Summer is birthday season for my boys. Conor, the Leo, begins his third year of teenager–hood this summer, while Kiki, the Cancer, enters his second year in the world of double digits. Despite the unbelievable speed of these developments, many things about their birthdays have remained constant throughout the years: the candles blown out on Krispy Kremes instead of cakes, the birthday morning treasure hunt for presents, and their tireless requests to hear stories about the day they came into the world.
Another constant is how their birthdays always have the power of leading me to reflect upon where I am as a parent, where my children are, and how we are connecting together. Beginning with those earliest days and months of their lives when they were so dependent on me for most of their needs, and shifting with each successive year, I am continually amazed by this “connection” dance of dependence, independence, and detachment.
So what is healthy connection?
On one hand, the more connected I feel to my boys, the more I am able to feel empathetic to their perspective, and what they face in the world. When I am in tune, it’s so much easier to see my eleven–year–old’s testiness and impatience in relation to the amount of homework, fatigue, or other pressures he faces at various times in his life. To see that it’s not that different from when he was young and missed his morning nap, or accompanied me on too many errands and inevitably a meltdown ensued. In each circumstance, he is conveying his need for space, refueling, or rest.
Feeling connected also helps me understand that my teenager’s constant testing of what he can and cannot do on his own, [which] is his way of researching the push and pull of independence and security. It reminds me of when he was first able to walk away from me at the park as a toddler. He loved going far away but often looked back, sometimes to make sure I was where he left me, other times to see if I would come and set a limit on the path he chose. And even though he doesn’t always like my limits, when I feel connected, I see that at each stage in his life he has the same need for Mom, his “safe harbor” to be there for him, as he explores the world.
Yet, the other side of connectedness is not being so connected that we follow our children to every emotional place they go, and everything they experience becomes our experience. This is especially true, as we all know, when it comes to their struggles, heartaches and fears. Practically, this means not letting our egos allow us to take all the credit or blame for their choices, behaviors or achievements, no matter how tempting. When my boys experience success or challenge, be it athletically, academically or socially, it’s so difficult not to feel and experience the same joy or pain they do. Yet, when I am connected, I know that in order to determine the appropriate action or response to these situations, I must remain a little detached–to see these moments as ultimately their journey (not mine), where once again I remain their safe harbor, if and when they need me.
This detachment also includes knowing what information we need to know about our children and respecting there are things we never need to know. Especially now with the tweens and teens upon me, I see this happening more and more. How much of my boys’ experiences, interactions and feelings do they need to share with me? How much did I want to share with my parents when I was their age? As the Kabat-Zinns observe in their book, Everyday Blessings, The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, “The quality and warmth of our connections with our children will be proportional to how much we continue to do our own inner work, and keep a sense of appropriate boundaries… according the same freedom and respect to our children as they transition every year from total dependency… to independent and interdependent adults.”
So in closing this summertime, birthday reflection, I would like to share a poem I revisit often, given to me as a new mother by my parents, that speaks so beautifully to this ever shifting, constantly challenging, yet powerful journey of connection:
On Children by Kahlil Gibran
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.