Had a nice long dinner with my SO this evening, and we marvelled at what fine children ours have turned out to be. They show these common threads:
- They are respectful
- They are eager to please
- They are happy and comfortable in their own skins
- They are articulate and well spoken
One of the most important and driving forces in my life had always been to have children. Apart from it being the biological imperative, I have always had a moral and spiritual desire and need to do so. On the one hand, I love children, especially their innocent wonder. To be able to talk to a child and to engage with the world on their terms is one of the greatest pleasures of life. Perhaps that feeling is so poignant for me because of the detritus of my own upbringing. Perhaps there is a desire in me to prove that I could raise children out of the abusive shadow of my Grandfather and Father, and the horrible wake that has left on the mark of others. Perhaps it is the greatest act of togetherness that one can have with a spouse—we chose one another as future parents, knowing full well that this was on the cards. Indeed, I told my future wife on our first real date…and imagine this:
“Don’t even think of dating me if this isn’t for keeps. I don’t want to waste my time if you don’t want to have kids with me.” That is more or less how she and I both remember it. She nearly choked on it. She’d never dated anyone quite so blunt before, and had never thought about children before. I was serious too. I wasn’t interested in playing around. I don’t like to invest in people who aren’t for real. Life is too short to spend time and effort on those who aren’t your long-term fellow travellers. This crazy directness of mine ended up being the glue that bound us—not the words, but what they meant. And boy, was our relationship rocky at the beginning—all my fault. I had only twice in my life made it past 2 weeks, both with almost-wives, but this was different. The timing was right.
So, having children, was a huge motivator for me. I believe that my desire to have children was so strong that it over-rode any hesitation I had about performing the expected role of a male. Relatively speaking, it was easy, there was no way I was going to lose my chance to be a father. I couldn’t be a mother, which would be for me the greatest gift imaginable, but one that I can never have, so instead, I chose to be a father with motherly characteristics—nurturing, comforting, warm.
And the children came, and it has been the greatest gift in my life. My mother once described having children as like having “an open wound,” and I didn’t understand it at the time, but when I walked out the first time with the baby strapped to my chest, I felt so moved to have this life resting on my heart, a life that was in part created from me. I get emotional just thinking about it. And they have grown up beautifully.
While I marvel at our good fortune and wonder how our children have almost never talked back to us, and when they have, true remorse and apology soon followed. That as we march through the teen years there have been almost no tantrums, slamming of doors, profanity.
When they were children, small ones, we both invested enormous amounts of time in their development. I took a break from my career (getting fired can help with that, believe me—and I am being a little facetious, but not completely). Really, starting before the conception of our first child—conclusion, my work was getting in the way of conception (stress, timing, etc). So, I changed career so that I could be home a lot, and so that we could improve our chances of having kids. I was already “not working” a normal job when our first child came along, and I continued to “not work” in that sense for a decade while our children were born. I was a stay-at-home Dad. Indeed, we were both stay-at-home parents.
I was not a hands-on Daddy in the sense that I changed only one diaper in a decade (and with disastrous results—written about here), and each of our children grew up with a personal nanny, but we were both very, very present for our children.
For my part, I wanted them to grow up as good eaters. I cooked all of their meals—at least all of their meals after the smushy bananas and avocado phase. I applied all of my crazy theories about what kids will eat, and how this might affect their eating habits for a lifetime.
Let me give you an example of the food rules:
- They didn’t have to like things, and they didn’t have to eat things they didn’t like, but no matter what, they had to try everything. No matter what. That was a rule, and one they accepted. Eating one single tiny beet out of a plate of beets was a compromise even the most headstrong child could accept.
- Dessert was never a reward. If you eat this you get that. Food is not a reward and punish system.
- Adult foods and diversity were key—so feeding them roast duck and wild rice, soufflé, lobster, sea urchin, all kinds of different fish, salads with flowers, etc
- Challenging foods, eg. peas and beets, were turned into games…peas were “bullets” that allowed them to “shoot” me and “beets” were fireman’s energy capsules that allowed them to put out fires…silly stories, but ones that would make them want to play…and play was the path to a full stomach.
- Involve them in the process. I would have them cook with me. I would seat them on the counter and they would help with everything. Help mix the flour, help bread the fish, help pan fry it, help flip it, help season it, and for a child who didn’t like fish, to not eat something s/he made would have been sacrilege. They always ate their own creations.
- If a child rejects a food item, you can continue to feed it to them little by little, and eventually they will stop rejecting it.
I mention these as highlights because they are instructive but not exhaustive. This kind of engaged and involved parenting, a kind of parenting that our modern lives no longer permit, is to me the reason that our children are so seemingly well-adjusted.
The other area that mattered to me was respect. I wanted our children to be deeply respectful first of their mother, of the people around them, and to be sensitive and understanding. I believe they are both very gentle people, and would like to think that this gentleness will not get in their way.
And while my SO comes from a solid family background, one without divorce, without internal trauma, I do not. And as Gabor Maté wrote in a book that I have yet to review about stress, trauma lives on across generations. Coming soon, I promise. My father’s father and his family were destroyed by divorce, and my father was and still is an only partially effective human and his siblings have never recovered. Most of my siblings have suffered this legacy mightily and have repeated the worst of the patterns. While they have raised children who are not evidently traumatised (how well we might hide things is another matter), they are all divorced and have not broken the pattern.
When I look at my SO, my own children, and myself, I can feel an enormous sense of pride to have broken free from the cycle. I do not credit my children to me at all. They are their own people, and if anything, my SO has set the standard for them, for all of us. I have this fundamental belief that the parent does not make the child, the parent only breaks the child.
Mistress is fond of a quote of Michelangelo, who spoke evocatively about sculpture as helping the stone to express what it had inside of it—that he believed he was simply freeing the spirit inside the rock. There is extraordinary truth to that. Parenting is an exercise in avoiding slips of the chisel…in being as light as possible with the touch. It is so easy to slip up and damage.
Having rules and setting boundaries with children is what it takes to help them grow. They will test them, and in so doing, test you. Finding that the rules and boundaries really mean something is what gives them confidence to keep going. Consequences are not so bad if they knew they were there already because of the rules being laid out before them. Let me give a simple example. We have always travelled a lot. Our children had more stamps in their respective passports by the age of 5 than most adults have accumulated over a lifetime. Many parents believe that it is tough to travel with kids. We did not find that the case. We stuck to the schedule. If bedtime was at 8, naptime was at 11 and 2, and getting up time was at 6, then that is what we did, no matter where we were. Ditto for mealtimes. Always the same. Providing this simple structure without fail gave our children the guardrails they needed to adjust to a life of constant change.
We used to be criticised for this superficially “strict” parenting style by some family members. Well, when I take a look at how their kids have turned out…ahem.
It may seem perverse, but children make themselves. The job of a parent is to make sure not to break them, but to guide them to that. We only take away, and therein lies the danger. One of my greatest achievements in life is that I didn’t damage my kids, but provided them love and shelter, and from this has grown the confidence to fly. And when I think of trauma revisited over generations, this is a time to celebrate, because I broke the cycle.
I also think that having children is over now…that is something that is done as they step into living their own lives, and we as parents eddy in a rockpool of growing irrelevance (and not in a bad way—thank goodness they can take care of themselves). Career too, ambitions largely met. Ability to retire, yes, sort of, though more is always good, right? So, what next. That is the big question that I am wrestling with. And I want something more, for there to be a new chapter with just as much meaning as the others. And I think I begin to see it take shape before me. And it may seem odd, but my experiences in D/s and with personal growth efforts are the gateways to this new world.