Bedtime ritual do-over

I realized something about our bedtime ritual. 

In whispering to my boys, "I love you just the way you are," I have been saying to them what I wished had been said to me. 

As a child, I felt that in order to be loved, I needed to do something more, become something different, be something else. I got in the habit of doing because it brought me attention and positive reinforcement and I mistook those, for a long time, for love.  Sometimes I wonder what I might have been if I felt loved from the start, for no good reason, just the way I was. 

Instead, my emotional calculation went something like this: doing = love. 

I always sucked at math.

Like everyone I know, I want to give my children the things I wished I had been given.  But, there is a danger in mothering one’s children in ways that you wished you had been mothered.  First, it is possible that if you do the opposite of what was done to you, you will swing so far to the far side that you’ll find yourself on the flip side.  No better. No worse.

But perhaps more important, if you give your child the childhood you wish you had, you run the risk of not giving your child the one he or she needs.  Whenever I think I am tilting too much toward trying to give my own childhood a do-over in the guise of mothering my children, I ask myself a very handy question that I learned from my beloved Shrink.

Who’s it for?  Me or them?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a big believer in the ideal of the selfless mother. Every now and then (oh, OK, more now than then) I need to assuage my anxiety or bolster my sense of being good enough. And I am fine with that.  I just hope the balance tilts towards acts that respond to a call from one of my boys. Each one is so different.  Each one needs a slightly different mother from me.

So I ask myself, do I say "I love you just the way you are" for me or for them? 

It’s true I would have loved someone to whisper that to me and perhaps when I do it, I am trying to rewrite my own experience, to fill an old, empty pocket of need. But I really don’t think it is all about me.  Honest. I say "I love you just the way you are" because it’s true.  From the minute each of my boys arrived, I  loved each one just the way he was, right from his tiny start.  But since love gets more complicated, and more conditional, as time goes on, I think regularly going back to that moment of beginning acts as a kind of talisman.  When I am annoyed at them, or disappointed with them, or hurt by them, it helps to go back to that moment, when I looked at each tiny creature in my arms and could not believe it possible that a heart could so immediately hold so much love. 

I also say it because, when you get right down to it, I figure the only real job of mothering is helping your children learn how to love.  And I don’t think there is a finer way to begin to learn about love than by being loved just exactly, precisely, and completely the way you are.  In both your being and your becoming.

So my mothering is a complicated mix of what I wish I had been given and who I hope I can be – more often than not – for my boys.  Is there anything that you do as a mother that you wish had been done for you?


16 thoughts on “Bedtime ritual do-over

  1. You know, I haven’t ever thought of it this way. But I will share the wisdom I learned from my very own family therapist when I was in the throes of a I’m-not-a-good-mother fit. She said to me it’s not whether you’re excellent, the best, the worst or any other superlative. The only thing you should strive for and hold yourself to is being “good enough”.

  2. I try (and sometimes succeed) at letting my kids sit with their dicomfort. I don’t “save” them from it. I want them to know it’s okay that things don’t always work out, that sometimes we’re sad or angry, that sometimes we lose and feel badly about it. My mother always said to me, “Oh, don’t feel that way.” I will never say that to my kids.
    What I say to myself when I feel like I’m not being a good mother (and sometimes it helps): I’m worse than some and better than most. I don’t know if it’s true, but it helps to put things in perspective.

  3. There’s not enough space here to answer that question. But my goal is to be a good enough mother. As you said, it’s complicated, but I think the cumulative effect will be the one that’s remembered in the end.

  4. This topic is so deep that I can’t begin to address it properly. Sometimes I think I have been too selfless in an attempt to be more loving and to create a safer environment than my own mother did.

  5. Just what you said.
    Just the other day my mother voiced her resentment that I don’t let her prevent me from making mistakes. And she suggested that I am doing my children a disservice by letting them make decisions and learn from them. So, yeah, I guess I do that differently too. I’d rather they learn the hard lessons now when the stakes are low than later when the stakes are very, very high (like I did).

  6. What an inspiring group of mothers you all are!
    I relate to the comment from Jennifer H the most as well as cce.
    What is wonderful is your authenticity about your humanantiy as mothers. That is the greatest gift we give our children…showing them it is OK to be a flawed but loving human being.
    With gratitude…

  7. I go back to the concept of “controlled failure.” It’s OK to let your kids fail & learn from their mistakes (especially when the stakes are low). Failure is not always a poor reflection on parenting – it reminds us that none of us are perfect but all of us are human.
    My parents weren’t perfect but they supported me even when I made mistakes. Sadly, they both passed away much too early. Not a day passes that I wish that I could call them and ask advice (especially my mother).

  8. You touched me again with this response. I lost my mother too early without a chance to live as an adult with her. I grieve this often.
    My colleague, Alisa Garber, was a therapist and she gave me the advice to sit down and write a letter to my mother asking her the questions that still burn inside of me. I have yet to take the time to do it…but I anticipate it would be a great blog post when it is done. You may want to consider trying it as well. If you do, please let me know.
    With gratitude…

  9. Perhaps you longed to know that your mother loved you, just as you are, because there’s something foundational about that, something universal. Isn’t that also the quality we desire in a spouse or partner? Loved, full of grime and milk and muck – even on the bad hair or ugly mood days? You whisper that sweet nothing in their ears. It’s a good one.

  10. Wow. I caught up with this a little late. Some real things to think about. I am more involved in my children’s lives–and physically present–more than my parents were. That’s a deliberate choice. Maybe that’s why “mothering less” is so hard for me! Thanks for the deep thoughts.

  11. Just now catching up. I think it is incredibly hard for parents to remember that their children are individuals with individual needs, but it is so very important for the children to know they are loved and accepted the way they are.

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