Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
– Kahlil Gibran
I’ve been listening to a South African group that uses this poem for its song lyrics. As one about to have a child, you can bet it has got me thinking. Much of the time, I find this song incredibly reassuring. As a responsibility, raising a child is daunting. But conceiving of a child as a gift may help me to balance that responsibility with deep appreciation for that incredible opportunity. And, control freak that I am, it may help me to better enjoy the differences that my child and I are bound to have. When people talk about the wonder of seeing “he’s his own little person,” it’s the understanding that though he comes from you he does not, as with so many things we do or create, directly reflect your craftsmanship. If he were, how much more limited he would be!
Along with the liberty of a child not being solely yours, of course, comes quite a bit of terrifying vulnerability. I cannot control everything about my child, which means that he is open to all kinds of influences from the culture around him. Just because I love to read does not mean that I can make him love it, too. Just because I waved away alcohol doesn’t mean he will follow my lead. If it is out there, if it is around him, he may well pick it up, try it, pursue it. And this is when I realize why parenting tends to make one socially conservative. Although I may feel that bull rings in the nose are not for me, I can live quite peaceably with one who doesn’t share that sentiment. That’s how we make it through college, live as companionable adults, and have friends who don’t share our aesthetics, morals, life goals. As adults who think we have something of a backbone and the ability to make independent choices (yes, I hear the psychologists and sociologists snickering), we think we can brave that kind of diversity and reap its benefits with little or no cost to ourselves.
But throw a kid in that mix, and we have something very different going on. If you don’t want your kid to have more holes in his nose than the two with which he was born, you may be reluctant to expose your kid to models of other lifestyles. “Impressionable youth” isn’t merely a manner of speaking–they’re like sponges, often picking up bacteria and parasites as well as the steady diet of ethical living that you and others may be feeding them. And they may not realize the cost of what they have swallowed before they decide they like the taste and crave more. Scary doesn’t even cover it.
The influence of society isn’t just for my child, either. As an adult, no one tells me what to do. Assuming I don’t break any laws, few people can presume upon their relation with me to tell me I really need to wear a longer skirt or reconsider my rude behavior. When I went to college I remember feeling quite distinctly the difference from home, since at college no one was in a position to hug or scold or wrestle with me (yes, Adam, I missed our sibling squabbles), and everything was, well, polite. Civilized, you might say. But I missed that corrective element from home partly because the correction presumed a kind of intimacy I craved. It goes without saying, however, that independence offers the individual substantial rewards; I certainly like doing what I like, as I like it, without first having to secure the approbation of 45 close friends and relatives.
When you have kids, though, more people are inclined to interfere if they don’t approve of how a child is treated (whether he is being yelled at in a grocery aisle or, perhaps, simply wearing mismatched clothes to school). And your parenting skills are on display for the entire world to judge. Often in the past few years while Sydney and I picked blueberries or strawberries we would be surrounded by families and subjected to the litanies of the parents: “Alrighty, Kasey, so only pick the red ones. Yes, the strawberry plants are very interesting. No, no, no dirt in the mouth!” Watching parents parent can be amusing, frustrating, anxiety-inducing, and even, occasionally, simply delightful. There is something about children that enables us (and, occasionally, obliges us) to reach past the barriers of individuality we have built up and correct and support. Parents need more resources than they can provide on their own and communities cannot sit by and watch a child being neglected or abused. We don’t actually believe that “anything goes” with children, as you find out very quickly if you decide to let your kid skip out of grade school for a month.
As one who has lived delightfully independently as a healthy, employed adult for a few years now, I am not really ready to enter into a lifetime of major social vulnerability (you see how well I took to the idea of strangers touching my stomach). I have, at least, acknowledged that I can’t hope to be immune to it; I have cast furtive looks around at other pregnant women to see how it’s done and others, in their turn, have asked numerous eyebrow-raising questions about my personal life because of my pregnancy. It’s here, ready or not.