A Message of Hope

April 2nd, 2009 by Janet

This post from Janet resulted from a comment regarding our “Making Connections”post.

Hi Polly,
Boy, do I ever agree with you regarding your word of caution! In fact, I was just thinking about this subject the other day when I overheard some elementary school teachers talking about some unruly kids in class. You can imagine how I felt when they chalked it all up to poor parenting! Nine years ago, when I was in the thick of some pretty tough (and that is so an understatement!) parenting times, I wrote a piece to offer comfort to other parents. (Really, I think I was writing it to comfort myself too since I had no idea what our future would bring. At that time, I could only hope for better days.) Anyway, I’d like to post what I wrote back in 2000 again in hopes that it might help other parents who feel that things aren’t turning out quite like they “planned.”

I’m ecstatic to report that while my daughter and I are two very different people, we’re very close today, and I’m proud of the young woman she has become — a wonderful mother of 5-year-old Tristin and a very talented, passionate and hard-working vet tech at an emergency clinic. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my parenting journey, it’s what you wrote, Polly — that kids are not “all about us!” They DO have a will of their own, and all we can do is set a good example, provide them with the best resources we can, and have faith that everything will turn out for the best. My heart aches for the parents of “prodigal” kids because I’ve been there, but I do want to encourage you to hang in there and know that there are plenty of other GOOD parents out there who can relate. Thanks for bringing this topic up, Polly. Wishing you all the best, Janet

Janet’s original article from 2000:

I’ve often wondered how certain memories wind up in my brain’s hard drive forever, while others seem only to be stored on a temporary disk. Take, for instance, an afternoon 16 years ago, when I intently studied every inch of my beyond-adorable baby girl, attempting to freeze frame that particular image of her in my mind’s eye forever. My hope was to always be able to conjure up all that cuteness in my mind - sort of a cerebral cryogenics, so to speak! Sadly, the only thing I can actually conjure up of that afternoon now is the memory of my intent. Any mental pictures of my beautiful girl on that day did not survive the test of time. On the other hand, plenty of other downright mundane memories have lodged themselves permanently in my fickle memory bank: the memory of a random yard sale, the face of my daughter’s first pediatrician, and the words of a stranger in the produce section of Larry’s Market in Federal Way, Washington in 1985.

Here’s what happened: Sitting in the basket of our grocery cart, my happy toddler was absorbed in figuring out how to open a package of toilet paper, when a middle-aged woman walked up to us. There was a soberness on her face as she spoke: “Savor these days. My daughter’s a teenager now, and I’d give anything to go back to the days when all it took was a roll of toliet paper to make her happy.” She then briefly shared with me how her daughter had become caught up in “the wrong crowd” and how drugs had taken over her life. We wished each other well, and went our separate ways, but our brief encounter has stayed with me all these years.

For a few minutes after hearing her words, I even entertained the thought that perhaps this was some sort of cosmic foreshadowing, and that perhaps I had some rough times ahead of me, but I quickly erased that thought out of my mind, and replaced it with compassion for this poor woman. How sad, I thought, that she must not have had access to the books and resources that I (self-perceived mother of the century) had. As a stay-at-home mom, I already had everything all planned out. I would be the room mother at my daughter’s private school, and our home would be the stage for the grandest slumber and birthday parties imaginable. My daughter would belong to the Girl Scouts and take dance lessons and go to Sunday School. I would read all the best parenting books and prepare all the right nutritious after-school snacks for the neighborhood, and I would do it all with zest, reverence, humility, and sport utility vehicle. Because, just as I knew that 1 + 1 = 2, I knew that the Formula for Good Parenting was: Conscious, Educated Parent + Lots of Love = “And they all lived happily ever after (even through the teen years).”

The years went by, and as I worked out my Formula, every once in awhile I would remember that woman’s words. I thought of her when I was the preschool room mother, and later when we would sing Kum Ba Yah at Girl Scout Sing-a-Longs. I again thought of her when my daughter turned 12 and began preferring the company of her peers over family, and then at 13 when she informed me that she tried smoking and really, really liked it. With the angry and defiant words she began hurling at me at 14 and with each phone call from the school counselor at age 15, I thought of that woman and wondered how things panned out for her. In fact, by my daughter’s 16th birthday, I not only thought of her, I would have given anything for her number.

