It was 1:30 PM, that time of the day when I prioritize napping over everything else when the phone rang. The caller id flashed a familiar number. I paused, considered letting it go to voicemail and then picked it up.
We spoke about a great number of things but the bulk of our conversation was around parents and children. She works with second and third graders at an after school care place. I mother third graders. She recounted tales of children acing tests, of parents over scheduling their children’s time. She spoke of guilt, of how material things are not a substitute for time. She also spoke of how much children confide in surrogate carers.
I should have agreed with her, nodding my head as I judged women and men for leaving their children in aftercare and indulging them with material gifts instead of the intangibles. I should have disagreed, arguing on the merits of exposing children to all the possible things they can do so that one day when they know what is it they want to do or are passionate about, they will have the skills and the grounding to be the best in their chosen field.
Instead, I listened. I said nothing much. I suggested perhaps it was a norm where she lived. After I hung up, I went back in my life to the initial years when mothering was just a thought. A milestone that shimmered just out of reach. Had I become a parent when the rest of my peers had their first children, I would have been among the scores of parents dropping and picking up their children from ballet, gym, soccer, chess, and Kumon. I would have sat in the front row at recitals and posted shaky videos on my Whatsapp groups. I would have obsessed over where my child was with respect to the rest of his or her grade.
I probably would have printed out extra work for spring break and researched summer camps for my children to reach their potential. I also would have preached to anyone who would listen about maximizing potential and mapping a path to success for my child. After all isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?
Unfortunately, my path to mothering involved detours and loops so convoluted that my peers moved on. I soaked in the first few years of mothering, joyous just to be a mom. I poured myself into the physical act of mothering, the feeding, the nurturing and the cuddling. I struggled with reading before bed, overwhelmed by caring for two children by myself.
As the years passed, bereft of peers to compare myself or my children with, I coasted along opting to keep them home when they were not at school. I researched classes, signed them up for music and dance and giving up at the end of the first class when I realized that the rigor and structure were not for them. I listlessly looked at brochures for Kumon and Abacus and threw them in the trash when I realized I would be happy if they got through work from school first.
With each passing year, I realize I am a laid back parent. My ideas about success and happiness do not mirror what society says. The only question I ask my children at the end of each day is “Did you have a good day at school?” I am happy if they are eager to go to school. I am content if they manage to be at grade level. I send back homework if they struggle with it for too long.
When my husband and I talk about the future, our dreams are simple. If our children manage to hold down paying jobs, are able to find and fall in love, find respect and happiness with their partners, our job is done. If someday, they come back to ask us why we did not push them harder, all we can do is shrug it off and say we knew not better.
Parenting is a guilt trap. We punish ourselves if we push hard, we punish ourselves if we don’t. We owe our children the best of us, our time, our attention and most of all our definition of happiness and success. We mold them into the best versions of us so that in hindsight, we can rest easy. But, it may not be enough because they are not us. That in itself is the lesson.