Your Children Are Not Your Children

Your Children Are Not Your Children
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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.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Some of you may know these words from a poem by Kahlil Gibran. Some of you may know the lyrics from its adaptation by "Sweet Honey in the Rock," an all-woman, African-American, a cappella, gospel-inflected, ensemble. Their music was featured in our home (on our record player!) when my children were growing up in the early '80s. They loved the music. So did I.

The lyrics of this particular song... not so much.

If my children are not my children, then whose are they? And what do you mean they are not mine?! Or so it went.

When I first became a parent I found it difficult to let go of my own aims, my own rhythms. I felt the loss of my unencumbered life, or at least mostly unencumbered life. The physical demands and the confinement were challenging. For me, it was a bumpy process becoming a parent, hard work, and to be presented with the idea that they were not truly mine, I was merely a mid-wife, was not welcome.

I've been thinking about this notion of "possession" of children since I read Andrew Solomon's wonderful, door stop-erish tome: "Far From the Tree."

This is a beautifully written, compassionate, tender and nuanced examination of the implications for parental identity when offspring are starkly different from their parents, when parents cannot find their own image or influence in the eyes, the bodies, and the values of their children. Parents of autistic children, transgender children, handicapped children, criminal children, schizophrenic children, dwarfs and deaf children as well as many others, were interviewed (over 300 families). Solomon thinks deeply about their trials and their triumphs. There are those who reject their "variant" children and those who embrace them happily.

I think Solomon would have us think a little harder about the illusion of our children being "our children" in the more ordinary situation. The first sentence of Solomon's book reads: "There is no such thing as reproduction." We call it reproducing -- having children. We search our infant's faces and cannot resist comparing them to our own, our partner's or at least great-aunt Bertha's. And their sweet temperament must be a reflection of our own. Their colicky nature, surely from the other side. Are we reproducing or are we mostly producing? A grand accomplishment in and of itself. Maybe in all cases children are not merely a "chip off the old block," but a completely new, unique, beloved "chip."

As I reflect on the obsessive involvement with my own children in the early years and how alien the idea of their not being "mine," I see how adaptive it was at the time, to see them as extensions of myself, a more beautiful, perfected, unblemished extension at that. And I think in the early years, it was highly adaptive to cling to this illusion. Loving my children was a form of "self-love." Not the malignant kind, but the benign and necessary kind.

Generally we think of "parental narcissism" (in so far as we think of this at all) as a toxic quality. We picture characters like the mother in the movie "Ordinary People" (played so expertly by Mary Tyler Moore) who do not truly see their children as real people but only as characters in a play of their own design, there to serve the parental hero and heroine's needs. There is a ruthlessness about them.

Parental narcissism is natural, ubiquitous and serves a serious purpose. Narcissism is generally associated with selfishness and associated with a disorder. But there is pathological narcissism and appropriate or healthy narcissism. Without some degree of self-love we are in trouble. It is a developmentally necessary quality, both to love yourself and to enlarge the circle of self-love to include your children and others. Insofar as we see ourselves in their eyes or in their sweetness, their scent we are in love with our off spring. It is a serious problem when this fails to happen.

Things go awry when the individuality, the uniqueness of the child is denied in the service of meeting the needs of the parent. That's the kind of narcissism we generally think of when speaking of parental narcissism. The miracle is balancing the enormous gratification of seeing ourselves in our beloved children and restraining ourselves. When I speak of the benign sort of parental narcissism, I have in mind something less ruthless, more loving, and flexible. It has lots of room for empathy.

As the children grow the illusion of "they are us" needs to fade. If we don't begin to see them as who they are and not a deep reflection of ourselves we start to do them a disservice. They may have preferences that are quite alien.

I think of the child who comes back from camp and wants to be a vegetarian, or now needs Kosher meals to be prepared by their secular parents. I think of children who choose a different religion, perhaps a fundamentalist religion to follow and observe. The son of left-wing parents who wants to become a marine, or the daughter of right-wing parents who comes out as a lesbian and lobbies for marriage equality. These are challenges for parents, challenges that need to be negotiated with a relinquishment of the earlier narcissistic investment. We produce, not reproduce.

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

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