What We Teach Our Children
I am the mother of two adult sons. As I bid farewell to them over a week ago, and headed 4000km east to live for half the year, many feelings welled up within me. It hasn’t been an easy (nearly) 9 years since dday. My relationship with them has at times been awkward and painful. It hurt deeply to be so uncertain about their love as I lurched through my personal and family disaster. But I continued to parent them when I knew they needed help and support through the challenges of their own lives. When it felt like they were careless about my feelings, I usuallly told them they had hurt me and I didn’t deserve it. And I waited. Things got a little better each year.
My sons charted their path through the weeds of discovery and their parents’ divorce. They created their own approach to their father, who had moved several provinces away. They found their own way to love him, manage their visits positively, and recognize his limitations. I respected their privacy. Sometimes that was hard. But I kept my mouth shut and trusted them to be honest and fair. And I trusted myself—not that I hadn’t made mistakes in this nightmare, but that they did not equal the destruction and devastation visited upon me and our family. I was who I had presented myself to be to my children from the beginning. I was real.
Still, as I pulled away from them geographically for the first time in our lives, every aspect of these nearly nine years surfaced emotionally. Grief overtook me for a while. I was plunged back into the story of losing the life in which I had invested everything. After grief, came feeling like a loser—and a stupid one at that. Then I was filled with frustration at wasting three decades of my life that I will never get back. Soon anger followed, and then fear—fear that I had been a very bad mother, after all. What had I showed them, taught them, passed on to them? What good memories did they have? It felt to me that I came up short, and that they had no idea what I had been through and how hard I worked to choose wisely and fairly. They showed no signs of knowing what it had cost me to leave their father or how I struggled to build a new life. Was I just the bitter mother to them now?
But it was too late to change the story. What was done, was done. I kissed them goodbye and got in the car.
My partner and I were on the road on Mother’s Day. I had no expectations my sons would even remember. Oddly, a few days earlier in the chaos of packing, an old photograph had tumbled out of a stash of things, and it was from when they were little. It was Mother’s Day and they had brought up cards and some celebration in bed for me. In the picture I was barely awake with one son draped over me in a hug and the other making a crazy face at the camera. Without thinking, I instinctively had put that photograph in my knapsack pocket, and it came with me on the road trip. When I was searching for my lipstick on Mother’s Day morning I pulled it out again, and there we were. I closed my eyes as the tears came and tried hard to remember how their little selves felt when I hugged them at that age. But I had no expectations anymore. I couldn’t bear the thought of being hurt.
One son texted in late morning, and also phoned while I was driving. The other son texted that evening. It was enough. It helped to bring me back from that terrible emotional cliff edge that seemed just around the next bend. They had remembered me on Mother’s Day.
So we kept driving. Four nights and five days in a car jammed with stuff we should have put on the truck but for some reason didn’t, along with a 15 year old one-eyed 45 pound dog and my partner, Marc. This move was the first big thing we had taken on together.
When we finally rolled into the driveway of my small stone cottage, we were exhausted but really excited that we were on this adventure and had the courage to do it. We were in a rural location so I went to check the old mailbox in case any mail had been forwarded from the Calgary address. In the pack of letters and Land’s End catalogues, there was a card for me—addressed in my maiden name, from my eldest son’s address. I opened it up and on the cover it said “When Life Gives You Lemons”. On the inside my sons had written:
In the words of one of my favorite hip-hop artists
“When life gives you lemons,
You paint that shit gold.”
That’s a lesson you have taught us day in and day out.
Love you and proud of you.
Signed with their names, their cat’s name, a hand-drawn paw print, and their love.
Needless to say, I had been wrong about everything. But this time, in the best possible way. And I cried again, because I was so wonderfully wrong.
My sons aren’t perfect and their mother isn’t either. But before you assume, as I did, that you haven’t taught your children something worthwhile along this hard road you are on, give yourself and them some credit. They don’t have to see everything and know everything and understand everything, to have learned something worthwhile from what you have tried to do right and how you have tried to do it, when life gave you lemons.
It was exactly the right message at the right time for me, nearly nine years after dday. I hope you won’t gloss over that nine year part of that sentence. Mothering is long term investment. Healing also is a long term investment. Integration and understanding are signs that it is happening. Don’t give up. If you stay true to your core values, they will see it. In time, they will see it. And they will know why it matters and take something of it into their own lives.
Take a moment and jot down some of the things you did right and why you did them. And if you want to talk more about painting your lemons gold, your story is safe here. Let’s talk.