“My children are my best friends,” she says to me. And looks at me, intently, for approval.
I don’t know what to say. I’m horrified.
Actually, I do know what I want to say:
“Really? Jesus. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
But that’s not going to help her, at all, or build—preserve—our fledgling relationship. So:
“Really?” I say. “Hmmm. Mine are not. Not. At. All.”
And as she processes that with this preconception she has of me as an attachment parenting-homeschooling-fully-immersed-in-motherhood-24/7-and-loving-it guru (Ha! She does not know—I run away—I resent—I live so very firmly in reality and not theory), I try to figure out how to give her the context. How to explain.
Here’s the thing, my little one, maybe I’ll say. (Little one, because in that moment, looking to me for approval and guidance, she wrecks the dynamic of our nascent relationship, and we are not friends, we cannot be, we are not equals, and that’s the thing about friends, is it not?) Here’s the thing, my little one, I love my children. Madly, unconditionally. I love spending time with them. I have rewritten almost all the spoken and unspoken rules of life, career, marriage to be their primary caregiver.
But they are not everything. They are not enough. And they should not be everything—enough—to any sentient adult.
(Forgive the use of “should.” You know I try not to tell you what to do. But in this case, little one, you should have adult friends and not burden your children with being everything to you. Burden. That’s the word… Let’s talk about it some more in a couple of paragraphs, but first, another “b” word…)
The thing about children—oh, dare I tell you this? OK, here goes—when they are little, little, peeing-pooping-eating-burping messes—the thing about that stage, that amazing-exhausting stage that takes so much out of you and in which you give so much to them, and in which they are utterly and completely your world—it is so… boring. I mean… Christ. Changing diapers? Necessary, yes. Exciting? No. Reading Margaret Wiseman Brown’s The Big Red Barn for the eleventh time that hour—a wonderful, sharing experience with your little one. No doubt. Intellectually stimulating for you?
For me, not so much. Not at all. And playing cars on the floor with your motor-skill-finding toddler? Fun for the first 10 minutes. After that… the excitement pales. Just a little…
There are whole swaths of parenthood, of the work you do as mother-father, that are mind-numbingly boring. That’s ok; it’s just the way it is—life is not supposed to be a Disneyland theme ride. We find fulfillment and joy in doing the boring for them: we find joy in their joy as they… discover gravity.
And we get exhausted and exasperated, too: how many stones do you need to throw into the goddamn river before we move on? Oh. Infinity. Right… and we learn to love some of those experiences, because we love them and see the world through their eyes. And we learn to use some of that time for ourselves (book in pocket, game on phone, an opportunity to text with an also-trapped-at-a-different-playground-why-didn’t-we-coordinate-this friend).
And we find things to do together that excite us both on some level (for me and mine, it’s always been water. Pools, lakes, rivers, puddles).
But… so much of what little kids do and want to do and need to do is… boring.
(It’s not for you? Really? I don’t, honestly, believe you. But if it really is—if every last aspect fascinates you—good on you. Open a daycare, preschool, playplace. But also—get yourself some adult friends, pronto. Because, boring is only the secondary “B” word. Remember the first one? It’s burden.)
My children are older now. The 12-year-old and I sometimes read the same books and watch the same movies and Netflix shows. He explains mind-blowing scientific developments to me (most of the time, I don’t understand them). We argue about the theories about the past and the future of universe. Being with him, talking with him is definitely not boring.
The near-10-year is reaching the beginning of that ever-so-challenging age for girls; the metamorphosis begins, and most bedtimes, she will crawl into bed beside me, and alternate between being a child and being a budding woman in the space of a sentence.
She asks me the most difficult questions. She stretches my capacity to think-reason-love to the utmost. “What is truth?” “Why don’t you believe in God?” “When would I be old enough to date a boy five years older than me?” “How do people know if they’re straight or gay?” “Why do people do drugs, and have you ever?” “What would you do if you had a friend who…” Never, ever boring.
Listen, little one, this is the most important thing: I am there for her. I listen. I do my best to answer… or to point her to another question. To reassure (I’m terrible at that, frankly), to support (getting better at that).
But she is not there for me. She cannot be there for me. I am her mother, and it is her right to burden me with whatever she needs to unload, share, explore, question.
She is my daughter, she is my child, she is my little one—and it is my responsibility to NOT dump my dark on her.
Not hers to carry. She is… little. And she is my daughter. Not my friend. My responsibility. Not my equal.
So. All this, I want to say. Can I? Will I? I chicken out:
“You know what? I’ll write you a post instead. And we can talk about it, argue about it, take it to pieces. You can tell me about the dark from which your arguments come from: why it is that you feel you want to be their best friend. Why are you putting them in the awful position of being yours? Do you resist making connections with equals, adults? What’s the story you tell yourself around that? Why are you, from our first encounter, making yourself smaller than me, and looking for my approval? Why do you want to give me that power? Who the hell am I that you should defer to me?
“I’ll make you angry, and you’ll respond, and call me on my tactics. And demand I tell you where my dark comes from. Why my connections with adults are what they are… what drives me, what scares, why and where I connect and why I run—and how that fits with how I define myself as a mother-person-writer-other. And maybe I’ll tell you so much, you will tell me, ‘OMG-Jane, I think you need a therapist.’ And maybe, I will say, ‘Probably more than one. ‘”
You can do that with a friend.