I often spoke of my mother (and my father as well) as having taught me more through negative than positive examples. I was only half joking.
My mom held grudges, and could be stubbornly unforgiving. It always surprised me when she lit into someone who had crossed her, since she projected such a sunny temperament most of the time. There were hidden depths of anger.
Maybe she'd absorbed a few negative life lessons at her own mother's knee, because of the many positive lessons my mother passed down to me, the most meaningful was granting her children the freedom to find their own way in life.
My grandmother groomed my mother from an early age to become a successful singer, and was devastated when 21-year old Anne fell in love with a 20-year old former Navy gunner, attending college on the G.I. Bill and living at home in Denver with his mother and stepfather. It poisoned my grandmother's feelings about my father and had long-term consequences, most notably that my mother never again lived closer than 1,000 miles to her parents.
I never got to know my grandmother very well. When I was growing up, we alternated our summer vacations between Houston and Denver. Unlike my dad's mother, my mother's parents did not regularly visit us; I can only remember one such occasion.
During our visits to Houston, I remember my grandmother peppering her "Yankee" grandchildren with smiling endearments. The steely woman from the stories my parents told about their engagement and marriage? I never met her.
But I see her in in the letters she sent my mother during her freshman year in college. This scolding tone is common:
"We are getting just a little bit exercised about the absence of letters from you. I received one letter from you in Florence and we've had two here and you've been there almost six weeks. I really meant it when I said write home at least once a week and its time you did something about it. I don't want another week to pass without a letter from you and don't get any crazy notions that you can put off writing us and then call long distance. Do forget the telephone and lift up your pen. Telephones are for emergencies only."
I don’t remember my mother ever taking such an imperious tone with her own children other than in a momentary lapse of anger. And she certainly didn’t direct our college choices, nor dictate our behavior once we were there. Even so, I didn’t really notice this trait of my mother’s until I was a young mother myself, and separated from my husband for the first time under difficult circumstances. My dad and stepmother took me and my 18-month old son into their home while I considered what to do next. In addition to the hand-holding, they offered lots of advice, most of which I was too shell-shocked to listen to.
My mother, though, called and said nothing more than, “I’m coming over. I just need to hold you.” And so she did, sleeping next to me those first two nights in the basement of her former husband’s house. She never gave me a word of advice, nor asked why I’d never told her what led to my departure. She just stayed nearby, a warm and loving presence. Only later did I realize this as a turning moment in our relationship – the moment when I began to let her back in after years of closing her out.
I can’t say how much of my own hands-off approach to parenting came from my mother’s example and how much was simply an innate part of who I am. Discipline didn’t come naturally to me; I preferred appealing to reason. After all, that had worked pretty well for my parents, with me.
But my son wasn’t me. That was never more apparent than in how we approached school. I never had to be told to study; by high school, I often set my own alarm to get up extra early to fit in a last round of cramming before a big test. I might procrastinate about starting term papers, but I always got them done on time, and done well. No parental exhortations required.
My son’s approach can best be demonstrated by a conversation we had when he was in high school. He’d gotten a D on a test. I’m sure I sounded exasperated when I asked him about it. He said guilelessly, “Mom – a D is still passing.”
I looked at him in bewilderment and replied, “I don’t understand the mindset behind that statement. How can you be satisfied with a barely passing grade?”
This became our pattern as high school progressed. By then, I’d been divorced for several years and no longer had another parent in the same house to share the thankless task of issuing reminders, checking homework, communicating with teachers, and the endless other things I tried to do to help him stay on track.
By his senior year, he’d escaped being kicked out of his prestigious high school only because a new superintendent had asked that the school forgo such measures during his first year on the job. My son, relieved, promised to turn over a new leaf, only to return to his lackadaisical ways once school began.
I remember a lot of angry exchanges between us that autumn. I also knew I had little leverage; he was nearly 18 and increasingly independent. I had many agonized talks with friends and family about what I could do to make him buckle down and do his homework, but nothing worked.
Every day I’d go to work and hear my colleagues talk about the impressive accomplishments of their kids. I’d kick myself for not cracking the parenting code that would inspire my son to do the same. After lengthy conversations with a friend, I realized my anger and hurt were closely connected to the perception I feared others would have of me as a parent. If my son failed, it meant I was a failure, too. I had made him a reflection of myself, and that shocked me. I didn’t want to be that person.
I realized this wasn’t about me -- it was about him. He was old enough to make his own life choices, and it was time for me to abdicate my role as parental scold. When he came home that day, I told him I was done hounding him about school. I can’t say I stopped paying attention as he missed deadlines, failed tests and reached the bottom of his class, but from that day on, I kept my word.
We took part in the usual senior traditions – the fancy photos, the ordering of his cap and gown and graduation invitations. All were well in hand when I came home from work one March day to find him lying on the couch next to my desk. I got on my computer as I usually did after work – my decompression ritual. He lay silently behind me, and something in his silence made me ask if there was something wrong.
He began crying quietly and told me, “I’m the worst son in the world.” He was failing chemistry – again. “I’m just so done with this, Mom. I want to drop out.”
What happened next is perhaps my proudest moment as a parent. I reassured him that nothing he could do would ever make him the worst son in the world. With my arms around him, I told him how much I loved him, and that I would support him in making his first adult decision. I also said he faced the first of many forks in his life path; how he managed this decision would be a model for how he managed future decisions.
I told him I expected him to handle everything related to dropping out; I would not get involved. His adult decision, his responsibility. I also expected him to get his GED and a job.
And then I stepped back and watched him transform in front of my eyes. The slacker I knew disappeared. Within two weeks, he’d successfully dropped out and gotten a job. Within a month, he had his GED. That summer, he and two friends drove to Alaska and hiked a 25-mile wilderness loop in Denali National Park. He came home a different person – more mature, shaken by the experience of learning how fragile life can be. The following January, he enrolled in college; he graduated in 2009.
The dreams we hold for our children sometimes get broken. That doesn’t mean our dreams were wrong, it just means that our kids didn’t share them. I never got to experience watching my son graduate from high school, but six years later, I got to see him graduate from Coast Guard boot camp. It was spectacular.
I don’t pretend to know what made me able to reach deep into myself and be the parent I needed to be for my son that March day in 2004. Maybe it was the example set by my own mother, who showed me what it looks like to give your child wings and let her fly.