Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to Avoid Really Screwing Up Your Child

Anyone considering becoming a parent for the first time should be clear about the one absolute truth of parenting (and, for that matter, life in general): No one escapes unscathed.

Having a child means having your emotions rubbed raw like never before. You'll feel love and hate, joy and sadness, affection and suffocation, pleasure and pain, all to degrees that will shock you. You'll have your heart lifted one moment, and stomped upon the next. Your good intentions will frequently be received with all the love and acceptance one could hope for; other times those same intentions will be thrown back in your face with an added dose of vitriol. You'll be alternately depended upon and disdained.

In other words, get ready for one wild ride.

This (re-)occurred to me as I've been digesting the wedding I attended this past weekend. The betrothed--Sarah's niece and her high-school sweetheart--are a very nice couple. They both are launching careers in fields that are always in demand: She's a registered nurse, he's an electrician. The thing is this: She's 21, and he's just a year or two older. And no matter how much they love each other, how strong their relationship is now, I'm painfully aware of the odds being stacked against them. They barely know themselves--who does at 21?--and are certain to evolve in significant ways over the coming years. Some parts of that evolution will make them stronger, some will push them part. And as we all know, young married couples have a habit of making babies, and as we all also know, babies change EVERYthing. (I won't even get into the lunacy of having a baby in the hopes it will smooth over problems in a marriage.)

Most couples in their 20s--especially those in their early 20s--are simply not equipped to deal with the range and depth of emotions having a child triggers. They've never imagined the intensity of love and devotion and responsibility and exhaustion and stress that parenthood delivers to one's doorstep. I know this from experience--when I was 27, my then-future stepdaughter (who was in her teens) came to me with news that she was pregnant. I won't bore you with the details, other than to say I was sadly unprepared for this situation and handled it brutally, nearly destroying my relationship with my wife-to-be in the process. (In retrospect, that might have been a good thing, but that's beside the point.)

Granted, I'm not advocating people do what Sarah and I have done--have a child at the dawn of our middle-aged years. It's the opposite of having a child in your early 20s--instead of being emotionally challenged, you're physically challenged. I'm not sure which is worse sometimes, for the parent, that is. For the child, there's no question in my mind--what you can do for them emotionally is far more important.

I guess what I'm saying is--and perhaps the newlyweds will end up reading this, in which case they can take it as advice--the most important thing you can do for your future offspring is make sure you're both as prepared for the emotional roller-coaster as possible. That means giving your marriage time to ensure it's solid enough to survive the gauntlet that is parenthood. Your children will thank you when they become well-adjusted people with parents who understand themselves and each other.

Case in point: The day after the wedding, as we were preparing to return home, my mother-in-law started working on Sarah, trying to convince her to leave Max with grandma for a few days, after which we'd return to pick him up. (We live less than 100 miles apart.) As Sarah resisted, MIL turned up the guilt-infused pressure, and eventually wore mom down. So we drove off without Max, and the transition into our few days of toddler-less life was not easy for Sarah. She was jittery and nervous, and seemed poised to return the following day. But as time went by, she settled into her brief respite, and we've had a wonderful few days without Max. I believe that if we'd been much younger, Sarah would have had a much harder time letting go, even temporarily, and providing her with the right emotional support would have been a challenge for me.

The payoff will be this: Mom and Dad will have had a much needed break, as well as a chance to spend quiet, quality time together; the mother-child bond will have grown even stronger (that whole absence makes the heart grow fonder thing); and Max will have started developing his sense of independence at an early age. Win-win-win.

Contrast this with what likely would have happened if were were 15-20 years younger: Sarah would never have relaxed, and I'd have said all the wrong things, resulting in a healthy dose of marital conflict being piled on top of mom's mounting panic and guilt. Then she'd probably have returned to get Max after a day, angering her mom and robbing Max of that all-important independence development.

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