Comforting Words: Parenting 101a

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Parenting 101a

May 8, 2005 was officially Mother’s Day but more significantly for me, it was the Sunday after a woman had come up to me inviting me to coffee to talk about our daughters.

I have yet to take up this invitation and given my schedule, I may not be able to for some time to come. Nevertheless, her invitation, whether genuine or not, struck a chord in me, particularly after receiving a card from my own daughter on Mother’s Day which had these words:
As we travel life’s paths,
We often come across
Our mother’s footprints
And we know we have someone
Showing us the way.

It was not the first Mother’s Day card that I have received from my daughter, A. I have a bag full of cards from her, from handmade to expensive store-bought ones. This card was special, however, as coupled with the invitation to coffee, it caused me once again to reflect on my relationship with her, the distance we have and continue to travel.

The sentiment expressed in this card also evoked in me the pain and the tears surrounding my own relationship with my mother and the road of forgiveness and acceptance that I have been called to travel.

The topic of this week’s article therefore came to me amidst my tears of pain and joy – significant emotions in the journey of motherhood.

Though I may never meet with this woman for coffee, I am hoping that these Words from Scripture, Words of Comfort and Words from the Heart about what I call “Parenting 101a” will be passed on to her and to anyone else who it may comfort.

WORDS FROM SCRIPTURES

From the Hebrew Scripture:
Proverbs 22:6
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

From African Traditional Religions:
Nupe Proverb (Nigeria)
“You can only coil a fish when it is fresh.”

Yoruba Proverb (Nigeria)
“Children are the clothes of a man.”

Akan Proverb (Ghana)
“If your parents take care of you up to the time you cut your teeth, you take care of them when they lose theirs.”

From the Unification Church:
Sun Myung Moon, 9-30-69
“In the Kingdom of Heaven, true love is fulfilled centered on parental love …. The family is the original base [of true love] and the foundation of eternity.”

(Excerpts from African Traditional Religions and the Unification Church taken from World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1995) 169 - 173

WORDS OF COMFORT

In October, my daughter A., will celebrate her eighteenth birthday. For years, my partner has been telling her that at this milestone she will be required to move out, live in college dormitories and spread her wings. When she was younger, A., would punch the air and say, “Come on eighteen!”

I, on the other hand, had mixed reactions to this. While understanding Juds reasoning, paramount in which is the idea of independence and responsibility, I could not help feeling as if we might seem to be pushing her out.

We were already insisting that she kept her room tidy, with some amount of success, and she had set chores around the house. To offset my discomfort about her moving out at eighteen, we aggressively yet subtlety started giving her intentional lessons in “living on your own.”

Very early, Juds took her to the bank and opened an account in her name and up until recently, Juds was co-signatory. She also taught her how to budget her allowance. I can remember A. as a ten year old coming home each afternoon from school and having to account to Juds how she spent her money. She did this for two reasons: one to reinforce the need to budget and prioritize and two, to ensure that A. was not spending on drugs, which was becoming a problem in schools.

For my part, I started teaching her to cook simple meals – though Juds is the chef (really) in this family. Each Sunday, she would be responsible for a portion of our dinner, the staple, the meat or the dessert. Today, she makes one of the ‘meanest’ cheesecakes you could taste!

Fast forward seven years later, when the discussion of her plans for studies and her eighteenth birthday came up. To my shock, A., declared that she will not be moving out until she has completed at least the first two years of college. It was my turn to punch the air with a “Thank you God!”

Was I suffering from separation anxiety? Maybe to some extent but I think it was more that I was thankful that after almost fifteen years of living with and being parented in what society deems an “abnormal” family, my daughter wanted to stay home. That was sweet victory to me.

It was that same sense I had when she woke me up from a deep sleep on Mother’s Day. Although Juds had told her to wait for me to wake as I had had a rough week at the local hospital and needed the extra rest.

I thought I was being thrown out of bed when my dog, Angello, jumped in. Startled, I opened my eyes to see A. (isn’t that a coincidence, my two children’s name begin with A!) looming over me with a coffee cup in hand.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy,” she said as she handed me the coffee and the card. She waited for me to read the card, watching me with those big brown eyes of hers. I cried as I read the printed words and what she had written, “To the #1 Mother in the world.”

She left me shortly after that to finish preparing the breakfast that Juds would later tell me she started at 5:00 a.m. Alone again, I could not go back to sleep as I kept thinking “Why am I so lucky?”

