Sunday, November 10, 2013

How parents love

 By Jenny Voelker

My mom is turning 80 this year. And 40, years after she raised four children of her own, she is rethinking how to be a good parent.
“Most important thing is to love him,” she says. The “him” being my son, her youngest grandson. “Hug him a lot. Tell him he’s great. Never, ever compare him to his younger sister. Encourage him all the time.”
“But mom,” I say, hesitating slightly and then deciding to press on. “You’re telling me to do the opposite of what you did with me.”
“True,” she admits softly. I am surprised. Rarely if ever has mom admitted any kind of fault or change of heart. “But in thinking about it more, that is how you love a child.”

My parents loved me but they did not show love through kind words and physical affection. We did not say “I love you.” We did not hug. When dropping me off at the airport, my dad typically gave me two firm slaps on the back while mom gave me an “air hug” – the kind that left a full inch of space between you and the other person. Silence, their saying nothing to you at all, meant you were doing fine.

Yelling and lecturing meant — well, there was no question what those meant — because you were told pointblank. “You’re too fat!” “You’re too skinny!” My parents made comparisons to siblings or friends frequently in an effort to motivate me with healthy competition. “Your friend is studying right now, getting ahead of you right now.”

How parenting beliefs and styles have changed. And to think that my mom was reversing her own now, as a grandmother!

My parents showed love through their actions. They sacrificed everything for us. Dad drove me 19 miles each way in horrific traffic and scrimped and saved living an extremely thrifty existence, so I could attend the best private school.
Mom worked in an alterations shop from 7 a.m. in the morning often until 11 p.m. at night. She would bring home hangers full of pants to be hemmed, waistlines to be taken in, so that I could have Reeboks and Jordache jeans to fit in with the other kids and take gymnastics and piano lessons. The steady whir of the sewing machine would continue long after I was in bed with lights out.

My parents were fiercely loyal and ever present if any one of us four children needed anything. When my sister decided in midlife that she wanted to go back to grad school to get another degree, my mom happily watched her two small boys full-time, cleaned her house, and stocked her fridge with dinner every night. If “actions speak louder than words” then my parents were shouting love for us at the top of their lungs.

Yet while actions are important, so are affirming words. It’s hard to feel love, to believe in your core that you are loved and valued, unless you are told and affirmed and celebrated and embraced over and over by someone in your life. If I did something exciting or noteworthy, my dad would give me a wide-eyed “Ohh!” or approving “Hmm!” but not use any actual positive words.
I think he worried that giving me compliments would make me lazy and full of myself. I don’t think positive words would ever have made me like that. They would have helped to temper the critical thoughts inside my head. They would have strengthened me when I faced life’s challenges and disappointments. They would have made me feel the love that my parents were trying so tirelessly to give me.

My mom’s parenting advice came to me out of the blue in a phone call. There was no particular instance that prompted her to call that day. But I believe she wanted to share her parenting insight for two reasons.
First, she adores her grandchildren and wants the best for them. And as she now sees it, what is best for them is parenting with generous doses of love, gentleness, and self control. She wants to make sure that I understand the importance of parenting with outward love because she has seen me when I am irritable, impatient, overtired, or stressed, when I could do better. Second, I think she was apologizing to me for not “getting it right.” None of us parents get it right all the time. This I know full well as I make mistakes all the time. Still it felt good to hear her apology.

So I listen to mom’s advice on how parents love. It does not come too late. Hopefully I can heed it well.

on November 10, 2013 
in Lead News

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