Saturday, February 23, 2013

Family Centered

I participated in an online survey once where I was asked the question, "Would you consider your life (as a parent) to be parent-centered or child-centered?"

The survey was pretty open-ended and I don't remember what its purpose was. However, I remember thinking at the time that the "right" answer was probably supposed to be child-centered. Parent-centered sounds old-fashioned, controlling, cold. Selfish even. Maybe it's just the part of the world I live in. But I think most of us know that if parenting revolves around the parent, things tend to fall apart. We want to love our children well. We want to love them better than we love ourselves.

But while parenting shouldn't be about the parent, I don't think it should be about the child, either. The child doesn't exist in a vacuum. The child exists in a family.

I've always been irrationally annoyed when people other than my child call me mama. I know that most of the time, the intent is empathetic at best and innocent at worst. But here's the deal--I am a lot more than just a mama. To Peregrine, sure, that's what I am. That's how he knows me. But to other people, I'm a wife, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a teacher, a friend. I'm Rachel. Not just one aspect of Rachel, one specific relationship Rachel occupies. And this is coming from a very maternal person. My parents frequently called me "little mama" as a child, because of my constant mothering: dolls, stuffed animals, little sisters, pet ducks, imaginary children, even pine branches and wood blocks (true story--the pine branch's name was Heidi and the block's was Baby Jesus). I have always had a thriving maternal instinct, and I absolutely love being a mama. But it's not the only thing I am.
Somewhere there exists a picture of me nursing "Baby Jesus." Let's just go with documentation of me interacting with a real child.

When you add a new person, irreversibly, to your family, you don't lose what you were before. You don't start with a blank slate. When you get married, you don't erase everything that came before him. You change it and grow it and add to it, sure. But you don't throw the old away. And when you become a mother, things change and grow and morph again. Sometimes the change is magical and exhilarating, sometimes it's messy and complicated. But it's a change, an addition; not a completely new start. The baby isn't suddenly the only thing that matters. The baby becomes a member of something bigger than just parenting. The baby becomes part of your family.

There's a lot of pressure on moms, particularly stay-at-home moms, to completely immerse themselves in mom-ness. It's kind of impossible not to. I am mama twenty-four solid hours a day, seven solid days a week. I can't separate myself from that role. Every shower I can't lose myself in, every errand I have to postpone because hungry monster can't wait one second longer, every Saturday I can't sleep in, reminds me of that. It would be so easy to sink into that role and let it become me, simply because it is so all-consuming.

I think assuming there are two options in life as a parent--parent-centered and child-centered--misses the point. It's not about Peregrine. It's not about me, or even Andrew and me. It's about all of us--the unique little family created by Andrew, Peregrine, and me together. And in about six months, it will all change again. We'll add another person to that mix, and it will be about that family, which will be very much the same in some ways, and very much different in others. We'll change. Our parenting will change. But we'll still be us. We'll still be family.

Andrew and I have talked about this a lot as since we've been parents. We don't always make decisions based on what's best for Peregrine. Something in me feels awful admitting that, and I think it shows how guilty we can feel stepping outside the role of mama mama mama all the time. Of course, he's the little dependent one, and his needs, when they are genuine needs, come first. When I am sick and he is sick, I take care of him. When we're both hungry, he eats first. When we're both tired, I put him to bed before going to bed myself. Regardless of how I feel or what I want, he is the child and I am the adult and it is my sacred responsibility to care for him, always. But sometimes it isn't black and white. Sometimes needs and wants and preferences are all mixed up. Sometimes my needs are bigger than his, in the moment. Sometimes our wants conflict. Sometimes Andrew and I need something together, or Andrew and Peregrine, or Peregrine and me. Sometimes we have to compromise on things.

When I finally came up with an answer to the survey question, I said I hoped my life was neither parent-centered nor child-centered, but family-centered. And that is what I hope. It's who I want to be as a parent and a person. I won't be raising Peregrine forever. I won't be mama-all-the-time forever. But, by God's grace, our family will still be there. Changed, yes. Grown, yes. But still us.

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