We are, once again, in the car, headed to my mother’s house. Before we get on the road, Sophie asks for a book with which to occupy herself.
“I got books about numbers. I got books about letters. I got books about babies. Whatdya want kid?’ I hawk to Sophie.
She makes a special request: “I want a book about 'Babies Who Take Care of Their Mothers'.” I look in the rearview mirror, searching her face for a smirk…some hint of irony. Her eyebrows are raised in earnest.
“You’ll have to catch that one on Oprah. How about a book about ‘Mothers Who Take Care of Their Babies?’”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Sophie replies in a rehearsed voice that indicates she’s quoting me to me. I pass back a well-loved copy of Babies Everywhere. She thumbs to her favorite page and points out mother giving a baby a bottle of milk (NB: A mother taking care of her baby). I drive…eyes on the road…my mind a million miles away.
Or, rather, a million years away, back to when I responded to the opening for a parentified child:
Must behave and speak in a manner generally associated with adult
psychotherapists, be willing to empathically listen to each parent impartially,
provide sage advice and a shoulder to cry on. Required to mediate discussions,
broker peace and occasionally break up fights. Should have excellent
communication skills, as the role will entail acting as a go-between, relaying
messages, frequently with negative content. Ability to self-manage (make own
dinner, do own laundry, set own bedtime) preferred.
I performed the job well. And because the rewards (attention, feeling needed) outweighed the hazards (resentment, abbreviated childhood, depression), I stayed in the position for almost a decade—until I got to college and was left to figure who I was without my parents. (There cannot be a parentified child without a childified parent. One, perhaps, who was never properly parented his/herself.)
It took years to extricate myself. To gradually recognize my meddling behavior when I see it, reject the role, and throw the mantle of responsibility back where it belongs. Even now, on the precipice of 40, I’m not always successful. I still get sucked into listening to things I shouldn’t hear, saying things I shouldn’t say, doing things I shouldn’t do.
It still makes me feel so strong (and yet so weak).
Much to their credit, as I found a new way to be with my parents, they found a new way to be with me. I demanded daughterhood, and they demanded less.
I have come to the conclusion that parenting is made up of two things: Parenting the way you were parented and parenting in opposition to the way you were parented. What can I do now, as a parent, but move forward and try to do some things differently?
My goal is to allow Sophia to be a child. My worries are not hers to bear. My depression is not hers to fix. My arguments are not hers to resolve. Her responsibilities are few and essential: to wonder, to play and to discover.
We have an unspoken deal: I expect her to follow my lead, and she expects me to lead.