EXPANDING THE PARENTING CIRCLE
I LOVE THAT I AM MOM. My daughter once pointed out that she holds the special spot in my life of being the only child to grow in my womb. That does give us a bond that says I am her primary parent. I love being her primary person.
But her dad and I have been divorced since she was three, and her stepmother has been in her life almost as long (and her stepfather a few years after that). That means that while I am her primary parent, Julie has a lot of other parents. And a lot of other parent figures.
Now, that could feel threatening to me. But it’s not. Instead, it is a source of supreme comfort. Seriously. Parenting is a lot of pressure. I can think of dozens of ways—mostly small but some large, too—that I have messed up. On the other hand, I can also think of ways that Julie’s stepmom or aunts or grandmothers or good family friends have gotten it right. They have been able to provide what I wasn’t at the time Julie needed something.
The biggest example of other adults providing help where I couldn’t was when I got remarried. Because I got married in India and didn’t know I was getting married (long story!), that meant that a) the kids were not with us and b) we did not prepare the kids for our marriage in the way that I normally would have. You can imagine the guilt I have felt over that—guilt that was reinforced by how long my daughter stayed mad at me. Thank goodness Julie had my friend Leslie during this time. Julie spent lots of hours at Leslie’s (supposedly to play with Leslie’s daughter, but I know that she saw Leslie as someone who absolutely understood and who (unlike my family) didn’t take my side but just kept agreeing with Julie that having your mom remarry must be really hard).
Think of who the special adults have been in your life. Middle school is a stage where kids begin to examine the world through their own lens. Up until that point, they follow their parents’ views on things pretty closely. I was miserable in middle school. But my school librarian was a big help. She seemed to get me. She was ready to listen to me without lecturing. Even when I complained about my mother, she acknowledged my feelings but didn’t make me feel bad for feeling them. At that stage in my life, I was busy trying to pull away from my mother in order to get some space to figure out who I was. No matter how much she wanted to, she was not the person who could help me at that point. It took an outside, caring adult.
It was just lucky that I found Mrs. Anderson, the school librarian, but I also had my godmother. She was someone my parents had deliberately chosen to be an extra adult in my life. She loved me and cared deeply for me, but because I wasn’t ultimately her responsibility, she could love me exactly as I was. Unlike a parent whose job it is to civilize a child (to set expectations for him, to hold him accountable, to push him beyond what he can see for himself), a godparent’s job is mostly just to be there as a wise advisor. The godparent can give counsel, but the child has no obligation to follow it. That means the child is much more likely to listen (even if the message is pretty much what the parents have been saying al along. Whereas my godmother clucked over her own boys like a nervous mother hen, with me she could be supremely confident that “only nice things could come to such a nice girl.”
Parents can do much to extend the family circle beyond the nuclear family. Obviously, how you interact with adults around you will signal to your child how comfortable you are with particular adults as people. You can go one step farther, though, by helping your children to connect to potential caring adults. Point those people out. Guide your children when they might have an interest in common with a caring adult. Maybe you find out that a teacher at your child’s school exhibits her own art. You yourself don’t know Jackson Pollock from a Kindergarten project. By suggesting to your child that she show the artist teacher her work, you are telling your child that you honor her interest in art even if you don’t know anything about it.
Populating your child’s life with a circle of adults to love and support her is an excellent example of being the architect of your family. You don’t have to do all the heavy lifting yourself, but the design will be yours.