Wednesday, October 25, 2006

No laughing allowed: I heard this on Oprah...and it's good.

"When you're a parent, you forfeit the right to self-destruct."

I can't vouch for the fact that those were the exact words; I didn't know they were coming, and they went by pretty fa
st—this was yesterday—and at the time, I happened to be on the phone, talking to a radio producer. (Why did I have the TV on while I was on the phone with a producer? And why Oprah, for God's sake! Well, it's like the line in The Godfather: Keep your friends close...but your enemies closer.) That was definitely the gist of it, however. The speaker was Oprah's frequent guest and consultant in matters psychological, Philadelphia therapist Robin Smith, who quite possibly is being positioned for a show of her own. I have some bones to pick with Dr. Robin, as she has become known, but the topic of this post isn't one of them.

I think that in this case, Dr. Robin was speaking half-literally, in reference to suicide or other seriously self-destructive physical behaviors. But clearly she also meant for the line to have wider relevance. As a parent, you cannot not be there for your children. "Checking out" isn't an option. You're obliged to put aside your own concerns, your own pain, and minister to the innocent creatures you brought into the world. They depend on you
yes, even when they go to great lengths to brandish their "independence."

The fact that it's so often not that way, today, I blame in large part on self-help. Especially in its early days, the movement made self-sacrifice a dirty word, implying that by "loving too much" or "caring too much" you were abdicating your responsibility to "put yourself first!" You had to set "boundaries," thereby preventing anyone else's pain from getting so deep inside you that it conflicted with your own emotional needs. The movement had an all-purpose label—codependent—for people who got too wrapped up in someone else's feelings.* The concept was particularly aimed at, and embraced by, wives/mothers, who came to feel that for too long they'd been "wasting" their lives by living them for others. That mentality helped give us, instead of true parents, a generation of self-absorbed whiners who think there is nothing more important going on in the world at any given millisecond than how they're feeling. They reserve the right to withdraw and/or become totally dysfunctional at any moment and without notice ("I'm sorry, I can't deal with that right now, I have my issues!"), leaving it to their hapless/helpless kids to sort things out on their own. Worse, they freely inflict their own emotional traumas on their kids, expecting their kids, in essence, to nurture and caretake them.

Lest I be thought holier-than-thou, I feel the need to confess that I wouldn't put my name in nomination as World's Best Parent. I didn't always live by Dr. Robin's advice, especially when the kids were young. Which makes it all the more important that I had a wife who did live by it, and still does. (You can see the kids' gratitude in their eyes, when they look at their mother.) And, of course, there were my own parents, who were always there for me; who never made me feel that by bringing my problems to them, I was intruding into their "space," cramping their style, trampling on their joy. All of which explains why, if you look at SHAM's dedication page, you'll find the following words: "To Mom and Dad—and the other members of their generation who, thank God, were codependent enough to put their kids first." Because it isn't "all about you." Not once you have kids, it isn't. And if your head is so deep into your own perceived turmoil (or, worse, your own pursuit of seamless happiness) that you can't summon up a few selfless moments for your kids, then you need to grab a dictionary and investigate the meaning of the word parenting.

This concludes Rant No. 43. I apologize for the strident, preachy tone, but the fact that I thought enough of this topic to build my dedication page around it should alert you to its importance to me, in the grand scheme of things. Your host will now take two Xanax and return in the morning....

* In fairness, the term at first referred narrowly to women whose lives were dominated by alcoholic men. But the self-help movement quickly broadened it to apply to almost any situation where people were thinking unselfishly. Dozens of books were written on this, many of them best-sellers.
** Notice that the physical fact of it—the mere state of being the individual who spawned the child—is the third definition on the list. The first two have to do with the hands-on attributes I'm discussing here.


Cosmic Connie said...

Very good post, Steve.

As I've no doubt mentioned before, I went to AA for a while when I first stopped drinking many years ago. I found it helpful in those early days, though there were many things I found aggravating too. One of the things I found more puzzling than aggravating was that so many recovering drunks were also talking about this thing called "codependency," a term that was still fairly new in those days. And my AA buds kept encouraging me to accompany them to Codependents Anonymous meetings.

Around that time I ran into an old friend, and we started going out for coffee together. As luck would have it, he himself had recently become an earnest professional recoverer -- a recovering drunk, a recovering wounded inner child, a recovering workaholic, etc. One of the things he claimed to be recovering from guessed it...codependency.