Recently, I found myself in a rehab hospital, sitting beside other parents whose teenagers introduced themselves. “Hi, I’m Jane Doe, and I’ve been clean for two weeks. I’m here for depression, cocaine use, and a suicide attempt.” When it was my daughter’s turn to speak, and her introduction was even more unsettling than Jane Doe’s, I wondered what part of the Formula I had missed. I thought back to the two years I had been part of a woman’s group that met every Monday morning to pray for our children. Had I not prayed enough? Or perhaps had I given my daughter too much “control” at an early age? I used to feel so empowering when I would ask, “Honey, would you like your juice in your blue cup or your red cup?” Now I wonder if my daughter would not be in that room if years ago I just had authoritatively commanded, “Here’s some Kool-Aid. Drink it.”
Welcome into the mind of the mother of a troubled teenager. “Should I have home-schooled her? Had I not prepared enough green vegetables? Did we not do enough Origami together?” Exhausted and full of self blame, most of the time I feel like a hostage in my own home, not able to plan anything or go anywhere because my teenager requires more supervision than three 2-year-olds with hot glue guns. And if my own self-blame isn’t enough, there are always plenty of other “concerned” folks who are ready to jump in at any time: “You’re too permissive. Too unstructured.” “You’re too strict. Too rigid.”

Pick up any woman’s magazine and when it comes to teen issues, you might hear about budgeting for the prom and perhaps even teen sex or the rise of tobacco use. But what about the thousands of parents who have teens like Jane Doe and mine - teenagers who are completely out of control? The weight they are carrying shows on their faces, and you can hear it in their voices, but their voices seem to be silenced outside of the hospital and school office doors. This isn’t the sort of thing you read about in your friends’ and families’ Christmas letters, and it probably wasn’t what you were expecting to be reading about in the Chinaberry newsletter!

So why am I writing this? I write this on behalf of all those parents who are in the thick of it and are blaming themselves and being blamed by other people for being too strict or not strict enough. I write this to acknowledge their pain, but also to acknowledge their hope, because for many of us, the story isn’t over yet. Every day I talk with people who tell me about their son or daughter (or even themselves!) who seemed to be on a mission of self-destruction in their teen-age years, and by the time they’re 30, they’ve either become the president of their own child’s PTA or they’re climbing the career ladder of the New York Stock Exchange. Be encouraged. You are not alone, and there is hope at the end of the teenage rainbow.

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2 Responses to “A Message of Hope”

  1. Janet Says:

    Hey Aly, Thanks for taking the time to write.

    There IS a lot to be said for DNA, and you’re right; it is scary. And humbling. In my 25+ years of parenting, I can’t tell you how many kind, nurturing, and intelligent parents I’ve met who, like me, originally thought that when it came to parenting, everything was environmental. But by the time you’ve been around the parenting block a dozen or so times, it’s hard not to admit how HUGE genetics are in determining how a child develops. Nothing in parenting has been as black and white as I had anticipated it would be. Just as “the nurturing thing” really isn’t the entire shtick, blaming everything on genes isn’t either. The bottom line is that it’s still our duty to protect our progeny from their own inherent characteristics as well as to encourage and nurture their inherent talents. My hope for all of us is that we get to the point where we accept what IS and not beat ourselves up regarding the “shoulds” and “coulds.”

    This morning when I was out watering my garden, I took note of the zinnias that had already bloomed, the ones about to bloom, and the straggly little ones that looked as if they would never bloom. Of course, some of the seeds never even saw the light of day, let alone grew buds. All these seeds came out of the same packet; I treated them all exactly the same way. The fact that some of them are blooming while others are little spindly stalks has little to do with me, the gardener.

    There’s so much more one could say, but, no matter what the seed contains hidden within, it’s still our seed and a tragedy to our mother hearts when, no matter how much care we give it, it doesn’t prosper and grow. But, like I said, we still need to give it everything we’ve got!

  2. Aly Says:

    If you want answers, still after all these years, watch the movie “The Bad Seed”. There’s a lot to be said for DNA. It’s scary because you are actually helpless in the face of nature, and finally realize that nurture really doesn’t figure into it very much. Tough to swallow for your lot at Chinaberry because the nurturing thing is your entire shtick. Still, it helps relieve the burden of guilt, knowing that despite your best efforts your kid was pre-determined to be screwed up. Where’s your husband? Where’s the father of your dysfunctional child? Was he a no-good jerk, a loser, trouble with a capital T? Bingo!

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