I spent a good deal of my childhood hoping and pining for something I didn’t have.
Here’s what I wanted: Parents who were married, who were on speaking terms with each other, and who didn’t openly hate each other. A dad who hadn’t abandoned our family in one way or another – over and over – and who didn’t live 3,000 miles away. A mother who wasn’t bone-tired and depleted from working all day and providing for us on her own. A town and a school I could call my own. Roots somewhere, stability – a feeling that my life wouldn’t come apart at the seams with every breath I took.
I didn’t have the worst childhood in the world, but I didn’t have the best. It’s all relative, I suppose. But the point is, there were things that felt like deep losses to me – losses that kept repeating. Things that I so desperately wanted to repair. I knew at a certain point that I couldn’t repair those things for myself, and so I decided early on that I would provide a better childhood for my own kids. I wanted a chance for a do-over.
Now, it’s a slippery slope you enter when you go into parenthood this way. Your kids are their own people, and trying to live out your dreams through their lives can get dicey. You are potentially setting them – and you – up for failure and disappointment.
But I think almost anyone who had a difficult childhood relates to this feeling. Heck, even if you didn’t experience trauma or pain in childhood, almost all of us want to learn from our parents’ mistakes and do better.
I remember the first few years of my first child’s life. I held him so close. I couldn’t let him go. I looked down at his perfect body and felt the most intense love I’d ever felt before – a protective, ethereal love that spread from the top of my head to my toes. But I also felt an immense amount of pressure. I wanted this to go perfectly.
I had set myself up for a high level of perfection, and it proved to be detrimental to me in many ways. I struggled with postpartum anxiety (undiagnosed), and then, when my son was 2-years-old, I began having the most severe panic attacks I’d ever experienced.
I knew these panic attacks were related to the fact that I wanted everything for him to be completely different than my own childhood had been. But when things weren’t – when we struggled to be able to buy a home for our family; when we struggled to find well paying work; when I or my husband lost our temper … all of those things terrified me to my core because I so desperately wanted to make things perfect for my son. And for me.
Now, over ten years into this parenting thing, I realize that I can’t give my children the childhood I didn’t have. It will never look how I imagined it would – how I grasped for it as I worked my way through my own childhood traumas. No, my children are imperfect, their lives are imperfect, and their parents are. That’s life, the whole beautiful mess of it.
I think less now about the outward signs I want for my kids of a good life, but more about the feelings I want them to experience. I want them to feel safe, emotionally and physically. I want them to know that their feelings matter, no matter what they are. I want them to feel heard, and to trust that whatever they say or do, they will always be loved.
I want them to know that whatever happens in life, they will have what they need, and that we will try our best to provide it. I want them to know that we have shortcomings – all parents do – but that we will always apologize if we mess up. And we will show up for them – always in spirit, and in body, whenever possible.
I want to be a cycle-breaker for my kids, to save them some of the trauma that I experienced as a child. And honestly, just having that goal in mind is huge, in my opinion. Just being aware of what caused you pain as a child, and living with the intention of making things better and different for your children is a wonderful thing.
But how that plays out might look different than you expected, because life is hard, chaotic, and out of your control in a million different ways. Just being a child – a parent – is challenging, and no one is going to get it right all the time. And expecting perfection is only going to stress you out, and everyone around you.
So go ahead, love on your kids all you want. Do your best to make things a little sweeter, kinder, and gentler than things were when you were a kid. Try your best to create the stability, safety, peacefulness, or unconditional love that you felt was lacking in your own childhood.
But remember, too, that there are many things that are out of your hands, so many things you don’t get to decide or control. And that you’re going to mess up sometimes too. And that’s OK. What your children need most is your presence, your good intentions, and your love.
Your children are going to be alright. And so are you. I promise.