He finally convinced me to attend a CODA meeting with him. But even after sitting through that meeting, and listening to everyone talk, I still couldn't figure out what a codependent actually was, or why I was there. This was a small meeting where all participants sat in a circle and introduced themselves. As you might expect, all of them began with, "My name is so-and-so, and I'm a codependent." (All together now: "Hello, so-and-so!")

Despite my eagerness to please and get along, however, I just couldn't bring myself to say, "I'm a codependent," because I had no clue about what it was. So I just confessed my alcoholism (just so nobody would think I was well-adjusted or anything. :-)). The group leader said, "Very good, Connie. But I have a feeling that if you're here, you are a codependent too." There were earnest nods all around the circle (recovery bobbleheads!).

Whatever. I shrugged, smiled, didn't say anything else, and never went back to a CODA meeting.

Since we're in confessional mode anyway here, I'll say now that my problem with relationships has always been that I am too self-absorbed, not that I "do too much" for anyone else. And that's why I never could get into being a codependent, despite the efforts of those around me to make codependency so attractive. (Anyone up for a Narcissists Anonymous meeting? Of course, we have to talk about my problems, not yours.)

I think it is primarily this self-absorption that made me decide parenting wasn't for me. But at least I had the honesty to face up to my selfishness, and as a result made a conscious choice not to have kids. I don't think children are well-served by parents who martyr themselves, but I do pity the generation of kids who have been raised by "recovering codependents."

Trish Ryan said...

Great post, Steve. Totally on point. I agree so much with what you wrote that I can't even come up with a joke to illustrate the extent of my agreement :)

a/good/lysstener said...

You left out the worst kinds of mothers in this category, the ones who haven't had much success finding happiness so they insist their kids be miserable too. No one is allowed to be any happier than they are. Fortunately my Mom is one of the "good ones," but I have friends who weren't so lucky.

And now I have to hope even that generic comment doesn't get me in trouble, like last time!

matt dick said...


You wrote: "But at least I had the honesty..."

I want you to strike that "at least" out of there when you talk about why you didn't have kids. Our society is too wrapped up in who has followed the One Right Path -- which includes that women have children in order to be whole.

As far as I'm concerned, no one has to qualify why they choose to not have kids. In your case, you recognized that it wasn't in you to give as much into it as you realized you needed to. I would argue that this is the height of responsible choices.

And lest anyone think I am just arguing from a position of partisan non-parent, I have kids (two) and I knew going into it what sacrifices it would take (in emotional, mental, physical and financial terms) and I did it gladly. I am super-happy that I did, and I wouldn't change. So I just applaud Connie for raising the net-happiness and fulfillment of the universe by making the right choice for her and her potential children.

Go be happy, work hard and don't apologize for making the decision you did. That's the kind of self-help we need -- responsible decision-making leading to more fulfilled lives. I know people who have had kids and not been able to give it what it takes, and it's damaging to everyone.

And I also liked the post, Steve. It's how I feel, and I sometimes have to check myself when I tell my son I can't (won't) throw the football with him, "why the hell did I have kids?" I have to ask myself as I drag myself up and go do the thing he has every right to expect of me.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you for your kind words, Matt. I don't know if I've raised the net-happiness of the universe by my choice not to have kids, but at least I have not contributed to its misery by being a terrible parent. :-)

Actually, I think I've always had a fear of being precisely the sort of "worst mother" that Alyssa describes. I don't want to go so far as to say my own mother fits that description but at times she has come close. I love her dearly and I know that she did everything in her power to provide a stable, loving home for my siblings and me when we were growing up (particularly after our dad was killed). But she has always been the type of person to discourage us kids from taking risks of any sort. She has always pooh-poohed our efforts to try anything new or unusual -- all the better to keep us under her influence, I've always felt.

For example, she strongly discouraged me from moving out of state with my then-husband years ago. I moved anyway, and during the year or so I was gone she wrote me many letters, all of which were full of complaints about how horrible things were at home, etc. etc. etc. I always ended up feeling guilty because I was trying to build a happy new life, and she seemed to be trying to pull me back into her own misery. I bet this is a familiar story. (BTW, it was my ex's choice for us to come back to Texas, not my mom's.)

Even today, when my mother is now in frail health and I am trying to help care for her, I'm still battling her attempts at manipulation. Just ask the Rev...

And I do hope the Rev weighs in on this discussion too, because he has raised a couple of really good kids. Even though I'm not a parent, I do feel that parenting is the most important job in the world, and I think this is a valuable discussion.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
As you have probably come to expect from me by now, I would posit that there needs to be a balance between selfless devotion to one's children and selfish immersion into one's own needs.

