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Skiing the Conditions of Parenthood

No matter how skilled you think you are, no matter what worked in the past, the best thing to do is to read the conditions and respond accordingly.
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by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

About 15 years ago, I wrote a column about my boys and the day one of our gerbils died. Like most stories I wrote about my sons, it taught me a great deal about them, even more about myself and about why most of what I often considered a priority -- especially while they were growing up -- was nothing of the kind.

The facts of the case were these: After taking two of them for checkups with our pediatrician, my plan was to leave all three of my sons home alone for about an hour or so, while I returned to the office for the rest of the afternoon. (This was in the good old days of few workplace laptops or very limited options to work remotely.) The boys had my cellphone number and my office phone number and knew I could be home in a matter of 15 minutes. They were 11 (almost 12), 10, and 10 years old at the time, and I liked to think of them as "free-range" children before anyone even knew what that meant.

But the feedback I received after the column ran was that they were neglected and I was a self-absorbed "working woman" who didn't care about them. Regardless of the message I'd hoped to convey in the piece, I heard from more than one reader about how selfish and irresponsible I was.

At the time, I was struck by how judgmental women seem to be of each other while knowing very few details; how harshly we seem to criticize each other's choices and actions. And if we're not criticizing, we're bragging about how "successful" we are as the mothers of geniuses. Some women seem to convey on a daily basis how they've drawn the winning hand at motherhood, and they feel compelled to show their cards to everyone who's just about ready to fold. The rest of us don't want to get out of the game; we just need to figure out how to play the hand we've been dealt.

But I've been reading some news and columns that give me hope. I'm not nearly as alone as I thought. There are women out there, with their porch lights on, in a neighborhood that previously felt very dark indeed. Women like Nancy Wolf, who wrote an insightful and brilliant column titled "About That Mom Who's Not Bragging about Her Kid." It brought tears to my eyes. The love that these "silent" women feel for their child is boundless, eternal, steady, and unquestionable. But the truth is that the road to adulthood, while often paved with nothing but excellent intentions, also includes some hazardous detours. Nothing tragic; no steps that can't be retraced (albeit with great effort and sometimes great pain); but it can take someone entirely off course. Suffice it to say the path some children follow is not the Point-A-to-Point-B journey that many people believe is the only route on the map.

In addition, I'm reading more and more about parents who are endeavoring to raise self-reliant, responsible kids and ignoring the hovering helicopter style so many other parents seem to favor. Parents like Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who carefully and systematically helped their children acclimate to and then feel confident and comfortable walking a mile from their neighborhood playground to their home without an adult accompanying them. Look, I'm not about to debate how old children should be before parents allow them to walk around their own neighborhoods. That decision is as individual as the children themselves. I also have no idea what the Meitiv children are like and how responsible they are. I do know they've earned their parents' trust.

There is no set of universal instructions that lead to "success" as a parent. There is no playbook that maps out the moves: Do this, this, this, this, and this -- you'll win. Raising children isn't like a chess match, where you try to anticipate what will happen seven years down the road and plan accordingly. (Let me know how that works out for you.) Many people follow all the rules and make the right moves. Guess what? Sometimes even then, after checking off all the "responsible, loving parent" boxes, things go wrong.

So what's the answer? Maybe raising children is more like "skiing the conditions." No matter how skilled you think you are, no matter what worked in the past, the best thing to do is to read the conditions and respond accordingly. You hope you teach your children that sometimes one bad choice is the difference between an exhilarating run and a crash. Make a bunch of those bad choices? God bless. Sure, they'll probably get up again, but they'll have a lot more bruises to show for it.

What can I say? It's called life. Being a human being. And 25 years into my "career" as a mother, I can say this: I'm trying to ski the conditions and learn from my own mistakes every single day. Yes. My mistakes.

I can also say that talking with my sons is one of my favorite things to do. Somehow, they (improbably, inexplicably, incredibly) survived my missteps (and a few of their own) and grew into talented, curious, provocative adults. The thing is--really--this is the thing: I'm very far from a perfect mom. This works out well because despite their many good qualities, my kids are far from perfect people. Which can only mean one thing: We're perfect for each other. And the best part? That little bit of serendipity has rewarded me with more than enough "success" in one lifetime.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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