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Asking The Right Questions

Last week I read a series of essays (while lying on the beach, heh heh) entitled Because I Said So, all written by mothers, on a variety of topics but all in some way tied to motherhood. A few of the essays resonated with me, particularly one about a single mom and her thirteen-year-old daughter: as the mom tried to find her way in the newly-single world, she had to take a good look at her daughter and figure out a whole new way to parent, and in the process she asked the question, What is it that makes a good mother?

“As far as she could ascertain, it seemed to boil down to a fairly simple set of issues. A lousy mother was someone who looked at her kid and said, ‘Here’s who I want you to be’ and ‘Here’s what I’m going to give you.’ A good mother was the one who looked at her kid, really looked at her, and asked, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you need from me?’”

I have tried to find a flaw in this – perhaps because it’s sometimes more effort than I’m willing to put out – and I cannot. Who are you? What do need from me? I ask these questions, and my parenting style shifts. Subtly, but distinctly.

I’ll give you an example.

For one of the highlights of my vacation, we spent the entire morning at one of my favorite beaches. There are plenty of lava rocks for exploring tidepools, nice waves for jumping or boogie boarding, excellent stretches of beach for beachcombing – and some beautiful, smooth sand for stretching out with a book. I really adore this beach.

Maddie fell in love with the lava tidepools, poking around and having a fantastic time. I wandered with her for a while, but eventually wanted to lie down and just read my book a bit. My book and my towel were waaaaaaaaaaay back on the other side of the bay, about a hundred yards away, on the nice smooth sand. In the tidepool area, there was no smooth stretch for lying down, and no rocks. In my smooth area, I’d have no way to see Maddie and, more importantly, no way to get to her in time if a freak wave came crashing too hard into the rocks. Implausible? Yes. Impossible? No. And I get Mommy Brain around potential natural disasters. So leaving Maddie there by herself was a non-option.

Maddie began an elaborate game by herself, involving dropping sand into one pool, “washing” it, then scooping it and molding it to a lava shelf. She talked happily and played with a purpose while I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, unable to lie down or even get in the ocean and play. I kept casting glances back to my nice smooth sand and beckoning book, and started to say, “Five more minutes, then let’s head back, Maddie.”

But then I looked at her, really LOOKED at her, and took in what I saw as I asked myself, “Who are you, and what do you need from me?” And I saw a girl in desperate need of some creative play – a girl who goes into these elaborate games by herself at home as an outlet, almost a way of dreaming while awake so her brain can do some mental housekeeping while she’s occupied. I’ve seen Maddie go into these games and come out with truly thought-provoking questions, and know she needs this time.

So what did she need from me? She needed time to make her damn sand shelf without my putting limits on her so I could lie down.

I did not tell her “five more minutes”. I asked her to step back from the waves while I walked back around, grabbed a book and a towel, marched back, and sat on a rock to read while she played. For over half an hour. And when she had had enough, she turned to me with a contented smile and said, “I’m ready to go back now.”

I consider myself a fairly good mother, all things considered. I don’t think I’m the mother who is saying “Here’s who you are” as I hand my soccer-loving son a violin. But I do admit – sometimes I ignore what my child needs because I don’t want to deal with it, or I’m being selfish, or just to busy to really take a look. Now, I’m not saying that I will always give my girls what they ask for; “wanting” and “needing” are two different things, and sometimes the answer to my second question will be “she needs me to set some boundaries and be present to enforce them.” Which might involve turning away from Facebook and not letting her get away with sass or rudeness just because ignoring her buys me ten more minutes of computer time.

Who are you, and what do you need from me? I ask myself these questions as I look at my daughters during the day, and I tell you, it has clarified my parenting choices. Give it a try, really look at your kid, and you might be surprised at what you see.


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