My oldest daughter is turning 20. If you have kids, you know the old saying is true: in parenting, the days are long but the years are short. Significant moments we encounter—birthdays, graduations, holidays—make us realize how quickly time passes. Finding an old photograph, for a middle-aged pre-menopausal train wreck like myself, can set off tears in a heartbeat.
Last week I met a young single mother of one child, a 10-year-old daughter. We had the opportunity to cross paths and spend an hour together. We shared stories that only strangers can: without need for reserve or fear of judgment. She admitted, with a tear in her eye, that her daughter was so frustrating she felt guilty about the thoughts of anger she was feeling. She felt like her daughter acting like a brat was her fault. She hated it when her daughter smirked at her and said she wished she could just live with her father. She’d never told her daughter that her husband had left them on the day the girl was born, and was an addict who pays no child support.
I shared some tales about my own teenage daughters’ challenges, some of which I’ve never written about in order to protect their privacy. I’ve been through parenting hell. But with a stranger, you can tell the stories and not worry what they’ll think of you later, who they’ll tell.
I don’t consider myself someone who should give parenting advice. I’ve fucked it up more ways than I can count, and if I could go back and do some things differently, I absolutely would, but I love my kids. Before I had kids, I remember being mad at my own mom for saying “I did the best I could” because it sounded like a cop-out. Later, I understood it was simply true. We do the best we can with what we know. Our own experiences, histories, genetics, life choices, personalities, relationships… all of these things combine to make you the kind of parent you are, and there’s little you can do to change it other than try the best you can to let your kids know you love them. Even on the days you hate them.
One of my mom’s other favorite things to say is that she honestly believes each of the six of us knew we were loved. That’s what is important: that our kids know we love them. In an adverse, dysfunctional, impoverished environment, there was at least that. She’s right. Many other kids had better childhoods, but my siblings and I knew we were loved.
I let the young mom tell me how rotten her girl could be, how she couldn’t understand that after everything they’d been through, the girl didn’t seem to appreciate or realize her efforts. I told her that right now, just before they go through hormonal changes, is the worst. I’m on the border of a third teen girl, with two under my belt, so I know from experience that there are a few years where you just don’t even want to look at them some days for fear you will spew the most hateful things from your mouth. But those days, that phase, those tween/teen middle school-high school years pass, and one day you wake up and you have a child with an adult brain.
One day they thank you for something, they speak respectfully, they want to spend time with you instead of dreading it. And you think wow, there’s the little girl I raised. She’s back.
And the young mom cried, and I cried. She thanked me, and said no one she knew understood. I told her the tunnel of motherhood is long and dark, but there’s light at the end of it. She smiled. It was a beautiful smile of hope.