I was chatting with a colleague last week about raising a boy with attention deficit disorder, and all the challenges that come in that package, and how it looks when the boy becomes an adult man and starts making his own decisions about important things in his life. Or at least how it looks in the case of my boy. She opined about a person in her own family who faced similar challenges growing up and continues to struggle. In the end, she laughed and held up her family as a ‘walking disaster,’ to which I replied, every family is. I amended this truth with an asterisk: it is what makes each of us interesting.
You’ve probably heard some version of the quip, ‘none of us is getting out of this alive.’ I don’t live by quips and quotes, don’t have them painted above the mantle or propped on cute little easels on the dining room sideboard: not knocking folks who do. But I also believe nobody steps out of this life without suffering some kind of damage that leaves marks. I don’t mean this to sound cynical, or like I’m resigned to some dystopian reality for the human race: it’s simply what happens when you live your life—when you dip your toe into some alluring pond to test the water, and then something lurking underneath reaches up and bites it. Hopefully it does not destroy you—it does some—but instead leaves in its wake a priceless little kernel of wisdom—call it a scrap of foil to add to the larger collective ‘foil ball’ of experiences known as you (hat tip to Pee Wee Herman for that silly metaphor).
Most of us who walk down the parenting road, I think, have the noblest intentions when that tiny infant is placed in our arms: I will always love you (truth) and protect you (impossible). I will fill your days with enrichment (most of the time, except when you push me away, or when I’m simply too exhausted and have nothing left to give) and your nights with peaceful, restorative slumber (if you will even relent to sleep). That is to say, we hope our children will emerge from childhood relatively unscathed, as healthy, well-adjusted grownups who go on to live meaningful lives.
The outcome is never that clean and perfect, and a quick spin through the daily headlines drives this point home. Of course, the news skews to the tails in a normal bell curve: we wish all those folks the very best, or at least just, outcome for whatever perils they’re navigating. For all the rest of us, though, life hands us possibilities and opportunities with each new day, to grasp or muck up as we choose; making a good faith effort counts on the days we fall short.
On my worst days I can work myself into a blue funk that devolves into a bona fide boo-hoo pity party. I imagine myself on the set of some idiotic game show where I’m spinning a giant wheel, and the only thing separating me from the Fabulous Prize is the muscle in my arm, to give that wheel the perfect momentum. So I give it all I’ve got, and the wheel spins and spins, and then finally slows, just missing the winning slot and stopping instead on the one that says ‘FAIL’ in big, ugly red letters. The imagined studio audience collectively sighs a disappointing, Awwwwwww, and the game show host smiles through his sparkling, appliance white teeth and chirps, ‘too bad, but good for you for playing,’ as he leads me off the set by the elbow.
Add to those quips up there this bothersome one: there are no guarantees in life. I set the most impossible standards for myself and my family during my early parenting years, cleaving stubbornly to the notion that if only I did X, the outcome would surely be Y. Where child rearing goes, nothing could be further from the truth. I was a tad slow on the uptake: it has taken me so many years to understand my own folly, and more recently, to realize that ‘success’ wears a dizzying array of coats. And I think our kids (most of them, anyway) understand that we do the best we can, and our parenting missteps are born only of good intentions. (Even if this epiphany does not occur to them until they find themselves finally standing in parenting shoes; a former neighbor in Knoxville liked to tell the story about how her mother insisted her difficult daughter was payback for her own bad behavior during childhood, a thing that cracked me up every time she told it.)
Which is all to say, I love my kid, warts and all, and I hope he loves me right back and can look past mine. And I’m eternally grateful for all the colorful characters I’ve known in my life—blood relatives, friend-relatives, and even casual acquaintances. They’re the ones who make the world a more interesting place to be, and make us better humans, and even teach us tolerance for others whose paths we’ve yet to cross but who will challenge us in unpredictable ways.
I’ll add this final quip as a postscript: that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Yeah, you should see how ripped I am.
Most days, anyway.