It is not as if we, I, did not make mistakes with A. over the years – we had our fair share of fights. A. is a quiet, yet moody teenager. She is strong willed (I really don’t know where she got that from) and can be quite argumentative.

Lately, I have taken up calling her a Pharisee as she can be quite legalistic – demanding that I stick to the rules that, yes, I had set. For example, I have always demanded to know where she is going, what time she will return and, if it involves other teens and driving, I ask to speak to the parents of her friends to confirm the arrangements.

Now at my ripe old age of forty, A., has turned the tables on me, insisting to know my whereabouts and what time I will be home. If you invite me out, say to dinner, and we experienced poor service so the meal was late, you can bet any amount of money that my cell phone will ring and it will be her wanting to know what is happening.

It might seem as if I am not responding to the concerns that I know, let us call her Jane, wanted to talk with me about but I am. Though I know very little about the intimate details of Jane’s life and her relationship with her daughter and, further, I am not a psychologist or even a certified counsellor, I recognized the pain in her eyes.

Like Jane, I am a divorcee, was a single mother for a few years until Juds came into my life. Therefore, like Jane, I am a mother in a different family milieu. There are differences between Jane and I, not least of which are the facts that she has lived all her life in North America and that she is a Caucasian woman.

Another significant difference is that Jane’s daughter (and other children) was at a much older age than mine was when her sexuality came into question. These differences are however miniscule when the issues of acceptance, understanding, compassion, love and letting go are on the table.

Years ago, at one of the most tumultuous periods when my ex-husband was determined to sue me for custody of A. as he, in his words, “did not want her to live in a lesbian environment,” a dear woman-friend gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever had. She was not a parent at the time but having borne the pain of ‘bad parenting’ her words to me was, “Show the child love, the purest love of your heart and everything will be okay.”

It seems she was right.

Like Jane, Juds and I had to deal with the stereotypical ideas of society about children growing up in a different family structure. Living in an extremely homophobic society as we did, there were very few resources available to us, to help with or teach us about parenting. The Internet was not a resource we knew of in the early days and there were no support groups for families like ours. All we had was what God gave to us – the love in our hearts and looking back, it seems as if that was all that mattered.

Since then, resources and information are more readily available and more frequently findings of research are released about gay and lesbian families. An interesting summary of research findings I came across when preparing to write this article was one by Charlotte Patterson of the University of Virginia.

In Ms Patterson’s review of findings of research done among children of lesbian and gay parents, I found several points significant to my own experience, namely:
 The concern that my child’s sexual identity will be impaired and that she will herself may become a lesbian.

 Children of lesbian and gay parents may have trouble in social relationships, be stigmatized, teased or otherwise traumatized by peers. Another common fear is that children living with gay or lesbian parents may be more likely to be sexually abused by the parent or by the parent's friends or acquaintances.

The findings of the research are important, especially for persons who hold the biases against families like my own. According to Ms Patterson and the American Psychological Association:

 Studies of children living with gay or lesbian parents have revealed normal development of gender identity. Additional and more direct assessment techniques confirm this with all children reporting that they were happy with their gender, and there was no evidence in any of the studies of gender identity difficulties among them.

 Studies of other aspects of personal development have revealed no major differences between children of lesbian versus heterosexual mothers, although one study revealed that children of lesbian mothers reported greater symptoms of stress but also a greater overall sense of well-being than did children in a comparison group of heterosexual families.

 Studies of these children's regarding the concerns that they are more likely than children of heterosexual parents to be sexually abused reveal that the great majority of adults who perpetrate sexual abuse are male. Sexual abuse of children by adult women is extremely rare. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse cases involve an adult male abusing a young female and fears that children in custody of gay or lesbian parents might be at heightened risk for sexual abuse are thus without basis in the research literature.


My point in sharing this information in such detail is primarily to help my friends and readers of Comforting Words who hold some of these concerns and biases to better understand our lives. Secondly, I think having this information will help women like Jane, strengthening them to have the obviously much needed conversation with their children and wider family.

My own experience, both in terms of the biases and concerns held by my ex-husband and even my daughter after she was spoon-fed some of these fears by him and my own mother, supports the findings of these research. I would invite anyone interested to know more, to visit both the American Psychological Association’s web site and that of The Council on Contemporary Families. At the latter, you will note a slightly different view on some aspects of gay parenting.

Whereby they agree with the general finding that “children raised by homosexual and heterosexual parents is essentially the same, they [researchers at the Council] diverge in some notable ways.” I however think it is good for the discussion to understand the differences in opinions and the variety in experiences.

