People often ask me parenting questions, saying, “What would you do?” I know why they ask; it’s because I am extremely positive that I know the answer to everything except when I don’t. And yet the question always strikes me as somewhat misguided. I may be absolutely convinced that a certain course of action is the only possible course of action to take, but what makes anyone think I have the slightest idea what the hell I’m doing?
I never know quite what to say. “I have no idea what I would do,” doesn’t seem terribly helpful as far as answers go, but it’s usually true.
My experience of parenting is nothing like most people’s, and frankly, “OMG, if she keeps this up she won’t get into Harvard!” is not a concern that moves me, although I recognize that it is important to other people.
The older Jessica gets, the less she is like other children. And yet she goes through the same everything any child goes through – she has a crush on the cute boy at school, she feels that life can be wildly unfair, she sometimes wishes her dad and I would get back together although that is not as important as it used to be, because she can’t figure out where her father’s partner would go in that scenario, and she loves Lisa. She wants to know what surrogacy means, and why she doesn’t always know what her teachers want, and when will she fall in love and get married, and how come I swear so much when it’s really not very nice. And also would I please just relax?
Here’s the thing. I can say that I try to raise Jessica in accordance with my values but it’s not that simple. I have never given a rat’s ass about compliance, for example, and the idea of raising a compliant child makes my teeth hurt. A child who did exactly what I wanted when I wanted it? I’d be bored out of my skull and I’d have a lame-ass kid I couldn’t stand. A child who understands the logical consequences of her actions? Much better, thank you.
But in some ways this is cheating because Jessica has always been a logical child; if you tell her she’ll have seizures if she doesn’t take her meds, she takes her meds. If you tell her she has to get up at 6:45 to make it to school on time, then that’s what she does to make it to school on time. It helps that I get out of bed when the alarm goes off and don’t beg the clock for five more minutes, and as much as I’d like to pretend that having some self-discipline makes me a brilliant parent, there is absolutely no evidence that this is true, because on weekends if I sleep past the time Jessica and I agree that we will arise, she gets up and roists me out of bed.
There are children in the world who do not find a logical argument convincing, and I have no idea how to cope with such children, and I imagine that is why their parents wish they were compliant and want to know how to make them so. I remember at a dance recital once trying to deal with a nine-year-old upon whom logical argument made no impression: “You can’t dance with that drawing in your hand. You need your hands for the movements.” “But I want to hold the picture!” I had no idea what to do. If I had to raise that child, I would lose my mind and cry quietly into my tequila more frequently than I already do. So if your child is not Jessica, I really don’t know what I’d do, so I’m afraid I can’t help you.
I have said from the beginning that Jessica is my Buddha baby and the only thing I have to do is not screw her up. That is still my guiding principle, although people are occasionally appalled at how much leeway I give her in making decisions about her own life (“She’s a teenager!” they gasp. “And, and . . . .” They never finish the thought but I know where they’re going: “And she’s mentally retarded.” As if I might not have figured that out by now.)
But I know what it is to be ground down by people who are driven by contempt for their own children, who will not trust their children to know what is in their own best interest, who never believe their children can make good choices – or that they’re entitled to make bad ones. People who are unwilling to accept that we are each the author of our own destiny. Even the teenagers. Even the mentally retarded ones.
So I treat my daughter with respect, even on those occasions when she is driving me out of my mind, and I trust that she knows what is good for her, and that she can make good choices, and that she can make bad ones, and it is not my job to stop her unless someone is going to get sued, and even then all I have to do is point out the possible consequences of her proposed course of action, and she will decide not to do it. Not because I am a brilliant parent, but because she is a logical child who dislikes unpleasantness when it can be avoided.
And that is everything I know about being a parent. And I don’t know what I would do, if I were in your shoes. Not because I am unsympathetic, or have no wish to hear your problem. Just because it is the truth, I have no idea what I would do with a child who is not Jessica. So I think it is quite miraculous that I got Jessica, and that she got me.