But we still have the iPad. And hey, I could use an iPad. I don’t use it in front of him, but sometimes at night, when I think he’s asleep, I walk past his room holding it and I hear him whisper, that’s my iPad, like he’s Daniel Day Lewis in In the Name of the Father. I always feel a stab of unease.
His first betrayal, I think. And then: He won’t remember this.
But he’s four now, about the time kids start to retain their memories into adulthood, so I’ve resolved to just generally behave better. Now I know that it’s good for kids to see you being human—it would be deeply weird and damaging for them to have an artificially patient and sunny mother. And the only way I could manage that would be a Vicodin addiction anyway.
But I what I mean by “behaving better” is getting my own house in order—my emotional life, my financial life, my social life. I want to have a good relationship with my kids when they’re grown. So with the help of several mom friends, we’ve examined the data—namely, our own feelings about our parents and parents-in-law—and compiled a comprehensive action list.
1. Deal with your hypochondria. Look, I know about hypochondria. Every loose eyelash is alopecia, every eyelid twitch is Lou Gehrig’s disease. My friend Melissa once said, exasperated, “How many people do you know who have Lou Gehrig’s disease besides Lou Gehrig?” The neurologist told me it was low potassium and to eat a banana. Now I laugh about it. However, this is less funny if you are a mother-in-law, and your son and daughter-in-law are up to their ears in caring for small kids. Your imagined melanoma eyeball is only going to cause your DIL to grit her teeth and text her friend in exasperation.
2. Let go of the grudge, already. You were wronged, we know. Your marriage split up or your sister was mean to you, but the thing is, there is nothing your kids can do about it, so don’t make it their business. Move on for your own self—try meditation or Buddhism or art therapy, but stop ruminating.
3. And stop making new grudges. Some people are…sensitive to slights. Don’t be one of them. Don’t report to your kids—don’t report to anyone!—how so-and-so was mean to you or doesn’t like you. “Some people are more sensitive to perceiving that conflict has occurred,” says Ryan Fehr, who has a doctorate in organizational psychology and is a professor at the University of Washington. Consider the possibility that you’ve imagined the conflict. “In reality situations are more ambiguous—all conflict isn’t black and white,” says Fehr. If you find yourself constantly reporting to your family that the gate attendant was rude or the gym check-in person was dismissive, read up on Everett Worthington, one of the most prolific researchers on forgiveness.
4. Don’t talk to your kids about your sex life. Even when the kids are adults, how your sex life is going should remain profoundly your beeswax. I know you have needs, we all have needs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the WASPs it’s that it’s right and good to be entirely silent on that topic.
5. Deal with your finances. I have a friend whose widowed mother had never managed her own money, despite being among the wave of 1960s bra-burning feminists. My friend set up an automatic allowance for her mother from the mother’s own funds and paid her bills for her. The mother (who had asked for help!) bitterly complains that the allowance is stingy. This falls into a general category of: Don’t make your kids take care of you. You’re the parent, act like it.
6. Save your frequent-flyer miles, and use them. When your kids have small kids, getting on a plane to visit you is going to be nigh-impossible. Between the screaming toddler, the vomiting baby, and the fistfights among other passengers over the Knee Defender, it’s really just much kinder if you, Grandma and Grampa, get on the plane yourselves rather than insisting that all the kids and grandkids come to you. Traveling with small kids sucks. Try to make things easier on your family rather than commanding appearances for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The baby is going to puke during Mass anyway. Which brings us to…
7. Practice yoga now, or something, because when the guy in front of you deploys the Knee Defender you’re going to need all your strength to punch him, get re-routed to O’Hare, and still have the energy to dandle your grandchildren at midnight Mass.
8. Find a place to live that you like and don’t move. So many of my friends’ parents, upon retirement, upped and moved somewhere—France, Asheville, Orlando. When the inevitable health concerns arise, the kids are hopping on Jet Blue to Tampa every other weekend to refill the pill dispensers. Your kids will want you in a community where you have a long history and deep social ties. They’ll know they can call the neighbors if you need help. And this brings us to:
9. Make friends. Your kid-raising years are prime years for making long-term friends and putting down social roots in your community. You don’t want to be lonely—for your own sake, you don’t want to be lonely! But you also don’t want your kids to feel the burden of being your primary social outlet.