Suburban Snapshots

The Secret Lives of Parents

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When my sisters and I were kids we got glimpses, but we were too small to understand what was happening. We just knew that Mom was holed up in her bedroom sobbing, muttering something about respect.

When you're small, respect is more an abstract concept than something you feel you can provide. So being empathetic — if somewhat naive — my sisters and I would set about cleaning up our messes, doing dishes, and being uncharacteristically quiet. We didn't know what respect meant, but we knew the things that made Mom happy.

What we didn't know was that these were the first hints that our mother was in fact a human being, with her own history, heartaches, and disappointments.

When you become a parent, you take on the role of caregiver, hurt fixer, my-life-is-yours-now-er. As far as your kid can tell, you didn't exist before they arrived and the whole of your being is dedicated to their welfare. I remember thinking this way. I remember selfish, angry fits when my mother dared to request privacy for phone calls, or time away from us to work or meet with friends. I had no sympathy.

And then I had a baby. Then I had to navigate my double existence as a person I didn't feel had changed at all, and a mother whose life had become 180 degrees different.

Nothing will help you understand your parents as much as having a child will. You start to recognize their struggles. You realize that while they've dedicated themselves to raising you, they've been experiencing pain, joy, sorrow, and regret that had nothing at all to do with you. And then, when you inevitably take the same paths your parents took, make the same choices, and face the same challenges, you know that no one will understand you better than they will.

I don't know when Anna will start seeing the cracks in my veneer. Eventually something will tip her off to the fact that I existed before she did, that there's another me that runs parallel to my mothering self, that I've had quiet joys and crushing heartaches, and that sometimes even a mom isn't sure what the right answer is; that often the person who controls much of her small life is just taking her best guess.

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