As a mother, I’ve now spent more than thirty years considering and observing my children. From the time I first held them, I’ve pondered their selfhood and their destinies, neither of which have I predicted or fully understood. Yet, my disability in this area has never thwarted my preoccupation with my children. Those who’ve never had children might think I am obsessed. Those who have can’t imagine it any other way.
I’ve been blessed to share my family life with three children, two by birth and one by providence. I also have two grandchildren. Seeing these people develop their singular personalities has been more interesting than any story I’ve ever read or written. Their lives don’t take a clean narrative form, not in the sense that readers expect. The elements of a good story are there, though. They provide abundant life experiences that move me outside of myself into other places and times. They go through conflict and sometimes involve me in it. They feel every imaginable human emotion and whether they want me to or not, I share a little of their joy, grief, success and failure as they do. They kindly write me into their stories, sharing their time, love and milestones.
If powerful stories are mirrors in which we see ourselves, then my children hold up their lives in a chaotic but vivid narrative that demands self-examination. I’ve never been more generous or selfish, more ambitious or reckless, more rational or off-balance, more frustrated or content than I’ve been with them. When I see them walking away from me, I remember how great it was to claim my own independence. I also feel the pang of what it is to be left behind. When they succeed, I’m happy and proud, but it can be bittersweet—don’t let anyone lie to you; mothers can be jealous of their children’s lives and good fortune. We just try not to let on. Most of the time, though, we celebrate their accomplishments and being. Living vicariously is still living, right?
There’s slightly disconcerting aspect of this mirror. From the time I first touched my little ones, I looked for myself in them. I longed for my children to endorse me and my choices; my taste in music and art, my sense of humor, the way I turn a phrase or walk and talk. Then I wondered if they echoed my abilities and flaws. Of course, the best parents manage to curb our enthusiasm when we look into that mirror, remembering that children aren’t made of Silly Putty for us to mash them onto ourselves and pull away to see our image transposed (remember how we did that with the Sunday comics? Stretching and distorting the picture was great fun, but not to be attempted with children.) We repeat whatever selfless mantra helps us to disengage and allow our children to achieve independence and emotional health. God help us.
That mirror makes me wonder how my children see me. When I imagine myself to be thin, firmly toned, young, fun, contemporary and open-minded, do they see those things? When they were small, they would belly laugh at my silly faces and noises and games. They thought I was hilarious. They convinced me that everything I said was important, worthy of memorization and repetition (if not publication). As for that, they loved my stories more than any agent or publisher ever will. But every parent with a little seniority can relate to the day my children looked at me as if I were a complete stranger, someone too corny to laugh at or a source of embarrassment.
I told myself to think like a stock investor—that despite my market ups and downs, if I’d hang in there for the long haul, my risks would pay off and everyone would profit. My kids would look at me one day and think I wasn’t so dumb, after all. Maybe even wise. (I’ve already had that pleasure and it is sweet. But I remind myself not to be overconfident or greedy. That could be embarrassing.)
Under my children’s influence, I take on some of their qualities, too. They are my enthusiastic life coaches for technology, social media, the arts, the environment and other rapid cultural changes. It’s a fascinating exchange. So the mirror works both ways and I’m glad they’re not cheap reproductions of me. They are much more interesting and effective in the world as their authentic selves and they make me that way, too. God knows that the universe has had enough static from just one of me. Really, people. Cloning humans is a monstrously bad idea. Seeing my children defy the predictability of pooled genes is humbling, exciting and gives me great hope for them and the world they live in.
My three children, and now my grandchildren, split, branch and flower out of and away from me. It’s the way of nature and I love being a part of the process until I die and they continue to carry on the green. Of course, I can’t prescribe what memories they’ll keep. Knowing them as I do, I suspect they’ll be generous and forgiving. Maybe they’ll revert a little to the babies who found their mother patient, funny and constant in love. I’d like to leave them with that consolation and hope, as they search for reflections of themselves in the eyes of their own children, and beyond.