Wherever one falls in this discussion, and whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, the mother/daughter relationship, I contend, is the same – one of the most important relationships in a woman’s life and the most difficult. Continuously reflecting on my relationship with my own mother, who as far as I am aware is heterosexual, I see that most clearly.

Quite unintentionally, most of the Words from Scriptures in this posting come from African Traditional Religions. I chose these as they spoke to important aspects in our role as parents and as children. They also speak to the issues of acceptance, taking responsibility and love.

There is another axiom that I feel pertinent to this discussion that is, “You cannot reap what you did not sow.” The advice of my woman-friend years ago was to sow love if we wanted a harvest of love. This same idea is embodied in the quotations from the African Traditional Religions.

It matters not whether you are a heterosexual or homosexual parent; “You can only coil a fish when it is fresh.” You have to teach and show your children love from the get go. However, love is a powerful thing, able to heal the deepest wounds. Therefore, it is never too late. I know this for sure through my own experience with a mother I thought I could never truly love. Love has taught me to accept people where they are.

Jane, only when we are willing to do this, i.e., accept others right where they are, can we live freely, without expectation and be true to who we really are. Only then can we experience the reverse effect of freedom to speak and walk our own truth and live from our own essence.

A card-reader on a beach once told me that my child is an old soul. I am learning daily what he meant by that. Her recent Mother’s day card gave me another insight as those words held the same idea of the Yoruba Proverb, “Children are the clothes of a [woman].” Our children watch us, they follow our footprints and by doing so they show the world who we are. Again, it is never too late to update our clothes but you have to be willing to be naked at least for a while.

Some of us “cut our teeth,” earlier than others do. Due to life circumstances, mine came early and maybe yours too. However, it can take years for your daughter Jane to cut hers although she is well past babyhood.

As parents, we need to accept the fact, and it is a fact, that we cannot cut our children’s teeth for them. We can soothe the pain by being honest, communicative and then let go, letting nature (Mother God) take her course. Time alone will determine if they will be there when we, as parents, lose our teeth.

Until then, I offer you Jane, and any other mother going through the teething pains of their daughter, these tips for “Strengthening the Mother/Daughter Bond.” Actually, you might want to share them with your daughter – go to coffee with her instead of me.

 For minor conflicts, daughters should try to understand the life circumstances, challenges, and choices that were made available to their mothers.

 Start mother-daughter traditions -- it’s never too late to begin new ones -- and make a promise to keep the traditions alive every year (why not every Mother’s Day). Traditions can include simple activities such as long walks, dinner at a favorite restaurant, or updating family photo albums.

 Join a women’s group or look into family therapy together to help resolve serious long-standing problems.

 Realize that all relationships have downsides. Mother and daughter should focus on the positive aspects of their relationship and invest time and energy in it.

 Mothers and daughters should recognize that all choices can come with negative and positive results. Regardless of social or ethnic backgrounds, pay attention to the intentions behind the choices.


WORDS FROM THE HEART

If I Could

I often dance with my daughter, telling her that I am teaching her to slow-step for her graduation ball, which is in a couple weeks! Secretly though, this is my way of sharing our heartbeats.

One of my favourite songs to do this, the lyrics of which I now offer to you Jane was, to my knowledge, first recorded by Regina Belle. This version is by Barbra Streisand, but you can listen to Regina’s version here.


If I could
I’d protect you from the sadness in your eyes
Give you courage in a world of compromise
Yes, I would

If I could
I would teach you all the things I’ve never learned
And I'd help you cross the bridges that I’ve burned
Yes, I would

If I could
I would try to shield your innocence from time
But the part of life I gave you isn’t mine
I’ve watched you grow, so I could let you go

If I could
I would help you make it through the hungry years
But I know that I can never cry your tears
But I would If I could

If I live
In a time and place where you don’t want to be
You don't have to walk along this road with me
My yesterday won’t have to be your way

If I knew
I'd have tried to change the world I brought you to
And there isn’t very much that I can do
But I would If I could

If I could
I would try to shield your innocence from time
But the part of life I gave you isn’t mine
I’ve watched you grow, so I could let you go

If I could
I would help you make it through the hungry years
But I know that I can never cry your tears
But I would If I could

Yes I would
Yes I would
If I could


Blessings and take care of your Soul until next time.

Other Resources:
Triangle Families

Lesbians Who are Mothers

Women’s Experience as Mothers

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