My daughter recently attained adulthood, at least in the eyes of the law. Personally, I won’t be conferring that status upon her until she learns to pick the wet towels up off of her bedroom floor. Still, this milestone in both of our lives has given me reason to reflect upon how my idea of successful parenting has changed in the intervening years.
If I’d been asked eighteen years ago what my parenting goals were, it is very likely that I would have responded, in much the same breathy, heartfelt, yet misguided, way that every “Miss America” contestant discusses how she wants to “make the world a better place for the children”. I would have said that I hoped to raise a kind, confident, happy person. As scary, not to mention overly optimistic, as this may sound, I would have meant it. I suppose those young pageant-y types mean what they say, too. Never mind that none of them have any real chance of achieving the very lofty goals they were foolish enough to share publicly.
It’s lucky that I set my goals privately — I didn’t report them to Regis on national television. Still, I had visions that I could turn out a person that had all of these qualities in spades, plus a bag of chips. That’s just the kind of Pollyanna I was back in the days when motherhood was more theoretical, when tending to my child’s physical needs were paramount and all-consuming. Her spiritual needs would have to wait until I was a more well rested.
What I failed to realize was that feeding and diapering an infant, taking a toddler to the park, or throwing a ball around to a youngster would be far easier, both for me and for her, than molding her into that kind, confident, and happy person that I was so convinced she could become. Having now been in the trenches and seen motherhood for what it really is — a series of pitched battles where ground is gained and lost, resulting, ultimately, in something that more often than not resembles a Mexican stand-off, I can’t help but wonder whether I set the parenting bar a little high when I was still cuddling a newborn.
Those “Miss America” contestants would undoubtedly agree. If, after having backed themselves into a corner with their idealistic vision of the world, they traded in their glamorous evening wear and their tiaras for khakis and bandanas — clothing and accessories more in line with hut building — and spent eighteen years knee-deep in mud fighting off killer mosquitos in some malaria-filled jungle only to discover that the very people they were trying to help were in no way interested in their silly project.
That realization would have to change a person, even if that person was a well-intentioned beauty queen, which I, most definitely, am not. I suppose I should be grateful that I didn’t have to come by my lessons by wielding a machete in some godforsaken rainforest. Having a great tan might have been nice, though.
Fairly early on I realized that I should have set less lofty goals for my child and, by extension, for myself. Qualities like kindness, confidence, and happiness are difficult things to measure, to be sure. At some point, when reality set in, I gave up the idea of building castles in the sky — or huts in the jungle — and contented myself, instead, with constructing things that were more in keeping with my skills — things like small Lego outbuildings.
I did manage to come up with one example where she demonstrated all three of these qualities. It was years ago, but I’m going to go ahead and count it anyway because, you know, it gives me some small comfort to know that somewhere inside the snarky young adult that I now share my life with, the one who shows a remarkable ability for towel littering, there once existed a kind, confident, and happy child.
While mine was never the kid who spent years growing her hair out only to have it shorn off so that wigs could be made for cancer victims, she did once return a pencil to a friend. I know this doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but the act meant a great deal to the friend — a friend who, to put it bluntly, had formed what I and many others, including the child’s own mother, considered an unhealthy attachment to said pencil.
Somehow, during what were, no doubt, some schoolroom shenanigans, the pencil managed to find its way into my daughter’s backpack or her pencil case or her pants pocket. Who knows? Who can remember? A siren call was put out by the somewhat embarrassed pencil owner’s mother for the return of the item. I gave (and still give) that woman a lot of credit for realizing the importance of the pencil to her daughter. Even though her child’s reaction to the loss of something as ordinary and easily replaced as a pencil was a tad south of loony, this mother went ahead and organized a search for it anyway. I don’t think I would have done anything of the sort. Perhaps if I had treated the loss of a pencil with such tenaciousness my daughter would have more respect for me now. Maybe she’d even pick her wet towels up off the floor.
As a result of the numerous phone calls made and emails sent by this tenacious and, let’s just be honest, a little high-strung mother, I required my child to search for the foolish pencil, which was nowhere to be found. And then one afternoon, weeks after the pencil in question went missing, my daughter discovered it somewhere among her belongings. She decided to return it all on her own, an act that I proudly attributed at the time to her emerging kind and caring nature.
I had very little doubt that her possession of the pencil was accidental, still it may have looked a little suspicious from another’s perspective. She could have just thrown it away. She was, after all, the one who happened upon it, not me. She demonstrated real confidence in this situation. So confident was she that her role in the disappearance of the much searched for pencil was innocent that she went ahead and returned it.
When I asked her how it felt to have returned the item to its rightful owner, she told me that it felt good. I asked her if it felt good because she had made her friend happy. “I guess”, she said, “Really, though, I’m just happy to not have to hear about the dumb pencil anymore.” It still warms my heart to know that she experienced happiness at some point in her life.
There have been many moments over the years when this incident and my daughter’s role in it has given me comfort. I have to admit that most of these moments have tended to occur while I am removing wet towels from one surface or another, still I am reminded that at least there was one time when my kid was kind, confident, and happy. It may not compare with the memories that other, possibly better, parents may be able to dredge up regarding how their kid gave all of his Christmas presents to the needy or stood up to a bully, but, like I said, I’ve learned to be more realistic in terms of measuring my success as a parent.
Now that I’ve sat down and thought about it, it’s nice to know that if anyone ever asks whether or not I’ve met my parenting goals I can answer in the affirmative. And, I’ve got “The Pencil Story” to prove it.