Monday, August 9, 2010

On Being a Fallible, Accountable Parent

This blog is inspired by Maddie Dawson’s new novel, the stuff that never happened. The stuff is the August selection of the online bookclub, From Left to Write.

The Stuff That Never Happened is thematically rich, and I found much to relate to in its engrossing pages. But the one theme that gripped me and possessed me to write was of the line parents walk between trying to be a positive role model for their children and being the fallible human beings they are. Every time we lose our temper, smoke, drink, kiss a handsome stranger, use some really juicy language, argue, lie, steal, cheat, gossip…do the things that people do, we convey a message to our children. Decontextualized, i.e., without explanation or exploration, the message becomes “This is okay,” However, if we reflect with our children on what we’ve done “I regret having done this because….” or “This is okay for me but not for you because….” or “I hope when you are older and forced with a similar choice you will choose to (insert choice) because….” the experience can be instructive. Edifying. Life changing.

In the novel, Annabelle McKay’s adult daughter learns of her mother’s affair…an affair that took place early in Annabelle’s marriage, before she had children. Sophie (her daughter and, coincidentally, also the name of my daughter) is aghast and struggles with this new version of her mother. Her mother struggles alongside her, trying to help Sophie understand the choices she made and how these choices have affected the course of her life.

I can remember the exact moment when I had the same epiphany about my own mother. It also happened as an adult, when, for a course in family therapy, I created a Genogram and began asking questions. My mother, for reasons I still do not understand, took this opportunity to reveal some very painful truths. There were truths that made me angry. Truths that made me cry. Truths that explained a lot about my past and my own internal conflicts. They were truths that ushered my mother off the pedestal upon which I had placed her and brought her back down to Earth. Through it all my mother allowed me to ask her questions and answered them patiently, accepting my reactions, apologizing for choices she had made that had negatively impacted me. This is where her model was key. Not when she was actually making the choices, but how she handled our processing of them. She was so brave, my mother. And once we had been through it, several times over, I came to terms with it. And now, I believe, we are much closer for it.

If I peer into the future, what choices will I have made that I will be held accountable for by my Sophie? Given the strength of intergenerational patterns (i.e., making the same damn choices our parents did) and my track record of transgressions, chances are, one day she will be disappointed with me, or shocked by my behavior or just plain angry. I can see myself sitting across from a full-grown Sophia on a luncheon date, her huge gray eyes growing larger and rounder as I blurt out the thing I have told no one. Perhaps it is because she wants to know and because I cannot lie to her. Perhaps because I can no longer keep it a secret. I can see her expressive face registering shock. And then I can see the way she looks at me, once wholly adoring, changing forever. She sees me more clearly now. More authentically.

I believe we each need the opportunity to be angry with, disappointed by and forgive our parents for the choices they have made. (Just now, I struggled with whether to write “mistakes” or choices. But to call them mistakes is judgmental. As Miranda July once said, “Things usually make sense in time and even bad decisions have their own kind of correctness.” In the book, I don’t think Annabelle deemed her affair a mistake so much as a choice she made that had both positive and negative consequences. She experienced an intensely passionate relationship, something that was lacking in her marriage, but she deeply hurt and sacrificed the trust of those she loved. When her daughter inquires about the affair, Annabelle admits its wrongness and explores the meaning it had for her. She is not perfect, but she holds herself accountable, takes responsibility for her actions. And out of the discussion there emerges several life lessons—that marriage has its ups and downs, but neither is a static state. That “you cannot completely know or completely control another person.” And that “anything can happen” in life; part of happiness lies in embracing the uncertainty.” By the end of the conversation, Sophie appears to be letting go of some of her own fears about her husband’s fidelity.

I know it is inevitable that I will make bad choices my daughter will have every right to question. I will not promise to be the perfect role model, setting myself up for certain failure. But when the time comes. When we are sitting across from each other over crisp salads and glasses of wine—Sophia on the brink of womanhood and I in the midst of its decline—and the truth suddenly, surprisingly rises from a deep place within me. I will not backpeddle. I will not run. I will do as my mother did: sitting before my daughter, answering her questions, mourning the loss of her image of me and revealing myself as the fallible yet accountable parent I aspire to be. And hopefully, we will be closer for it.

The stuff that never happened was provided to me by the publisher free of charge through my participation in the online book club, from left to write. I was not paid for this review. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.


Linsey K / Krolik Legal said...

I remember my mother/father admitting things to me and thinking about how I might handle that situation when I was a parent. Now that I AM a parent, those days loom closer.

What a wonderful role model you had of a parent who would listen to your concerns and answer your questions as she went through her own process. Something to aspire to, certainly.

Sky Princess said...

It is hard to be a role model when you are consciously focused on the role. But then, it is hard to be a parent.

Maddie Dawson said...

Melissa, thank you so very much for this insight. I think the inter-generational stuff in this book was at least as interesting to me as the parts about the affair. The two mothers in this book, needing to explain themselves to their questioning, shocked daughters--and you can just see that Sophie's new baby daughter is going to require some explanations some day because it doesn't look like Sophie's marriage is going to be a bed of roses! Thank you so much for what you said. And I agree with Linsey: how great that you have this role model of a mom who listened to your concerns and was willing to go over and over it for you until you were able to understand. What a gift understanding is! We all seem to just have to muddle through, but to have someone who has made choices--I almost said mistakes, too--and been willing to talk about them--well, that's what really counts, I think. Thank you for all the kind things you said about my book. It truly meant so much to me!

Nicki said...

We all want to be perfect in our kid's eyes, despite the pressure. Somehow, I think once they see us as human and real, the relationship evolves into something stronger and better. There's a closeness and a level of honesty that might otherwise lack.

Just enjoy that pedestal while you still can.

JennieB said...

I love that you chose this topic. Great post!

Made me think also that the novel would have been much different if it turned out one of the kids was Jeremiah's.

Emily said...

What a wonderfully written and thought out post. You saw something in this book that I missed and I thank you for pointing it out to me. It sounds like you will do just find when that time comes.