enough that I started to believe them. And because the motherly me was lost and depressed, I called in the workaholic me, the one who looked away from real struggles and frustrations and just ploughed through. And little by little I started to get my life in order and, by association, Matei’s. He loved (and still loves) routine, so my compulsive way of having everything arranged and programmed soothed and comforted him. He grew into the miracle I never thought I deserved and, since he was a miracle, he very soon held up a mirror that little by little I could not keep myself from looking into: I was alone and deeply unhappy – the emptiness was still there. Having Matei was amazing but it was not the path.

Forsaking yourself does not make you a better parent. Quite the contrary.

It makes me laugh now when I remember myself thinking that Matei’s first year was the hardest. Sure, parenting was new, I had no idea what I was doing (but do we ever??), I was afraid 150% of the time and felt like I was driving blindfolded. Fast forward five years and I was going to come to a question that represented another fork in the road: stay for Matei or leave for me ?

The emptiness had grown unbearable. Work and Matei were my only havens and I had started to wear both thin. I was a workaholic, demanding and controlling at the office, believing that nothing moved or should have moved without me, that without me half the building would crumble. At home I was the embodiment of a helicopter mom, constantly around Matei, with him, searching the internet and the world over to find ways in which I could do things better, teach him, care for him and protect him. I was building a perfectly dependent human being. Isn’t it funny, if you go to the beginning of the story, the race is exactly the same, I am just looking in the wrong directions.

Though it was ten years ago, I remember the evening I found the path out of emptiness like it was yesterday: I was checking emails on the computer, sitting in the armchair, Matei was on the sofa playing, his dad was on the desktop computer and the TV was on. Regular family evening in that home. My grandma had just died, her funeral had been the day before and my heart was still broken. I was talking to my best friend about why she stopped talking to me, a pretty intense conversation, as you can imagine. I pushed and pushed and pushed for her answer because I could not leave any thread untied. And she finally came out with it saying she loves me, and not like a best friend or a sister, and knows nothing can come of it and we need to just keep away from each other. I remember looking up at Matei. Because in that moment, something in me woke up. I don’t know what that was. It was like this small creature that started jumping up and down, saying yes, yes, this is it, this is how the emptiness dies, this is the path! It’s about you not them! So I looked at Matei and thought: what will this do to him? I honestly did not care about anyone else for a change.

And in a split second, driven by something outside of myself and of my world, I found myself typing the words I love you too. And the grey bubble burst, and we lived happily every after. Haha, no. I recently read a book about the way to integrity, I posted a quote from it in Connect a while ago. Martha Beck, the book’s author talks about the dark wood of error and the hell you go through trying to get out of it, the lying and the truth, the purgatory and paradise (aka no lies and conscious living). It was hard, it was up and down, it was tears and infinite peace, it was two steps ahead and one back, it was agony at times. But what it never ever was, was regret. Not for a split second did I look back thinking I should have stayed.

When we choose to entertain lies because somehow we feel that they help our children, we do nothing else but teach our children that lying is the way to get through life. We underestimate our children if we think they cannot tell, even at young ages, that their parents are unhappy, that their relationship is loveless, that they (the kids) are a burden. Fake smiles, fat wallets and no boundaries are harmful wannabe blindfolds. They only teach one lesson: when lying to yourself gets too hard to bear, you can numb your feelings with these.

While I cannot say that Matei is entirely happy to live in a family where his birth parents are divorced and his mom and her partner are “not normal”, I know for a fact it is hard on him more often than not, I also know for a fact that he has learned some lessons that will serve him well: that even when your own family says you are wrong you get to choose what is in your heart and be happy with it and that is ok; that lying is never a healthy option; that parents unconditionally love you and set boundaries to help you and, most importantly, that he is not an annex of mine, or his father’s or his stepmother’s: he is his own being, with his own ideas and feelings. My wish for him is that, when he becomes a parent, he will remain so, still in individual, with his own life, just entrusted with the care of another.

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