My oldest daughter couldn’t stop crying the other day, which was surprising.
She doesn’t cry nearly as much as she used to. Broadly speaking, this is a good thing. The sound of your child’s inconsolable sobs can cause physical pain; a sonic cocktail of fingernails on a chalkboard, an injured dog, and Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park.” As a young child she cried often. Rarely did I understand the reason. Even more rarely could I get her to stop.
When she wailed, I would experience a gauntlet of emotions, from sad to befuddled to frustrated to enraged. Too often, I heard myself venting to an imaginary parenting coach, “She’s crying for no fucking reason!”
Sometime during my parental maturation process, I realized that no one cries for no reason, least of all a child. The failure to understand your children is probably not a failure at all. And if it is, it certainly isn’t a failure on their part. A child’s job isn’t to make itself understood. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that a child’s job to say to its parent, “Please promise that you’ll always love me even if you never understand me.” And a parent’s job is to say, “Okay.” And if that happens, and if they both really mean it, then I think they’ve each given the other the greatest gift they can give.
My daughter and I aren’t there yet.
But we’re working on it.
I’m not sure these realizations have made me a better or more patient parent. Although, somewhere along the way I learned that it’s okay to walk away from my emotionally distraught child rather than bark, “Why the hell are you crying?” at her, which is an improvement in the same way that a drought is an improvement over a flood.
It’s hard to overstate just how ill prepared I was to be a parent to an intensely emotional kid. (It’s also possible that the period in the last sentence could have been placed after “parent.”) And it bears repeating that nothing she did – the colic, the hypersensitivity to clothes, the refusal to sleep, the decision to leave her own birthday party (after the guests had arrived!), the time she prevented a plane from taking off because she wouldn’t wear her seatbelt – was her fault. None of it was my fault either, or so I’ve been told. But it is certainly true that my inability to understand why she was doing these things felt like failure. And repeatedly failing at the main thing you’re trying to be good at is, to put it mildly, a disregulating sensation.
As she approaches her thirteenth birthday, she is unquestionably “better.” Not surprisingly, so am I. I’m still not sure I understand her, but I’m trying to trust that I don’t need to. Lord knows her “improvement” isn’t a product of anything I’ve done or changed. Maybe she cries less because eventually everyone cries less, or, God help me, because she thinks I care less. Probably there’s some other explanation.
It strikes me as odd, albeit appropriate, that the word “parent” is a noun and a verb, both of which pertain someone who is raising a child; whereas the word “kid,” when used as a verb, does not specifically pertain to someone who is being a child. I think “kidding” should mean “performing the action of being a kid,” in the same way that “parenting” means “performing the action of being a parent.”
When I see someone deny frozen yogurt to a begging and pleading four-year-old, I think, “That’s some good parenting there.” When that same person caves and says, “If I get you the frogurt, will you stop crying?” I think, “Wow! That was some really shitty parenting.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as “shitty kidding.” That’s because there is no objective standard for how to “kid.”
When an adult hits a child, that’s shitty parenting.
When a child hits an adult, that’s…what, a teachable moment?
And it’s the fact that shitty kidding is not only acceptable, but even normalized that leads to shitty parenting.
Which all leads back to why I was such a shitty parent to my shitty kid. And why, no matter what anyone says, I’ll always blame me and not her.
Which made her crying the other day all the more confusing.
She knows herself so well now. At 13, she has become, if anything, a little emotionally reserved. Sometimes I can’t tell what she’s feeling. And while her stoicism is a little eerie and occasionally makes me sad, I recognize that it is a coping mechanism she’s developed for just not wanting to feel so much. Tears come in drizzles not torrents. She avoids public spectacle. For better or for worse, she is growing up.
Recently, I had been encouraging her to join some friends on the middle school cross-country team. More accurately, I had been encouraging the coach to encourage her. This, because adolescents experience direct parental encouragement as de facto judgment. Hence, the coach as intermediary. When, at home, I off-handedly asked if the coach had spoken to her, she fell apart.
All the memories came flooding back. She cried for what felt like 20 minutes. I tried to help, but I only made it worse. I got upset because I didn’t understand why she was upset. Her shitty kidding had revealed some shitty parenting that I didn’t even know I’d done. And before I knew it, I went from feeling empathy to anger. Suddenly she was five years old again and I was wondering if CPS ever comes to the house for “general incompetence.”
Her mother stepped in, as she has done so many times before. They retreated to her room and I tried to figure out where the screw up came. Through sobs, I heard her say, “I just don’t want to do it!”
The cross-country team? Was this really about the cross-country team? I couldn’t believe it. Why would my now emotionally stable 7th grader regress so suddenly and completely because of some third-party encouragement to join the fucking cross-country team?
The cries continued in the breathless, dry-heavey way I remembered. Through the gap under her closed door, I picked out snot-encrusted phrases like “too much pressure” and “can’t make me!”
Her mother just listened. I just eavesdropped. She began to calm down.
And then she said it.
“I really want to make dad proud, but I don’t want to be on the team.”
I had never before heard any of my three children say they wanted to make me proud. I’m not sure I’d ever considered what it would sound like. But if I had, I suspect I would have thought I’d enjoy it. I want to make dad proud seems like something every parent would want to hear.
But it crushed me.
There are many things I want my children to do; many experiences I want them to have. While it’s possible that I’m deluding myself, I genuinely believe that I want these things for them. All any parent wants for their child is to pursue something she loves, to pursue it with passion, and to find happiness in the pursuit. If we guide our children in one direction or another, it is merely to expose them to things that we hope might be worthy of their love and passion. Or so we tell ourselves.
The prospect that my daughter does what she does, not because she loves it, but because she wants me to love her for doing it, was deeply distressing.
I wanted to run into her room and free her from that horrible bondage. I wanted to take her in my arms, stroke her tear-stained cheeks, and whisper the most reassuring words I could offer: “Don’t worry honey, I’ll never be proud of you.”
But I didn’t. Instead, I waited until bedtime, tucked her gently under her covers, and told her that she didn’t need to do anything to make me proud. I was already proud of her. And I always would be. No matter what she did.
For five straight nights, I helped her to bed and said, “I’m so proud of you, honey.”
Until last night.
Last night, as I was putting her to bed, she said sheepishly, “Dad, you don’t have to tell me how proud you are every night. It kind of makes it seem, I don’t know, ‘less’ or something, you know? If you always say that you’re proud, it doesn’t mean as much. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” I told her. “That makes sense.”
But what I think she was really saying was, “Promise that you’ll always love me, even if you don’t understand me.”
And what I was really saying was, “Okay.”