Becoming a parent is a profoundly transformative experience. Being a parent is unsettling – permanently, but in a (mostly) good way.

Parenthood is life’s most interesting, frustrating and rewarding challenge – and the source of endless worry about things we can’t, and in many cases shouldn’t want to, control.

Love is far too simple a term for the bundles of interwoven emotions that make up the links between parents and children. Every describable emotion plays a part in such bonds, but for most parents, an affection like no other is the predominant strand. Right from the start, children command emotional loyalties greater than the ones shared with spouses, siblings and even parents. We know that they are the future.

The first gift that our children give us is the certain knowledge that we are not the be alls and end alls. The focus of our worries shifts to our babies, who carry pieces of our own hearts, raw and vulnerable. We achieve greater equanimity about our own problems, but find that even minor worries relating to our little ones are disproportionately hard to bear. The unimaginable is no longer what might happen to us, but what could befall them. We know that the world will go on after we are gone; it must, for them to survive.

As time goes by, our children also teach us humility. We cannot know for years, if ever, whether a child has learned the lessons that we tried to impart. Different children respond differently to the same kinds of guidance; there is no formula that works for all. On many occasions, I have learned long after an interaction with one of my children that what she or he had taken away from it was quite different from what I thought I had taught. Oftentimes the young simply cannot hear what we are trying to say; they might register an emotion – be it concern, approval or love – and not begin to weigh the accompanying words. Or the opposite.

Consequently, each parent-child relationship is a constantly evolving mutual exploration of what kinds of communications work at a given moment in time. And those of us who have more than one child generally learn that what works for one child doesn’t work for another; when we adjust our parenting styles to what we think each child needs, we come to be accused of favoritism by whichever other children feel hard done by the variances. As we shift strategies, they try to negotiate with us; eventually they succeed at it.

In the movie Tender Mercies, the incomparable Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a broken down, alcoholic country singer who finds a measure of redemption. The slow recovery of his dignity, and his rediscovery of love, are marred by the sudden death at the end of the movie of the daughter he had not been allowed to see in his years of darkness, with whom he had only recently managed to re-establish contact. In shock at the permanent loss of the child he had just re-found, he observes sadly:

“I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”

Sledge’s words speak to me and, I would think, to every parent. No matter what we do – how well our children learn the lessons we try to teach them, how protective we are or how virtuously they (or we) behave – we know that fate may announce that our days of happiness are over with a ring of the telephone.

For most of us, this sense of vulnerability, together with knowledge of the importance of other lives than our own, makes us more fully human than we would have been otherwise. Every day that our children seem happy, healthy and forward moving, we rejoice quietly. We know that it might not last, but hope with all our hearts that it will.


M.H. Johnston

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