Kids are a lot more perceptive than we "adults" typically give them credit for being. They can tell when a parent is sacrificing for them, and especially when a parent "feels" they are making a great sacrifice. I've seen too many parents who give up too much of their own lives for the sake of their kids, only to leave the children with a deep-seated guilt that inhibits them from finding their own joy as adults.

The balance point should be an honest sharing of priorities, and, if necessary, a compromise. To a child, every desire represents a critical need. A parent can, IMHO, best serve his or her child's development by helping them understand the difference between "critical" and "preferred." Sometimes, that means letting the child know that a parent's plans will sometimes take precedence, just as will the child's plans on different occasions.

By doing so, we teach them the reality of human interaction from within a safe and loving framework. For example, when I was first divorced and my kids were small, we would go out every Friday night for dinner, then to a favorite bistro for dessert and smoothies, to my daughter's favorite record store and my son's favorite outdoor emporium. I actually broke off a relationship with an otherwise delightful woman because she became insistent that we spend Friday nights together, claiming that some other time would be just fine for "parent's night." I had made the commitment to the kids, and they had come to expect and appreciate it. There were other times, however, when they had to change their plans to suit mine, and they were okay with that (after the requisite debate:-)).

The greatest gift a parent can give their child is a happy environment, and such is not possible if the parent is constantly sacrificing his or her own desires. If nothing else, always putting the children's desires first places upon them a degree of responsibility which they are not prepared to handle.

In short, Love them, and strive to meet their needs, but at the same time, make them real partners in the sustenance of a happy home environment. Just as having them do chores around the house when they'd rather be playing helps them develop a sense of responsibility, so does teaching them to be willing to compromise where their desires and the parents' conflict.

Standard disclaimer: I screwed up as much as anyone else when raising my kids, but they always knew (and know) that I love them, and they turned out pretty damn good, in spite of me!

RevRon's Rants said...

"Even though I'm not a parent..."

Connie -
There are those who know us who might argue that point with you! :-)

And don't believe her when she says she wouldn't have been a great parent. She would have... especially as counterpoint to my Machiavellian nature!

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I expected somebody to come forward with an argument for "balance"--and I figured it would be as likely as not to be you. And, of course, I agree with you. In principle. The problem with self-help (as with most organized movements that take shape in backlash to something else) is that it overstated/overcorrected. The message went from "you should live your life for others" to "you should live your life for you." Neither is correct. And all interpersonal situations demand individualized solutions. But you can't sell books that way. And you can't whip up much sentiment. As you know by now, that is my basic gripe with the self-help movement as a whole: For marketing reasons, it had to oversimplify the message and then make it much more extreme than it needed (or deserved) to be. That's what happened here. We saw the same thing in the women's movement, civil rights as a whole, etc. In order to marshal support (or have their voices be heard above the crowd), leaders had to exaggerate and demonize.

Bottom line, however, I do believe that when interests conflict, parents should err on the side of what's good for the children.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I do believe that when interests conflict, parents should err on the side of what's good for the children."

And as any parent well knows, this may be diametrically opposed to what the child desires. :-)

I think we're pretty much on the same page here.

matt dick said...

"If nothing else, always putting the children's desires first places upon them a degree of responsibility which they are not prepared to handle."

Rev, I totally agree, but I'd phrase it differently. I think the "sacrifice" I make in being a good parent is to do the right thing, always, despite my desires. Sometimes, if I can be dispassionate about it, the right thing for my kids is for their desires to take precedent, and sometimes the right thing is for mine to take precendent -- but I always make it as clear in my own head as I can that when mine take precedent it is not for selfish reasons.

I think Steve's larger point was not about when you or your kid gets to control the radio station, but more the over-arching committment that you have no right as a parent to allow your problems to place burdens on your children (as much as possible anyway). In other words, I can make the rule that in my car I control the radio (or iPod -- and I do pick the music most of the time, they can get used to my music), but I can't tell them I got laid off unless I have to explain why they missed a meal. When I got the news that my employer was letting me go, I came home as normal, and did all my normal things. I worked just as hard to get the new job as I did at teh old job, and my demeanor toward and around my kids was as unchanged as I could make it, because they don't need to worry about something that I am committed to providing for them -- home, food, clothes, etc.

As it turns out I got picked up again by the same employer before my final day came, so I didn't even miss a paycheck. But even so, my burdens are not theirs.

I think we all kind of knew what we were all saying, but it takes a bit of phrasing and re-phrasing for me to say what I'm trying to say sometimes.